Film

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

Mark Griffin

It was Judy Garland’s affinity for the absurd that triggered Vincent Minelli’s idea for a film version of The Pirate, a rakish story that would employ Garland, Gene Kelly, and a very strange song composed by Cole Porter.


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

Publisher: Da Capo
Price: $15.95
Author: Mark Griffin
Length: 368 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2010-03
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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.”

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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