David Gerstner Queer Modernism: The Cinematic Aesthetics of Vincente Minnelli
The coming of sound to the Hollywood film in the late 1920s triggered a massive exodus of theatrical talent from New York to Los Angeles. Writers, musicians, singers, choreographers, dancers, and others deluged the desert city with not only the tools to supply film sound. New York artists also carried with them a broad-based and eclectic visual aesthetic. Vincente Minnelli was one of the few New York transplants who brought not merely his talents in theatrical stage and costume design, but also a creative eye and sensibility that soon rearranged the mise-en-scene of the Hollywood genres that were to become his creative forté--the MGM musical and melodrama. What I discuss below is the historical tradition of a creative sensibility that Minnelli practiced in his Hollywood filmmaking. It is a tradition of dandyism and Aestheticism shared within a certain modernist cultural milieu where its presentation of itself visually announced itself as queer. As I will point out, Minnelli's cultural aesthetic did not sit comfortably under the terms of American masculinity.
When producer Arthur Freed brought Vincente Minnelli to Hollywood in 1940 (and although Minnelli brought with him an illustrious theatrical costume and set design career from New York) Minnelli's name didn't ring any bells at MGM. In a memo to Eddie Mannix, Cedric Gibbons (Supervisory Art Director at MGM) expressed his concerns over Minnelli's hiring. The letter is worth quoting in full as it sets the stage for the creative tensions that Minnelli would consistently encounter with Gibbons on the MGM backlot. On 2 April 1940 Gibbons wrote:
For your information we have signed Vincent Manelli [sic], a New York stage designer. This was done through Arthur Freed. In speaking to Arthur on Saturday he told me about this man and said he was engaged as a dance director. I said, "Nothing Else?" And he said, "for ideas on dance numbers and musical settings, etc." I am afraid Eddie, that this will probably be another Harkrider-Hobe-Irwin [sic]-Oliver-Messel situation and if you remember you and I chatted at great length about this type of thing sometime ago--and I want to reiterate that I absolutely refuse to work under any conditions with any man designing settings unless he is brought through to me as a member of my department. The man may be the world's greatest genius. If he is, by all means give him my job. I find it tough enough as it is to work with the most sympathetic assistants I can secure. I do not feel that any of my men should take orders from anyone other than myself in the matter of set design, whether it be for musical numbers or the interiors of submarines. Do you think we need further experience in these expensive experiments? Not just the man's salary, but what he actually costs us. I, for one, had thought we had learned our lesson. Gibby
Gibbon's sentiment played itself out in a tension that would underscore the relationship between Minnelli and the MGM Art Department for the next twenty years. At stake here was the way in which two men of, to use Thomas Elsaesser's terms, "modernist sensibilities" struggled over the visual rendering of twentieth-century life. Minnelli's vision of creative modernity often worked at odds with the Supervising Art Director's (i.e Gibbons') of the MGM Art Department. In fact, Minnelli is reported to have called the Art Department "...a medieval fiefdom, its overlord accustomed to doing things in a certain way...his own."
Both Minnelli and Gibbons were strongly influenced by currents of the international modernist movement and both were decidedly set in their creative ways: Minnelli directly positioned himself as a modernist within a genealogy of James McNeill Whistler, Sergei Diaghilev and Paul Poiret while Gibbons was a modernist in the efficient mode of Le Corbusier, Louis Sullivan and Walter Gropius.Minnelli looked to the paintings of Van Gogh, the Impressionists, the post-Impressionists as well as the aesthetic/surrealist writings of Ronald Firbank and the fin de siècle sketches of Aubrey Beardsley.He was an impeccable dandy/aesthete. He dressed, most often, in his favorite daffodil yellow blazer and black turtle neck. His home in Beverly Hills was (and still is) filled with art books, novels, paintings and sketches (his earlier New York apartment interiors were also hard pressed to find any "streamlined" design).His bookshelves are crammed with the books of Duchamp, Dufy, Renoir, Dali, Matisse, and the not-so-modern Caravaggio. The writings of Flaubert, Baldwin, Bazin, and Freud line his bedroom walls. The painting easel in his studio (overlooking his garden) always had a current work in process, just as his office desk always had the clutter of the research for his latest film project.
Gibbons' home, on the other hand, sits at the edge of the California Pacific Rim in Santa Monica. Designed by Gibbons (with the MGM architect Douglas Honnold), it is considered the "ultimate Hollywood residence of the 1930s." It embodies the cinematic in the best sense of the latest technology: "water sprinklers on the copper roof above...create the sound of rain, and a recessed light projector ...[casts] the illusion of moonlight on a wall..." It is streamlined, white, and above all, "efficient:" it is essential, writes Gibbons, that "the living room is as efficient as the kitchen and bathroom."
While this account of domestic architecture is simplified and perhaps obvious, it serves to illustrate the aesthetic tension Minnelli encountered upon his arrival to--what really added up to--Cedric Gibbon's Art Department. But this creative split was not, as just demonstrated, reserved for Minnelli's and Gibbons' day job. Their decorative choices for their homes had significant implications in terms of what their lives symbolized in twentieth-century American culture.
Gibbons' sense of ordered space and his insistence on efficiency in business and creative design are hallmarks of a modernism flanked by the notion of utility and function. This efficiency shares an interesting relationship to the production and, if you will, the architecture of American masculinity in the twentieth century. As I will point out, Minnelli's confrontation with Gibbons at MGM brought to bear the question of modernity's (not to mention Hollywood's) relationship to creativity and masculinity.
I The Architectonics of Body and Home
If the "efficient" architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and his European admirers, Miës van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, were intended to unload the "effeminate" obstacles, or "excess," which purportedly prohibited productive living, it was clearly in the service of allowing for a clean, (and in keeping with the new era) functional and machine-like space which was de-historicized of archaic (inefficient and excessive) decoration--something to which the Supervisor of the MGM Art Department aspired. To de-historicize, for this modernist, meant to look forward because the historical carried the weight of a dead past which was found in such traditional mediums as architecture, furniture design, and the "realism" of Hollywood cinema. The modernist trend toward abstract art was to rid itself of any historical content. A creative and functional clean slate for technologically modern times was in order.
