A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli

[25 March 2010]

By Mark Griffin

Excerpt (footnotes excluded) from the ‘Voodoo’ chapter of A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli by Mark Griffin (courtesy Da Capo Press, March 2010).

Voodoo
As Mr. and Mrs. Vincente Minnelli made the rounds of cocktail parties and dinner parties and post-premiere parties (parties were a large part of the job in Hollywood), Judy was inevitably asked to sing. In fact, a social occasion couldn’t truly be considered a success until MGM’s resident belter took her place at the piano. Judy also ranked high on every hostess’s invitation list for another reason: She was, without question, one of the wittiest women in Hollywood. In sharp contrast to the conversationally challenged Minnelli, Garland was an extraordinary raconteur who could captivate a roomful of seasoned veterans with her outlandish anecdotes or a devastating Marlene Dietrich imitation. According to Minnelli, it was Judy’s affinity for the absurd that first triggered the idea for a film version of The Pirate.

S. N. Behrman’s comedy had opened on Broadway in 1942 starring the great theatrical couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The plot had been lifted from the German play Der Seerauber and concerned a rakish actor masquerading as a notorious seafarer as he attempts to win the heart of the mayor’s wife. “There was nothing subtle about it,” Hilary Knight recalled of the Lunts’ version of The Pirate. “It looked like a musical, although it wasn’t one… It was all decor and style and no more successful than the movie was.”

Scenic designer Lemuel Ayres, who had worked on the theatrical version of The Pirate, suggested to Arthur Freed that Behrman’s play might make for a blockbuster screen musical. Freed, Minnelli, and Garland were all excited by the idea—Judy, especially, as the material would allow her to display her largely untapped talent for sophisticated comedy.

A musical set in the picturesque West Indies would inspire Minnelli to conjure up the kind of lush tropical paradise that he had fantasized about as a boy back in Delaware. He would go to incredible lengths to make certain that MGM’s versions of exotic nineteenth-century Calvados and neighboring Port Sebastian were painstakingly thorough in terms of period authenticity. At the same time, this would be the kind of highly stylized Freed Unit utopia where pirates in snug buccaneer briefs, crucifix-sporting señoritas, and African American circus tumblers would all blissfully coexist.

With Garland in the lead, the obvious question became… Who would play the hammy actor passing himself off as the dashing pirate? “I never thought of anyone but Gene Kelly for the part of Serafin,” said Minnelli, believing that Kelly’s knock ’em dead charisma and athleticism were a perfect match for the part. Like Judy, Gene was enthusiastic about the project as it would let him display another facet of his remarkable talents: “I wanted the opportunity to do a different kind of dancing, a popular style with a lot of classic form, acrobatics and athletics.” Tongue firmly planted in cheek, Kelly would also pay tribute to the screen’s legendary swashbucklers, such as the dashing Douglas Fairbanks Sr., in what would prove to be one of his best roles. With two of Metro’s brightest stars in place, Minnelli turned his attention to the script. Although the basic framework of the Lunt-Fontanne version was retained, much of the stage material would require revamping.

On Broadway, Fontanne’s Manuela was married to the oafish mayor Don Pedro Vargas while carrying on with Serafin. That scenario could never be sanctioned by either the Breen Office or Louis B. Mayer. For MGM’s adaptation, Garland’s Manuela Alva would be engaged to the mayor, and she would be less worldly and Catholicized. However, the character would retain her wide-eyed romanticism and penchant for embarking on “mental excursions,” a facet of the story that immediately appealed to Vincente. When Manuela finally abandons her repressive surroundings to join Serafin’s theatrical troupe, this seemed to refer back to Minnelli’s own story: I was saved from Delaware, Ohio, by the bright lights of show business.

One writer after another (including Judy’s former flame Joseph L. Mankiewicz) would take a crack at the screenplay, but none of these scripts were judged correct. Freed then turned to Anita Loos and Joseph Than, but their version of The Pirate would prove to be the most unacceptable by far. In the Loos-Than treatment, the original premise was turned upside down, with the Kelly character becoming a singing-dancing pirate pretending to be an entertainer. This would never do. It was husband-and-wife writing team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich who came to the rescue. Within two months, they had cranked out a zesty, witty screenplay that achieved the right balance between sophisticated farce and whimsical fantasy.

In terms of the score, Freed had initially thought of Hugh Martin, who had come through with three of the finest movie songs ever written for Meet Me in St. Louis. “When I came out of the army, I was so anxious to get back to Hollywood that I didn’t go see Arthur, which was really wicked of me be¬cause he had given me the best opportunity of my life,” Martin recalls. “He said, ‘I’m really sorry you didn’t come to see me because I wanted you to write The Pirate and when I thought you were still in the army, I got Cole Porter.’ I would have loved to have done it and I felt awful. And I’ve been feeling awful for about fifty years.”

