Wednesday, a week ago, Vincente Minnelli was in San Diego to take his place in the series of "Conversations" put on by the Center for Photographic Arts and The Fine Arts Gallery.
The director of Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, The Bad and the Beautiful, Father of the Bride, Brigadoon, Lust for Life, Tea and Sympathy, Bells Are Ringing, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, and on and on, displayed unyielding modesty, if it was what it seemed. To judge by his testimony on stage that night, every tremor of creation located in his movies was the doing of someone other — the choreographer, the scriptwriter, the original novelist, the actor, the miracle-working MGM art department. The image projected of the director was of a man whose main function on the movie set is to pass among the workers and say, "That's fine." When chased down by a question on his working methods — what does he try for in the way of color? In the way of camerawork? — Minnelli, showing as much wonderment as any onlooker, held up the durable deflection device, "It's all intuitive." In short, the billowy prestige due to movie directors, as a class, was hauled down and folded up, like a sail.
Among the facts which seem to tower over Minnelli's total work, and which promise an advantageous lookout on his work once they are surmounted, are that this director was content to remain at one studio, MGM, for virtually his entire career, almost thirty years ("I never had any problems with the studio," and that his pre-Hollywood days were spent in the designing department of Broadway theater-sets, costumes, lighting, and specifically of the stage show at the Radio City Music Hall ("It had revolving platforms, elevators that went up and down...I had to light all this...This was the way I thought motion pictures should look."). Between them perhaps, these facts look onto the nature of Minnelli's personal acclimation to movie-making in the studio system, the limitations of it that he accepted, the facet of it that he particularly polished.
Outside the Copley Auditorium, before he went on stage, I snatched an interview with Minnelli: the time, unfortunately, was hardly enough to convince him that he could dispense with the remedial information ("I directed all kinds of pictures, musicals, dramas, comedies" — yes, yes, yes). He is a small man, seemingly delicate, mild in his speech, with large eyes, active, that appear to be searching for some sign, somewhere. And that night, not to disappoint anyone who thinks of Vincente Minnelli as a colorist primarily, he was wearing a yellow jacket that might have been placed in one of his movies, to co-ordinate with mahogany paneling, mauve divan, and scarlet pillows. The main part of the conversation went as follows, me leading:
"When you were in your apprentice days at MGM, did you come under the influence or tutoring of any special directors there, to learn the business of directing?"
"No, there was no influence like that. My old career was on Broadway, you know, designing sets. Arthur Freed asked me to come out to Hollywood, and I spent a year working with him and other producers, and in the art department. It was a wonderful year. In movies at that time I was more interested in the foreign movies, actually."
"Any in particular?"
"Renoir, yes. I thought his pictures were true to life. They went to the truth. I tried to do that in my pictures. They were pure fantasy, of course. You have to make your pictures commercial. Otherwise you're working one day, and the next day you're out. I tried to make things as real as possible, as vivid and interesting and theatrical as possible."
"Your movies always are equipped with major stars, settings of considerable expense, studio production, props, and so on. How important are these material things to what you wanted to do in the movies?"
"Well, I think things are terribly important, yes. The environment is terribly important to the development of character. Look around us here, for example. There's this bench we're sitting on, and there's this fountain over there, and this sculpture. All this, the color, everything, is very important. Some Came Running is in a very cheap setting. It's like the inside of a jukebox. So the setting has to somehow reflect the material. Home from the Hill is a very different location. This Texas man is comparatively rich, and there is a big house and a gun room and all these hunting dogs, and that is the character, you see."
"In your early days, when you were regarded mainly as a musical director, was there any feeling of professional rivalry between you and the others at MGM — Donen, Walters, Sidney — or was there any competition for projects?"
"No, there was no competition, because we were all assigned to different projects. We were kept so busy. Sometimes we would do two or three pictures a year. You would finish on one and go right into the preparation for the next one. You just tried to do the best you could with what you had to work with. There was no rivalry."
"Do you have any thoughts now, looking back, about the musicals done by you or the others?"
"No, actually not. I don't think about them very much. They were made purely as entertainment, you know. But the same energy went into those pictures as any others. I felt no difference in making musicals or dramatic pictures. We just tried to make them as good as possible."
"The decision of who was to make what was always made above your heads?"
"Well, they didn't make you do anything you didn't want to. They would show you a project and if you liked it, you said all right, and you would begin to work with the art directors and the set designers and so forth. Having been a designer myself, I had a habit of working with designers. It was terribly hard work, preparing a picture."
"Were there, at any time in your career, projects you wanted to do, but missed out on because they were done by someone else or never done at all?"
"No, I never missed out. I was always busy. I did all kinds of movies. I was always concerned to do the story to the best of my ability once I'd agreed to do it, to make the drama interesting."