In fact, Gibbons looked toward the day when "realism" could be abandoned from cinema so that "we may look for a setting which in itself will be as completely modern as is modern painting or sculpture." It is precisely the efficient modernist's aim to utilize the twentieth century's new technologies and machinations to rid the excess of everyday life--"utility will supplant ornament." Because ornament was viewed as effeminate, eliminating a decorative aesthetic assured a masculine, heterosexual art establishment. The virility of American creativity, through the filter of a streamlined aesthetic, served to defend (male) artists from the charge of homosexuality.
Streamlined functionalism, of course, purportedly contained the excess and spillage of the modern world's efficiency frenzy with both production and consumption. The modernist view that saw this excess as containable, however, refused the irony of their own production and consumption. The disgust with their own expenditure ("dépense") is, as Georges Bataille suggests, "...the raison d'être of and the justification for the bourgeoisie; it is at the same time the principle of its horrifying hypocrisy." To utilize and display (rather than anxiously hide) the excess of the efficient and functional (as Minnelli would) is, I would argue, a queer transgression. More accurately, for Minnelli this excess of historical production is certainly camp (I will have more to say about this in a moment).
Minnelli arrived at MGM armed with an extravagant and flamboyant eye for excessive detail. His set designs for his films were as bright and colorful as his window displays in Chicago and his stage designs in New York. While Minnelli found himself at odds with Gibbons' Art Department, Minnelli emerges victorious from these creative conflicts on the screen. Minnelli's perceptive eye came to Hollywood only after an extremely successful stage career in New York. It was there that his version of modernism was developed and constituted. Unlike Los Angeles during the 1920s and 1930s, New York City's furious attempt to produce an efficient world fails as it runs against the city's continuum of chaos. New York's creative drive, its spatially confined multi-ethnic and racial arenas foreclose even the illusion of a (white, heterosexual) bourgeois notion of a "well ordered" society. Los Angeles's sprawling geographical terrain, on the other hand, lends itself to a vision of an (historically) unburdened, efficient, and, hence "modern" culture. In effect, living in New York for nearly ten years provided Minnelli the opportunity to participate within a cultural atmosphere that was urbane, and often chaotic; his demeanor was fomented in a landscape far different than the nascent spaces of Los Angeles. It is precisely Minnelli's immersion within the frenetic and excessive place of New York which would inform his later work in Hollywood cinema.
New York was also a pivotal site of enormous epistemological shifts of masculinity wherein American men were confronted with the complex social intersections of masculinity, "effemininity," creativity, and homosexuality. It is the brilliance (and tension) of this social and creative excess that Minnelli saw and experienced which informed the visual extravagance that he brought to the stage and screen.
It is a known fact that you are not a success on Broadway until legends spring up about you. Sometimes libelous, always exaggerated, these fantastic offsprings of envy and admiration are a mirror which reflect success. The Minnelli legends are legion --Anonymous, Shubert Press Release, c. 1936.
Minnelli's creative milieu in New York City was consistently pressured within a conflicting historical relationship with American masculinity. It was a conflict which was already extremely prescient for Minnelli. "I was never told that creativity was unmanly," writes Minnelli reflecting upon his early window display position at Marshall Field's in Chicago. "Looking at Mr. Frazier's [his boss at Marshall Field's] assistant," he continues, "a William Bendix type, and talking to the other display men who were all married and raising families, I saw by their example that one could happily function as the male animal and still give vent to his so-called feminine traits. As a result, I wasn't cowed at this impressionable age into more conventionally male avenues of expression. I am thankful for that. I'd make a miserable football coach". As Lee Minnelli points out, Vincente disliked the tough, jock sports "guy" and considered himself the Noel Coward type. This surely would make for a "miserable" football coach. Minnelli's conflictual relationship to masculinity established his ongoing creative reassessment of American aesthetics.
Minnelli was raised in a small mid-west town (Delaware, Ohio) where he grew up in a Catholic, French-Italian, traveling tent-show family. Chicago, where his extended family resided, represented the bastion of non-provinciality. While there, Minnelli worked as a window display designer at Marshall Field's Department Store. Known for their ornate and colorful window displays, Marshall Field's was one of the places where Minnelli encountered the new "modernist" art scene. Minnelli's displays were usually that of furniture, decorative accessories, and antiques (one can presume, if we fancy the store window as a pro-filmic space, the early beginnings of Minnelli's elaborate stage and cinematic mise-en-scene). He considered his short stint as a photographer of stage celebrities dull and thought it not the medium with which he preferred to work. He attempted a brief (and failed) acting career, but most importantly he continued to sketch, draw, and paint--he would always claim these to be his first love. As his collection of work grew, he gained an entrepreneurial sense for himself and, therefore, was able to land a job with the prosperous theater-chain, Balaban and Katz, designing costumes for their stage shows.
Minnelli first became aware of the Impressionists, the Fauves, and the Surrealists (a movement which would have great import for his early work in Hollywood) through the Art Institute of Chicago. The works of Matisse, Duchamp, Ernst and Dali acted as early catalysts for Minnelli's visual imagination. The English artist Aubrey Beardsley's Art Nouveau drawings [such as The Peacock Skirt, see Figure 1] so strongly impacted Minnellli that they resurfaced in the drawings for Casanova's Memoirs which he made upon arriving in New York [Figure 2]. Minnelli's absorption of the contemporary avant-garde was substantial; it served as an important element to his young avid mind. His introduction to Cézanne, van Gogh, Renoir and Dufy was instrumental particularly because he saw a creative coagulum between divergent forms of painting such as cubism, surrealism, and impressionism that he would later intermingle with his childhood visions of mid-west Americana (consider Meet Me in St. Louis and Some Came Running). Inevitably, Minnelli became noted for his ability to fuse multiple genres which became the signature of his popular stage and film designs.
