lacking just a little minnelli magic

Watching two Vincent Minnelli classics, The Band Wagon (1953) and The Pirate (1948), in quick succession revealed something important for me: when sticking to a cohesive narrative—Meet Me in St. Louis, The Clock, Some Come Running, even lesser effort like a Madame Bovary, he’s virtually unparalleled in the Hollywood studio system. But when he succumbs to his burlesque impulses, as in Band Wagon and The Pirate, I struggle to retain my interest. The latter, less well-known, more of a (queer) cult item, is a bizarre little trifle—someone featured in the featurette (Gene Kelly’s former wife, I believe) commented that it plays like a massive in-joke, and I think that about sums it up.

I can see how someone on its wavelength could find it absolutely irresistible, but it more or less eluded me, and instead was left watching something with infinite potential that never quite finds a way to coalesce into something genuinely memorable (except, perhaps, for the shock of Gene Kelly showing up in one fantasy sequence in black cut-offs that make boxer-briefs look modest). It’s also Minnelli at his most stylistically unrestrained, and not in a way that appealed to me—the antiquated burgundies, golds and roses fly somewhere past mere kitsch to into the realm of the downright tacky. And god, after suffering through one performance of “Make ‘Em Laugh” it sure took a lot of restraint to not take advantage of the stop button when mere minutes later it is served up once again…

Clearly, The Band Wagon is the superior film, though it too ultimately left me underwhelmed as well. The first half is good, actually very good, except perhaps for Astaire’s (very intentional) wet dishrag of a performance—when he’s not dancing I just don’t find him an interesting enough screen presence to carry off extended mopiness. And I clearly had the wrong reaction—which is obviously more indicative of my personal taste than anything to do with the film itself—in that I was more interested in seeing a revamped version of the Faustian Follies instead of the famous, folksy Mickey-and-Judy “let’s give ‘em a show!” segments that follow (to the apparent adoration of all). But there are moments of grace that show up occasionally and are as dazzling as anything to be found in Minnelli’s filmography: the screen comes alive during the buoyant camaraderie of the “I Love Louisa” sequence, the gravity and geometry-defying gymnastics of the background male dancers in the “Girl Hunt,” the visual pleasure of Cyd Charrise’s “18 mile-high legs” (Liza Minnelli’s characterization), pretty much any time the crackerjack Nanette Fabray is given a good quip to toss off. But what really got me: the scene on the stairs where Astaire and Charisse meet and immediately have a fallout and Charisse has on a pair of kelly green satin gloves that shimmer against her diaphanous black dress. God, I remember thinking to myself—that is cinema!

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