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The Men Who Made the Movies: Vincente Minnelli (1973)

TV Movie  -   -  Documentary
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Title: The Men Who Made the Movies: Vincente Minnelli (TV Movie 1973)

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That's entertainment!
23 July 2004 | by (Minffordd, North Wales) – See all my reviews

In 1972 and '73, film critic Richard Schickel made an 8-part series for American public television: 'The Men Who Made the Movies'. Each episode featured a prominent Hollywood director discussing his career in an on-camera monologue (actually an interview, with Schickel's questions edited out), interspersed with generous clips from his most famous films, accompanied by somewhat overwrought narration (written by Schickel and spoken by Cliff Robertson). It's regrettable that Schickel did not include Billy Wilder in this series, as Wilder was alive and quite voluble at the time.

A coffee-table book was published as a companion volume to this series. More about that book later.

For those people who merely enjoy movies as entertainment without particularly caring about film theory, the segment featuring Vincente Minnelli is the most enjoyable and accessible instalment in this series. Unlike the other seven chosen directors, Minnelli specialised in musicals, so several of the film clips in this documentary are complete musical numbers (not excerpts), such as 'The Night They Invented Champagne' (from 'Gigi') and 'That's Entertainment!' (from 'The Band Wagon'). These delightful sequences are still very enjoyable as shown here, taken out of their original context; the other seven directors in Schickel's series primarily made dramas (or, in Frank Capra's case, non-musical comedies), and the excerpts from their films do not work nearly so well out of their original context. We do see a clip here from 'The Band Wagon' in which several tech cues go wrong during a Fred Astaire routine; out of context, it's not immediately clear that the errors are part of the film's story, and are intentional.

Although this documentary is about Vincente Minnelli, there are inevitably several film clips featuring his wife and muse Judy Garland ... including the slapstick scene from 'The Pirate' in which she assaults Gene Kelly. Thankfully, Schickel's script and the interview footage deal entirely with Minnelli's film career, with no gossip about his marriage to Garland nor their daughter Whatsernose.

The second half of this documentary features a clip from a dramatic film, depicting Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine running through a funfair's midway while an unseen gunman fires at them. Oddly, Robertson's narration entirely neglects to identify this movie: a painful lapse, as this is one of Minnelli's most atypical films. The companion book, fortunately, amends this lapse and several similar omissions throughout the series. The unidentified film is 'Some Came Running'.

We also see a clip from the ballroom sequence of 'Madame Bovary', in which the footmen shatter the windows while Jennifer Jones dances. I found this situation dramatically implausible, but Minnelli stages it brilliantly.

I wish that this excellent documentary had raised the subject of Minnelli's notorious obsession with detail. Elsewhere (not here), Frank Sinatra has recalled how Minnelli delayed the filming of the midway sequence in 'Some Came Running' for several hours while he tried to figure out what displeased him about the location. Eventually, Minnelli decided to have the Ferris wheel moved a very slight distance ... at great expense and more delay. On an earlier occasion, Minnelli shot countless wasteful retakes of the bathtub sequence in 'Yolanda and the Thief' because he wanted Lucille Bremer to crook her arm at precisely the proper angle to frame a grotesque statuette behind her head, which she couldn't see. (Nowadays, a video monitor would enable the actress to do this in one take.) Minnelli's artistry is manifest in his beautiful films, but sometimes he really did seem to overdo it.

All eight episodes of 'The Men Who Made the Movies' are well-made, highly entertaining and informative, although they tend to concentrate on the most well-known (and most typical) films of their respective subjects. Despite a few flaws, I'll rate all eight episodes of 'The Men Who Made the Movies' a perfect 10 out of 10.

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