Minnelli began to read voraciously in Chicago. He discovered E. And J. Pennells' biography of James Abbott McNeill Whistler which influenced his aesthetic understanding of form, composition, and color for the remainder of his career. It is instructive to consider Minnelli's relationship to his early readings of Whistler as the artist not only embodied certain painterly principles (especially in terms of color), but Whistler's identification as a "dandy" and "gentleman." If the dandy was an enticing figure for Minnelli for its urbane and elegant ennui, Whistler would be the dandy extraordinaire because he was the dandy who, unlike the earlier dandies Byron and Baudelaire, created visually (and importantly in the medium which Minnelli loved most). As the Pennells' hagiographic account states, Whistler's works were "painted poetry"(Vol. 2, 40).
Minnelli also found that he "related to [Whistler's] penchant for titling his paintings with musical terms. I envied his childhood in the Russian court, his youth as a West Point cadet and starving artist in a Paris garret, his devotion to his distinguished wife." The suffering artist routine, however, was elegiac imagery for the youthful (and not so wealthy at the time) Minnelli. Whistler's later remarks on poverty may have assuaged any feelings of remorse that he may have had during his long stretches of creative and financial security: "...it is better to live on bread and cheese and paint beautiful things, than to live like Dives and paint pot boilers." And in this version of the gentlemanly and dandified aesthetic where decorum was highly relished, both Minnelli and Whistler saw football as the demise of an elegant tradition. For Whistler, as the young cadet at West Point, he "resented each and every innovation [at this ceremonious institution], above all football" (Vol. 1, 38). Hence, Minnelli discovered through the Pennells' book that to lack the popular American qualities of virile manhood was not necessarily a stroke of ill fate. Whistler's somatic features are described by a fellow draughtsman:
I thought him about the handsomest fellow I ever met; but for some reason I did not consider him a perfect model of manly beauty--his mouth betokened more ease than firmness, his brow more reserve than acute mental activity, and his eyes more depth than penetration. Sensitiveness and animation appeared to be his predominating traits (44).
If Minnelli did not see himself measuring up to the dictates of American masculinity he certainly was able to relate to the poetic American artist abroad whose temperament eschewed those manly characteristics in order to exercise a "sensitiveness" associated with creativity. Whistler's languorous riding in hansoms, his "cool suit of linen...his jaunty straw hat"(80) worn in his youth, his one white lock in his curly black hair and his "series of collars [which] sprang from the neck of the long overcoat . . . [and] extraordinary long cane,"(300) struck not only a sartorial performative image of the dandy but a performative image of masculinity (two qualitative images which, as we will see, are imbricated) that Minnelli would appropriate throughout his career.
To simply place Minnelli in a Whistlerian trajectory of the "gentlemanly dandy" is, however, to neglect a complicated discourse of masculinity (and by extension homosexuality) in America and its relationship to men who create and their aesthetic endeavors. Minnelli's relationship to the body of the historical dandy must necessarily be considered in terms of the aesthetic qualities that the dandy generated. From Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768)) to George Brummel (1778-1840) the dandy always proffered challenges to social norms--especially in terms of gender performatives, aesthetic sensibilities, and sexuality. These gender slippages had important consequences for American masculinity because the notion of the dandy at the end of the nineteenth century, particularly as aesthete, would carry the charge of homosexuality.
II Historical Inscriptions/Queer Performatives
Alan Sinfield argues that there is a socially fraught "confusion," a visual confusion, of gender identification with the introduction of the dandy in the late eighteenth century. Before this time, Sinfield shows that during the Shakespearean period labels of "effeminacy" were associated with those men who were considered "too emotional" and spent too much time with women. Sinfield traces the historical discourse of "effeminacy" as it is produced in the misogynic service of protecting the binary gender roles of male and female. Thus, in the seventeenth century, if a man could not dominate (sexually, socially) a woman he was perceived as "effeminate" (37). Finally, by the end of the eighteenth century "effeminacy came to function as a general sign of aristocracy" accommodating aristocratic men so that they could "act effeminate" without any social or moral implications of being "queer." This new aristocratic figure, according to Sinfield, appeared ambisexual. At any given social moment he might have been seen with his mistress on one arm and a young boy on his other. Gender boundaries were at best "confused." Much of this confusion regarding gender during the eighteenth and nineteenth century rested in the sexual ambiguity of the dandy.
The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, urgently working during this time to regulate the parameters of ideological and social norms, disdained this aristocratic dandy (and the aristocracy in general). The dandy surely blurred the attempt to morally/biologically code gender identification. As Sinfield suggests, "the dandy represents the over-refinement and moral laxness that middle-class hegemony ascribed as one way of stigmatizing upper-class pretensions (another way was to regard them as brutal and stupid")(69). Importantly, however, the aristocratic dandy was not suspected of any sort of "queer" leanings even if he was engaged in same-sex relations. His visible offence was that he acted 'like a woman;' he was perceived as passive and soft.
That "[dandyism] is always to produce the unexpected" foretells of the disruptive possibilities of the dandy. Disruptive but in varying and often not so subtle degrees. Brummel's elegant and dandified figure, impeccably dressed and satiated with ennui, "while still respecting the conventionalities, play[ed] with them"(33). Bored with what he considered to be one restriction of a boring society, Brummel slighted the established proprieties with an irony that, at best, 'aped but did not resemble' (26).
Later, Charles Baudelaire was the stroller, or the flâneur, of the urban setting where "he was as much at home among the façades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls." For Baudelaire, the dandy is preferable to the typical bourgeois gentleman precisely because he is dialectical; the dandy represents the "duality of art" and thereby the "inevitable consequence of the duality of man." The dandy is then a "man-child" whose "genius is no more than childhood captured at will, childhood equipped now with a man's physical means to express itself..."(398).
If decadence, as marked by the figure of the dandy (the body of the effeminize male), is understood as a wilful act of "idleness" and "non-productivity" against the dictates of bourgeois work ethics, it is thus seen as counter-productive to the organized systems of capital. He recommends a discomfiting ruffling of disciplined society. With Baudelaire, "dandyism's" decadent unmanly behavior uneased the rising bourgeoisie's organization of their economic situation. Oscar Wilde, however, would add another dimension to this already unscrupulous behavior and raise the ante for the conditions of creativity and masculinity.
