Friday, 15 February 2008


I saw these films at the Minnelli retrospective over the past few days, and are a fascinating trio of films to consider together. The Pirate (1948) is a musical starring Minnelli's then wife Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. This is one of the genres in which Minnelli made his reputation, and The Pirate may be Minnelli's peak within this form. The Bad and the Beautiful is closer to Minnelli's other genre specialty, the melodrama, but it also one of the earlier films in another sub-genre of films about Hollywood itself. Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) is in many ways a follow-up to The Bad and the Beautiful, using the same star, Kirk Douglas, and also exploring what it is to work within Hollywood. But by 1962, the idea of what Hollywood was had changed a great deal. (On Wednesday, The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town will both be showing on a double bill. The print of The Bad and the Beautiful is only average, with many scratches and even a few splices, but the print of Two Weeks in Another Town is terrific.)

The common link in all three films is the role of art and artists in society. This is obvious enough in the two Hollywood films, but is also present in The Pirate with its focus on acting. The Pirate closes with the number "Be a Clown" (the same tune is more famous today for its lyrical reworking "Make 'em Laugh" number from Kelly and Donen' s 1952 Singin' in the Rain, another MGM musical) and offers up a celebration of the artist and their role. But, even more, it views art as a way (the only way?) to escape from the confines of society. The heroine Manuela dreams of being taken away by the pirate Macoco (or Mack the Black) in order to escape her dull soon-to-be husband. Teh twist of the film is that this husband is (or was) Macoco and gave up that life to try to be a respectable mayor. The myth of Macoco is just that, a story the heroine reads to open the film. The only illusion that is real is art itself, represented by the acting troupe and, of course, by Minnelli's musical sequences, certainly the high point of the film. The happy ending Minnelli provides is thus one that only exists within the world of illusion. Thematically, The Pirate has a lot in common with Minnelli's earlier musical Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), a seemingly optimistic film that nevertheless reveals the contradictions of society.

The Bad and the Beautiful is Minnelli's Citizen Kane, only set in the world of movies. It has a triple flashback structure to deal with the story of Jonathan Shields, a Hollywood producer with certain parallels to both Val Lewton and David O. Selznick. The film shows a clear affection for the Hollywood of this period. But it also seems to point to a new system (by 1952, the producer package deal was coming in, as the film's frame story shows). And, the film has a decidedly love-hate relationship with the business, as represented by Shields himself. By the time of Two Weeks in Another Town Hollywood was effectively gone. The film is set in Italy at Cinecitta studio, with Douglas as an actor recovering from a nervous breakdown. He is reunited with his director, and in the film's most famous sequence, they watch a clip from The Bad and the Beautiful and both celebrate and lament their past. The film's attitude towards art is increasingly pessimistic, especially in terms of the negative effect it can have on the individuals participating, although it is still ultimately the only thing Minnelli does have some faith.

The three films are also intriguing to compare stylistically, with the color and Academy ratio of The Pirate, the black and white and Academy ratio of The Bad and the Beautiful, and the widescreen colour of Two Weeks in Another Town. Minnelli's style, with its focus on long takes and mise-en-scene, adapts very well and may even be said to be suited to the widescreen format. However, Two Weeks in Another Town is the weakest film of the three, and in many ways proves the point about the advantages of the Hollywood system that are implied by The Bad and the Beautiful. The first hour has a great fascination, but the weak story material and hodgepodge of actors eventually derail the film in its second half. The Bad and the Beautiful, by comparison, while the least stylistically dazzling of the three films, is the masterpiece of the group, a film that compares with the best of Classic Hollywood and with the best of films about the cinema itself.

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