Even for those only casually acquainted with the world of musical comedy, the name Cole Porter was synonymous with unmatched lyrics, sparkling wit, and the best double entendres in the business. Coming off the failure of his Broadway musical Around the World in Eighty Days, Porter was also eager to take on The Pirate. The composer admired Garland and marveled at what he described as her “prodigal voice.” However, Porter seemed to start off on the wrong foot when the first few songs he submitted were deemed unsuitable by Freed, who sent the composer back to his piano. “Cole wasn’t happy with his contributions,” Minnelli remembered. Though the score would eventually include such lyrical acrobatics as rhyming “schizophrenia” and “neurasthenia” (in Kelly’s “Nina”) and the raucous show-business anthem “Be a Clown,” Porter prophesized correctly that the score would not yield a single commercial hit.

The long, strange, and at times torturous production of The Pirate began in February 1947. What originally seemed like a Freed Unit dream project soon morphed into the kind of nightmare that only legitimately talented people can create. On a good day, Garland would arrive promptly at 11:45—for an 8:00 call. On other days, she wouldn’t show up at all. For those who had worked with Judy through the years, this was almost expected. They knew that when she did appear, she would be letter perfect and have everyone breaking up between takes. But during the making of The Pirate, a number of unresolved conflicts and psychological torments began to overwhelm the fragile star.

Garland had recently renewed her contract with MGM and she was already having second thoughts. The idea of being locked into another five years of back-to-back film projects, seemingly unrelenting demands, and studio politics dampened her usually exuberant spirits. With her uncanny theatrical instincts, Garland may have been the first to realize that The Pirate, for all its stylishness and sophistication, would probably not appeal to the average moviegoer—the kind that had been thoroughly enchanted by her simple, unaffected Esther Smith in turn of the century St. Louis.

According to Minnelli, it was while shooting The Pirate that Garland “began to feel that she wasn’t functioning and turned again to the pills that had sustained her during past crises.” Almost before she realized it had happened, Judy was once again caught up in the self-destructive pattern she had valiantly tried to break free from. Now she was back on the treadmill, which meant day after day of having to be that girl up on the screen that everybody loved. There was the constant pressure of having to please studio chiefs, stockholders, producers, costars, cameramen, choreographers, and, most importantly, her fiercely devoted legions of fans. Through it all, America’s sweetheart was permanently switched to one setting: on. Nobody ever had as much riding on stardom as Garland did. As a toddler, it had been ingrained in Baby Gumm that her net worth was calculated by how well she had put over a number, how completely she had pleased her audiences—how much love she had managed to summon up for an hour or two.

At times, just the thought of getting out of bed (after yet another angst-ridden, sleepless night) and starting the whole process over again was debilitating. She couldn’t even face the day. “For Judy, her talent was like breathing, and I think that was also part of her great insecurity,” says Gar¬land historian John Fricke. “She’d wake up in the morning and think, ‘Oh, God… I’ve got to do it again. I don’t know how I’m doing this. How can I do it?’ She would psych herself into sheer terror about not being able to be Judy Garland.”

Voodoo Burned Scandelously Hot

”The number was so hot, in fact, that only a god-fearing, flag-waving, mother-loving studio mogul could put out the fire.”

Although the presence of the studio’s most valuable asset was essential— if not downright crucial—to the success of a production as star-driven as The Pirate, Vincente did his best to film around (and around) his immobilized wife. “It was as if she could sense the exact number of days that the studio could shoot around her,” Minnelli observed. But this time Judy miscalculated. All totaled, she would miss ninety-nine days of work on The Pirate, a picture that required her to be front and center in virtually every frame. “Now, for the first time, she had failed her substitute fathers, the men at the studio,” Vincente recalled. “The shooting schedule had to be extended… She had been to psychiatrists in the past. It was again suggested that she turn to them for help.”

With Judy appearing more frequently on her analyst’s couch than before the cameras, Minnelli turned to Garland’s robust costar for both personal and professional support. Remembering Judy’s generosity and kindness to him when he made his first film (For Me and My Gal) with her, Gene Kelly was willing to do anything to help. He even played sick for a week to give Garland additional time to pull herself together.

The intimate collaboration between Kelly and Minnelli may have been so creatively harmonious because it was a meeting of polar opposites: the effete, mild-mannered director teamed with an athletic, hyper-masculine daredevil. Oftentimes their creative thinking went in completely different directions, and yet a combination of their ideas could produce stunning results. During Garland’s extended absence, Kelly’s role in the film may have been beefed up so that the company would have something to shoot. When Judy did return, she thought she noticed some significant changes. Didn’t it seem like Minnelli’s camera set-ups favored her costar? What’s more, Gene’s lighting was better, his costumes were sexier, and his close-ups far outnumbered her own. It wasn’t long before Judy accused Vincente of having an affair with Gene.