"Dandyism is the assertion of the absolute modernity of Beauty" By the time Oscar Wilde had integrated Walter Pater's and John Ruskin's version of Greek and Renaissance aesthetics with Baudelaire's dialectical dandy into an hyperbolized and aestheticized physical display of the dandy, manly middle-class angst was even more perplexed and confounded over the "effeminate" nature of creativity. Wilde took this gender bender aesthetic further into murky waters with the figure of the aesthete.
Wilde's over-aestheticizing of this already encoded body of the dandy (i.e. a doubled body which is simultaneously masculine and feminine; adult and child) pushed middle-class masculine confusion further into a quandary. Wilde's radical physical re-posing of the traditionally dressed dandy (ironic, yet gentlemanly--the attributes that were essential to Whistler and, later, Minnelli) in the 1880s aestheticized, by hyperbolizing , the already "effeminate" representation of the dandy. On his arrival to the United States in 1882 Wilde, traveling abroad as the European "aesthete," donned a "befurred green overcoat...[b]eneath the coat could be discerned a shirt with a wide Lord Byron collar, and a sky-blue necktie, vaguely reminiscent of the costume of a modern mariner. He wore patent leather shoes on his small feet." Heightened by sartorial color, Wilde's body was indeed a work of art (in sharp contrast to the blandness of nineteenth-century American ideals of manly decorative beauty). Wilde luxuriated in this "decadent" and "effeminate" demeanor and, in effect, used it as an affront to hyper-masculine vulgarities, i.e. all things ugly and banal. Wilde's highly (internationally) visible figure was soon to become the site in which the public's "confusion" of gender identifications would congeal and make sense. Wilde's body, in other words, became the visible and concretized marker of exactly what a homosexual looks like.
The charge of sodomy, and its ensuing trial, brought against Wilde in 1895 by Lord Queensbury was the historical point at which the aestheticized body of the "effeminate" dandy solidified as the "homosexual." Ed Cohen shows how Wilde's aestheticized body in the daily press became narrativized in order to "[embody] a new type of sexual offender...whose decorative perversions of bourgeois domesticity came to signify larger violations of the sexual/moral codes that such domesticity (re)produced and reflected"(180). From this moment forward, the body of the dandy (that "vaguely disconcerting nexus of effeminacy, leisured idleness, immorality, luxury, insouciance, decadence and aestheticism...") placed within the confines of a bourgeois framework of the world, "was transformed into a brilliantly precise image" (Sinfield, 118). All those socially "confused" up to this time breathed a sigh of relief as their social anxieties now had content and form. This offender of middle-class morality was now locatable.
Wilde's trial not only made the headlines of Europe, but it was practically a celebration of revenge for the hardcore masculinists in America who could barely swallow Wilde's decorative suggestions in his "House Beautiful" lectures. Wilde's visit to America in 1882 undoubtedly raised the ire of not a few swaggering American men. Hereafter in America, Teddy Roosevelt's campaign to strengthen manhood (and thereby "Americanism") looked to the "idle" dandy as not merely the scapegoat (who would point to what one should not be), but this decadent aesthete was also the scapegrace. The "soft," incorrigible dandy/aesthete threatened Roosevelt's "strenuous life" doctrine which was "to combine efficiency and morality, high principle and rough common sense, justice and the sturdiest physical and moral courage, as in a republic"(88). The intellectual and the artist were now only valuable to "the republic" if they actually did their physical and manly "duty." Roosevelt's anti-intellectual and anti-"high-culture" politics emphasized the deceit that, as he saw it, resided within those male individuals who displayed their unmanly endeavors on their sleeve. "There are few things less desirable," Roosevelt stated, "than the arid cultivation, the learning and refinement which lead merely to that intellectual conceit which makes man in a democratic community like ours hold himself aloof from his fellows and prides himself upon the weakness which he mistakes for supercilious strength"(86).
In 1896, the governor of New Jersey, Joseph Conwell, writes that American young men who are [firm] in muscle, [strong] in bone, [rich] in blood...." had become "indifferent [which] is the worst crime against manhood" and has the moral and spiritual detrimental affect of making our men "[become] effeminate, powerless and undone." Historian George Chauncey argues that the "effeminate" male was that vital marker of difference for men who, at the end of the century, consumed themselves with "muscularity, rough sports, prizefighting, and hunting as an antidote to the overcivilization of American men...the cause was to be taken up in newspapers, boys' clubs, and backyard lots throughout the nation." American men visibly presented themselves as "muscular" and "heterosexual" to insure no mistake was made with regard to their masculinity. But more importantly, they did not want to be read as an "Oscar Wilde," i.e. effeminate and intellectual or, by extension, "homosexual."
America's creative world was punctuated, as well, by the cultural concern over the homosexualizing of creativity. To retrieve their heterosexual masculinity from the clutches of dilettante homosexual artists, American artists choreographed their aesthetic endeavors with displays of hyper-masculine activities. Robert Henri, for example, encouraged his painting students at the New York School of Art to "be a man first, an artist later." Henri advocated Teddy Roosevelt's strenuous life by insisting that his art students participate in basketball, handball, and boxing and "chinning themselves above the door lintels of the classroom whenever the model rested" (ibid.). Henri did not want his students to act like "sissies."
In the early part of the twentieth century the visual weight of the Wilde trial was far from lifted. The embodiment of "sexual offender" in those who were seen as "creative," "artistic," or (to this day) "effeminate" allowed the middle class the opportunity to identify a physical scapegoat who would stand in for what one ought not be. It is not surprising, then, that Minnelli defended Whistler over Wilde in his memoirs (Minnelli, 50). Like Wilde's "creative" contemporaries who tried to disassociate their dandified and aestheticized physical attributes from their "behavior," Minnelli (only twenty-five years after Wilde's death) was in the position to account for his "feminine traits" (and thereby adhere to standardized male/female, heterosexual binaries).
This is not to defend Minnelli's fear of being identified with the charge of homosexuality, but rather to provide a framework for the ideological cultural underpinnings in which Minnelli functioned and negotiated as an American twentieth-century dandy/aesthete. To be a dandy, to be a man performing within a creative cultural milieu, served to identify--and thereby warn--those guardians of manly middle-class norms, of the presence of an "Oscar Wilde."
III Historical Debris
In effect, Oscar Wilde introduced camp to the twentieth century-- 'for those in the know.' As Susan Sontag points out in her essay of "notes...for Oscar Wilde," camp and dandyism would intersect "in the age of mass culture." For Minnelli to admonish Wilde is not to say that he rejected Wilde's aestheticized infusions into the art world. In fact, Minnelli certainly embraced a camp aesthetic historically following Wilde's aesthetic import--acknowledged or not. Seen within this historical trajectory where aesthetics are utilized to visibly display the dépense of ideological and cultural production, it is then possible to consider how Minnelli situated and rendered this cultural conflict between heterosexual masculinity and creativity.
Recently, Lela Simone (music coordinator for the Freed Unit at MGM) stated that: "Vincente [Minnelli] was not a man who was a dictator. He tried to do it in a soft and nice way. He worked in let's say...I don't know whether you will understand what I say...he worked liked a homosexual. I don't mean that nastily. I have nothing against homosexuals." Matthew Tinkcom's suggests that Simone's view of 'working like a homosexual' reveals "labors performed by particular subjects, and not identities, can in some cases display the mark of the subject upon the product...."(Tinkcom, 29). I would add that that "mark," rather than displaying an inherent (repressed?) "homosexual" set of subject knowledges which surface "upon the product," actually reveals an "aesthetic as homosexual" (to borrow Andrew Hewitt's terms) that raised the anxiety level of those manly artists who were associated within the milieus of American creativity. Minnelli, as the twentieth-century American dandy, sought refuge from the vulgarities of this over-masculine world by using his affinity for art--a queer modernist art--in order to ironize, to situate within and against, and to confuse masculinist cultural demands. If he was to be constantly suspect, Minnelli placed himself in a world where he would feel comfortable exercising his creative talents. From Chicago to New York to Hollywood Minnelli surely 'aped but did not resemble.' More to the point, whether declared or not, Minnelli participated in and visibly presented a queer modernist aesthetic.
IV Dandified "Hysteria" in Twentieth-Century New York
Aside from his painterly interests in the Impressionists and Fauves, Minnelli's fascination with surrealism in Chicago prompted his readings of Freud and Ronald Firbank. A subscription to New York's World introduced him to the city's sophisticated nightclub and party scene during the late 1920s, while Vanity Fair kept Minnelli current with New York's fashionable trends in literature, theater and cinema. The World's heavily produced Sunday paper offered pages of photographs and editorials giving him a peek into New York's haut couture society of stage, screen and literature. Vanity Fair provided Minnelli with the forum for such eclectic figures as Carl Van Vechten, Gilbert Seldes, Colette, Vivian Shaw, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, and Cecil Beaton. New York's reputation as being truly "modernist" spoke to Minnelli with great verve as it was a modernism which fit snugly with his aesthetic sensibility. The city offered not only a creative edge, but it also (and it was popularly known) recommended a creative and social tolerance.
While Chicago presented Minnelli with a powerful introduction to the arts and urban living it had, for Minnelli, "an impudent style with little class...". Its lack of an urbane sensibility smacked of a certain manliness that suggested a "sleeves rolled up..." mentality. This observation of a rough and tough and socially rigid Chicago was supported by the glamorous editorial he found in the New York World and Vanity Fair. In these pages, New York was the "swellegant" counterpoint to Chicago's version of modernist urban culture. His brief trips to New York for Balaban and Katz productions helped fuel Minnelli's already charged desire to move. The recent Paramount Publix merger with Balaban and Katz made his move to New York possible. Paramount Publix's New York theaters would now stage grand vaudevillian style shows in the tradition of the Balaban and Katz Picture Palaces in Chicago. Minnelli wanted in on the venture and soon found himself with a one-way ticket to New York.
For Minnelli, New York sophistication proffered a cultural milieu immersed in Noel Coward banter and the elegant decadence of Cole Porter's "swell time." Now in New York, Minnelli was brought into the effluence of the city's unswerving energy. The roman a clef novels and essays sketched by Carl Van Vechten now came to life with an intensity that would indelibly mark Minnelli's work. Van Vechten (b. 1880), another dandy/aesthete from the midwest (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) who first moved to Chicago and found it dull, was the cornerstone of the New York social world in the 1920s. For Van Vechten, there were three "essentials" to art: "vitality, glamour, and imagination." He was a photographer (with quite an impressive array of portraits), journalist, novelist, "manager" for budding talent, and gossip queen. As Bruce Kellner suggests, "he was [New York's] leading dilettante." Van Vechten invariably knew everyone who was anyone.
His novels (especially Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works (1922), The Blind Bow Boy(1923), and Parties: Scenes from Contemporary New York Life (1930)) bespoke the campy decadence of sophistication that supported the glamorous world of New York's high society. Bringing to life Des Esseinte's library from Huysman's A Rebours, Van Vechten had his Knopf published books printed in limited editions which, as in the case of one of his novels, had "not only 220 signed and numbered copies on rag paper, bound up in blue boards with pink spines, but also an extra 75 in red vellum, their heavy Inomachi Japan pages shot with strands of silk, uncut and untrimmed of course, signed and numbered too, a red satin ribbon bookmark depending from the top of the spine"(237). Van Vechten's decadence was the blueprint (and imprint) of an American aestheticism which clearly did not sit comfortably in Teddy Roosevelt's virile tradition of America.
The composite of Van Vechten's trans-continental social arena included Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, Parker Tyler, Pavel Tchelitchev, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, George Gershwin, and Ethel Waters. Many of these figures were key in 1920s New York social activity, and several of them, especially Gershwin, Tchelitchev, and Waters, would later intimately overlap with Minnelli's world. Interestingly, Van Vechten's friendship with Waters and Gershwin was well established during the 1920s. Van Vechten would religiously attend their concerts as well as every social gathering in New York with them. Since it would be doubtful that he would miss any of Waters' theatrical performances (it's hard to imagine Van Vechten missing any performance in New York) he was most likely present, then, at Minnelli's production of At Home Abroad in 1935 which starred Waters and Bea Lillie. When, shortly thereafter in early 1936, Van Vechten photographed Waters for his own personal portfolio, one can rightly imagine that the show (considering the calamitous off-stage relationship that Bea Lillie and Waters shared) was a topic of vibrant gossip between himself and Waters.