“Judy, in her paranoia, became jealous of the time Gene and I were spending together,” Minnelli would politely put it years later. As Garland biographer Christopher Finch noted, “Some hint of Judy’s mental state at the time can be found in the fact that she became irrationally jealous… going so far as to interrupt one work session with a violent scene, accusing [Minnelli and Kelly] of using the picture to advance themselves at her expense.”

In his autobiography, Minnelli cautiously recounts this whole episode, only obliquely referring to Judy’s “damning accusation.” Nearly thirty years after the fact, Vincente diplomatically defended his relationship with Kelly by explaining that it was all strictly business: “We’d been so concerned with getting the choreography right, that we excluded [Garland] from our discussions. I felt it wasn’t necessary for Judy to have to deal with such problems, but she felt neglected.” Although Minnelli is careful to never name the specific accusation that his wife leveled at him, one didn’t have to be Hedda or Louella to guess that in Judy’s eyes, Vincente had been doing entirely too much choreographing.

In the midst of all this behind-the-scenes intrigue, Minnelli received word that his father had died in Florida at the age of eighty-four. Vincente arranged a brief leave and attended the funeral in St. Petersburg alone. Upon his return to MGM, production of The Pirate (already countless days over schedule) resumed with the mounting of the most elaborate sequences in the picture.

Cole Porter had written a cryptic yet haunting dirge entitled “Voodoo” that included nonsensical lyrics such as “Voodoo, whisper low from above… Voodoo, what’s this mystery called love?” Although one of the weakest links in a score that was hardly Porter’s best work to begin with, “Voodoo” was called into service as the film’s musical centerpiece, forming the basis for the inevitable Minnelli excursion into the surreal. After being hypnotized by Kelly, Garland’s demure Manuela sheds her inhibitions and suddenly reveals all of the repressed longings and erotic passions buried in the depths of her subconscious. Or, as John Fricke puts it: “Kelly sees Judy not only lasciviously but as if he were Sid Luft in training. You know, with a kind of hungry look that says ‘This is somebody who can make me a lot of money.’”

There was no end of problems with “Voodoo.” To begin with, Kay Thompson’s eerie, atonal arrangement of the song was genuinely unnerving. And the choreography by Gene Kelly and Robert Alton really pushed the envelope for an MGM musical. “We were doing a little bit of over-groping,” Gene Kelly remembered. “It was a sensual and sensuous sequence—both words are applicable.”  The number was so hot, in fact, that only a god-fearing, flag-waving, mother-loving studio mogul could put out the fire. As John Fricke notes:

Halfway through the filming of the “Voodoo” number, Ida Koverman breaks into a board of directors meeting and drags Louis B. Mayer out and says, “You’ve got to see the rushes of the number that Garland and Kelly did yesterday.” Louis B. Mayer took one look and said, “Burn the negative! If that gets on any screen we’ll be raided by the police!” After Mayer called Gene on the carpet, they toned down the staging for “Voodoo” and the number was still in the film when it went to preview.

When it came time to shoot the sanitized version of “Voodoo,” Vincente encountered another problem. Garland appeared on the set overmedicated, wild-eyed, and extremely agitated. After getting a look at a small fire that was being prepared for the number, Judy screamed, “Somebody help me! They’re going to burn me to death!” Approaching the assembled extras, she began asking each one, “Do you have some Benzedrine?” Dissolving into hysterical sobs, Garland was carried off the set as the cast and crew looked on in stunned disbelief. When the number was reattempted several days later, Judy was once again in full command.

After The Pirate was previewed in October and November 1947, Minnelli bowed to studio pressure to shorten the film to MGM’s preferred running time of one hour and forty-two minutes. There was also a concerted effort to recut the picture with an eye toward making it more palatable to main¬stream audiences. During this editorial overhaul, “Voodoo” was deleted, as was a portion of Kelly’s stirring “Pirate Ballet.” Retakes were ordered, and these were completed in November and December. Garland’s “Mack the Black” was restaged and presented in a more up-tempo rendition. The number became one of the most scintillating moments in the finished film.

Mark Griffin is the author of A Hundred or More Hidden Thing: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli (Da Capo Press, 2010). His essays, film reviews, and reporting have appeared in the Boston Globe, Out, Genre, and in several anthologies. He lives in Lewiston, Maine.

©Da Capo Press, 2010

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