But Van Vechten's importance was not limited to his glowing coterie and extravagant personality. His writings on opera, dance, literature, cinema, and music generated an enormous current of aesthetic energy well into the 1930s. His attendance to, and his ongoing critical support of, Diaghilev's Ballet Russe in Paris paved the way for the dynamic dispersion of creative thought in New York. Van Vechten's commingling with the dandified audience of the Ballet Russe undoubtedly resonated with his personal design of the American twentieth-century dandy. The Ballet's premier in America, albeit several years after its Parisian debut and uproar, was still seen as "an erotic and blasphemous skin show" (Kellner, 1968, 99). Later, Minnelli's design for the sets and costumes of Scheherazade at Radio City received successful critical review as he utilized the "exotic" colors of Léon Bakst as they were, in one way or another, directly or indirectly interpreted and articulated by Van Vechten.
Van Vechten also put his peripatetic wit and grace into the (white) commercialization of the artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance. His high-pitched charisma and dedication to many a budding career (especially, but not exclusively, to Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen) sparked white upper-middle-class interest in (and exoticizing of) Harlem artists and entertainment. Later, Minnelli attended the Harlem jazz clubs that were made popular by Van Vechten's prolific exposés of Harlem nightlife.
Previously, in 1922 Van Vechten helped to spawn Ronald Firbank's literary career into American notoriety. Firbank was Van Vechten's "gay new idiot" (Kellner, 1987, 43). Firbank's fantastical/surrealist fairy tales evoked the aestheticism of Wilde and Proust while liquefying his fairy tale narratives into surrealist-unconscious imagery. Firbank's literary style deconstructed the already contemporary notion of camp by further heightening the excess of camp's own strategy. At MGM, Minnelli's Yolanda and the Thief (1945)and The Pirate (1948) would unabashedly resonate with the excess of Firbank's fantastical aestheticism.
Central to Van Vechten's social and personal world was the painter Florine Stettheimer. As his close friend and social contemporary, Stettheimer had the financial wherewithal to disseminate the European art scene to Van Vechten and his New York compatriots as well as to personally introduce him to such artists as Marcel Duchamp. Barbara Bloemink notes, that as she was "one of the few American artists privileged to have actively participated in pre-World War I European culture, Stettheimer was an important carrier of that culture to a new location." Like Van Vechten, one of her most important cultural imports was the ideas and imagery she discovered after her attendance to Diaghilev's Ballet Russes. She was in complete admiration of Léon Bakst's colorful costume design. This impression of the colorful, the ornate, and the decorative would spill over into her paintings, albeit in a finer line. Both Stettheimer's and Minnelli's paintings and sketches share an important contemporaneous aspect in that they both represent the body as influenced by the fashionable drawings of Ralph Barton and especially, I would add, Edouard Garcia Benito in Vanity Fair. This modernist rendering of the body à la Benito speaks to a modernist androgyny which begins to articulate the conflictual dimension of American gender relations of the early twentieth century.
Although championed by Van Vechten, Stieglitz, and her close friend Marcel Duchamp, Stettheimer's paintings never achieved critical or popular recognition during her lifetime. While already acting as a window display predecessor to Minnelli at Marshall Field's (Stettheimer had designed windows at Wanamaker's in New York and Marshall Field's in Chicago (Sussman, 50)) her set and costume designs would clearly inform Minnelli's sense of design. In 1934 (at the age of 63), however, Stettheimer's creative path took a monumental shift and 'indirectly' crossed Minnelli's path with the opening of the avant-garde opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. An all black cast performed the work and libretto by Gertrude Stein and music Virgil Thomson, Four Saints was to become a major avant-garde work of the period. Like her paintings, Stettheimer presented a delicately ornate set and costume design for Four Saints. Using "gilding, tinsel and cellophane, clear white light" as well as lace and white chiffon, Stettheimer rendered her years of accumulated cultural activity in this production (Bloemink, 76).
In his memoirs, Minnelli remarks on this production, calling attention to the efforts of Stein and Thomson, but not of Stettheimer's. While it is not clear if Minnelli actually did see the premier of Four Saints in Hartford, Connecticut (7 February 1934) or its New York opening (1 March), he most certainly had read about it in the New York press where not only Stettheimer was praised for her design work, but photographs of her sets and costumes were reproduced. Minnelli indeed recalled this work as a "riveting surrealistic opera" (Minnelli, 98). In fact, to see the sets of his Cabin in the Sky (1943) is to see the echo of Stettheimer's designs for Four Saints. This is especially true in his use of white light placed against the white sets and costumes as worn by the all black cast.
For Van Vechten, Stettheimer, and Minnelli, the cinema was the pivotal art of the twentieth century. All three were fascinated with the technical possibilities of movement with the new art. While Stettheimer leaned toward the European avant-garde movement in cinema, Van Vechten and Minnelli were unabashedly appreciative of Hollywood and the major European studio productions. This is not to say that they were not affected by the films of Eisenstein and Buñuel (because they certainly were), but they saw in the Hollywood film the campy, and ironic possibilities which underlay mainstream (creative) production. For Van Vechten, his admiration of Clara Bow and Elinor Glyn pointed to his dandified embrace not only of a film such as It(1927), but of his social position of having, and decadently enjoying, "it." In Minnelli's case, Jacques Feyder's Carnival in Flanders (1935) "embodied [his] fascination in art...with the artful detail and luminosity of the Flemish masters" (Minnelli, 90). While this film clearly echoes the "Flemish masters," it is also laced with a bawdy irony that tickled Minnelli's taste for the debauch.
Van Vechten's and Stettheimer's energetic support of both European and American artists sat in opposition to the America's post-Armory show sense of modernism which looked to define a new and "pure" American art form which was devoid of European influence. Van Vechten's and Stettheimer's import of European art set the stage for a 'queer modernism' which shared an international renown for its unsettling creative and moral decadence. These creative coteries, criticized for their association with eroticism, effeminacy, decadence, and primitivism, harbored a wellspring of artists whose sense of modernism did not look toward a pure "American" art form, but rather toward a hyper-aestheticized representation, a theatricalization, of the "functional" twentieth century. Like Van Vechten, Minnelli's identification as the "queer" dandy/aesthete provided him the opportunity to "camp" and, thereby, "confuse" standard social registers of cultural meaning.
V Urban Sophistication
Minnelli's move to New York was an exciting period for him as it held great promise for his work. Van Vechten's and Stettheimer's worlds were now at Minnelli's finger tips, and he was very willing to explore the many cultural arenas of New York. Van Vechten's and Stettheimer's (baroque) framing of New York's cultural and aesthetic milieu of the 1920s cannot be underestimated for Minnelli. The intellectual and creative groundwork laid during this period would be the stimuli in which the young Minnelli was soon to be immersed. Van Vechten's and Stettheimer's ardent support of trans-Atlantic "Orientalist" visions of aesthetic pleasure registered with Minnelli as a way to transgress the social demands of virile and mechanical masculinity. The excess of visual aesthetic pleasure was (is) that jouissance that the functionalist modernists had lost in their rigor toward efficiency. Van Vechten and Stettheimer would leave their marks on, and yield to, Minnelli's cultural arena of the 1930s. Minnelli's leap into New York's cultural scene provided him with, at once (and these are linked), the pleasure of visual excess, and the opportunity to test and challenge his multiple questions of sexual and gender identity that any "queer" midwestern boy brings with him to the big city.
The contingent and discontinuous parameters of masculinity were nowhere more apparent than in New York. During the twenties, the city was rapidly gaining a reputation (not necessarily a bad one) for its "pansy" population, "drag balls" in Harlem, bohemians of Greenwich Village, and its supposed tolerance of decadent behavior in both the public and private spheres which many middle-class New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers endlessly enjoyed. New York, of course, also cradled an affluent (both creatively and financially) artist population. When Minnelli was finally brought to New York in 1931 he moved immediately into the Village where the promise for creative and personal tolerance could be sought. Minnelli (bedecked as a composite of Whistler and Beardsley), according to Esquire, was "the incarnation of our preconceived notion of a 'Village type:' flat black hat with a wide brim, loose collar and looser tie around his thin neck, a big portfolio of drawings under one arm and the cut of his long coat a triumphant marriage of Harlem and The Left Bank." Minnelli certainly dressed the part but he may very well have been somewhat disappointed with what was no longer the liberatory and bohemian Village he had once read about.
In his memoirs, Minnelli would look back at this move as his step to "greener pastures." But in the 1930s, New York was experiencing its own changes in its socio-political environment. While Repeal was inaugurated (December 1933), the Depression was sinking deeply into the New York economy. Jimmy Walker's graft-ridden, yet tolerant, city hall was out while La Guardia's upright moralism was in. The tolerance that queers, in particular, had once enjoyed during the 1920s was seriously on the wane. In fact, as George Chauncey argues, Repeal actually reinforced the regulation of social conditions and social order. The introduction of a diligent law to New York's cultural milieu served to oppress those already socially marginalized.
George Chauncey argues that the 1930s ushered in New York's attempt to morally recuperate itself by eliminating social unwants--especially "sexual perverts" and "social degenerates." With Repeal the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) was instituted to regulate places of ill repute. Sweeping raids took place at bars and restaurants especially where homosexuals were "known" to congregate. What is interesting about these raids is the way in which the SLA identified homosexuals. The SLA undercover agents searched for "their campy behavior (or, as the agents called it, their 'effeminacy'), their use of rouge or lipstick, their practice of calling each other by camp or women's names, the way they talked or the fact that they talked about the opera or other suspect topics, or other aspects of their dress or carriage" (Chauncey, 344). The "effeminate" creatures who were busted at these "known homosexual" bars were usually part of a lower or working class background. The queer middle-class, under this state reign of terror, were not only able to avoid being arrested but were the ones who were able to wear make-up, talk about opera, and "camp it up" across town at private and select cocktail parties. The satin-padded boundaries north of the Village and Times Square were filled with financially successful artists and theater folk who could afford to be "queer" within their protective and insular neighborhood.
This uptown milieu quickly became Minnelli's new coterie. His sudden dismissal in 1933 from Paramount Publix found him momentarily penniless and with rent due on his Village studio (he most likely recalled Whistler's remarks on the artist living well at this point). In what Minnelli recalls as a "deus ex machina," he was hired by Radio City Music Hall which provided him with a move uptown from "lower class" lower Manhattan to the swank uptown location on East 52nd Street where he would work and live for the next seven years. Hence his move couldn't have been more socially apposite as just west of Minnelli Van Vechten resided at 150 West 55th Street while Stettheimer dwelled at 182 West 58th Street. According to Chauncey,
...the streets of the East and West Fifties, "once given over to the homes of New York's wealthiest families," one observer noted in 1932, were "now filled with smart little shops, bachelor apartments, residential studios and fashionable speakeasies"(303).
This neighborhood in the early 1930s became the site for many successful writers and artists who "fled Greenwich Village" during its "decline." While the "pansies" and "fairies" caroused just south of the neighborhood in Times Square, the middle class "invert" spent time ("covertly") in the "elegant nightclubs" such as the Rainbow Room which sat high above in the Radio City Music Hall/Rockefeller Center complex (convenient for Minnelli's cocktail after one of those arduous and chaotic days at the Music Hall). Minnelli's social position (i.e. middle class, stage, and costume designer during the Depression) allowed him to participate in the haute-couture society and, in effect, exercise his "feminine traits" in otherwise hostile conditions for men who did not act masculine.
Once Minnelli began his work at Radio City his New York career was quickly set in motion. Nineteen-thirty three marked the moment that Minnelli became a public persona. By 1935, Minnelli's social circles were swirling with the glamour of such figures as George Balanchine, George and Ira Gershwin, painter and set designer Pavel Tchelitchev, Dorothy Parker, Edward Steichen, Paul Bowles, George Platt Lynes, and composer Kay Swift (who, according to Minnelli, named his salon on E. 53rd Street "The Minnellium"). In 1936, the Shubert Organization offered Minnelli a job as director and producer of their musical reviews. The Shubert press releases described his life as "gay, sophisticated, fantastic." His body and behavior were well recorded in the World Telegram, Vanity Fair and Esquire. Minnelli was known as "twenty-nine years old [his reported age ranged often around four years younger than he actually was], with black, carefully combed hair, brown eyes and agile hands." He was "versatile" and "handsome." He was also endearing as he was known for his shyness and gentle temperament; he understood the "value of the soft spoken word." His attraction to Whistler decidedly acted as one of "the dominant forces in his life," not only because of Whistler's "oils and etchings" but, following Whistler, Minnelli "[thought] best when riding in a hansom through Central Park"(Birnie, ibid.). He is the stroller of the urban street: "Mr. Minnelli is a great walker...not only in Central Park, but along Fourth Avenue, where the old bookstalls are, in rummage shops and out of the way places. Why, treasures abound in these odd shops. Old prints, pictures of the theatre of fifty years ago, even strange fabrics ...". Minnelli was presented as the dandy/aesthete and flâneur--the man about town who took pleasure in the historical debris of the city. He was certainly a contradictory figure in the age of streamlined American modernism.
But there must be an accounting for Minnelli's aesthetic and, thereby, unmanly preoccupations (not to mention his lack of a showgirl girlfriend). If he takes dance lessons at Arthur Murray's ("but he keeps them a secret from his pals"), he also "plays indoor tennis because it's the best exercise he can think of. He's anxious to keep fit. He shies from any activity that might be considered effeminate" (Birnie, ibid.). As far as marriage is concerned he "hasn't the time for courtship...he is too busy looking at girls in the aggregate to spend much time on the one and only girl." Undoubtedly, Minnelli and the Shubert press agents went to great lengths to prevent Minnelli being targeted as "effeminate" and, thereby, an "Oscar Wilde."
While at the Shubert's (right before he left to fulfill his brief, but lucrative, contract with Paramount Pictures in Hollywood as "musical director") Minnelli designed a scene for the production of The Show is On entitled "Jam Session" in which he employed the use of an eight by ten foot rear projection screen (Figure 3). This screen hung above the stage where revelers and musicians of a jazz nightclub were partying. On this screen was projected the close-up of a musician playing the trumpet. But the figure's head was not stationary. The image was a sort of hologram flashing and dissolving to the rapid rhythm of the music being played on stage. Minnelli (pre-figuring the charming Jeffrey Cordova in The Band Wagon (1953)) pointed to this scene in an article he wrote for Stage in September 1936 where his writing style suggests the cross-current of theatrical hyper-activity during production of The Show is On:
...Some radio scout should hear Hoagie [Carmichael] whistling, singing, and talking simultaneously into a telephone. He demonstrates a song with full orchestral effects including vibraphone and hot fiddle. All this to a running commentary on audience reaction, possible lyrics, and statistics on eventual sheet music sales...Another composer [enters]...I'm looking for a certain kind of tune for this number called Jam Session. The number opens in one...Oh, Lord, if I have to tell this story once more I'll start eating the straw off the floor.
In the bottom right hand corner of this article is Minnelli's sketch for "Jam Session." The caption reads: " 'Jam Session:' 1936! Hysteria! Harmonic interlude involving the madhouse tactics of the aggravated music of today." But this was not the only remark (and rendering) of "hysteria" which Minnelli discussed at this time. In an undated press release from the Shuberts a portion of a speech made by Minnelli to the "Fashion Group" is given:
The designers in the theatre today are at last on familiar ground. They are utterly in accord with their audience because their audience is part of the show. The barriers of foot-light and stage door have never been so nebulous. The theatre and life have at last decided to meet on common ground, and that common ground--let's face it--is madness. Never, I think, has satire in the theatre been so spirited--color so unrestrained, sophistication so genuine (Lambert).
It is clear at this point in his career that Minnelli saw himself ("the designer...on familiar ground")within the commingling and confusion of visual representation in the modern world. Of course, what is striking about his surrealist vision and disposition is that "theatre and life" are fraught with "madness" and "hysteria." In his later Hollywood films (both musicals and non-musicals) "hysteria" and "madness" are filtered through his brand of surrealism, popular culture, and decorative art that surfaced through the filmic frame precisely through those 'nebulous barriers' that allowed for this back and forth relationship between one's performance in the historical world and its visual representation. I would suggest that the hysteria of which Minnelli speaks is the heterosexual masculine hysteria over an aesthetic that confounds the terms for American masculinity and creativity. This is to say, an "aesthetic as homosexual" (to borrow Andrew Hewitt's phrase). As I have demonstrated, it was a hysteria to which he was so sensitive and to which he creatively responded.
In many a Minnellian cinematic case hyper-masculinized bodies are ironically placed within his over-aestheticized frame. In his MGM films, for example, Gene Kelly's virility is pressed against the soft Impressionism of Dufy in An American in Paris (1950) or the Firbankian world of The Pirate (1947), Robert Mitchum drowns in an over-aestheticized and masculinized house of cowboy boots, leather, and blood in Home From the Hill (1959), and young college studs nervously negotiate Minnelli's color patterns and dispersions in Tea and Sympathy (1956). Minnelli's aesthetic, his frenzied vision of creativity in theater and life, is unequivocally "spirited" and gives way to an aesthetics of "color so unrestrained, sophistication so genuine." Minnelli's body, placed within this social hysteria, became a discourse which was constructed by him and with the New York press which labeled, defined, and protected Minnelli as the quintessential aesthete/cultural producer of the musical revue. It was his years in New York that publicly and, thereby, corporeally marked the tension between masculinity and creativity that would inform Minnelli's body as it intersected with his stage and film work for the rest of his career. His dress, his demeanor, his body, his home and work place became aestheticized sites that articulated the cultivated body of Minnelli within and against the discourse of an efficient and modernist masculinity. His shyness, his artistic knowledge, his "agile hands," his "Chinese Red bathroom," his dance lessons would sit uncomfortably amidst the contemporary conditions of American masculinity. This aesthetic and discursive terrain would repeat itself and identify Minnelli for the next fifty years. It is through this historical queer modernist milieu, then, that one can begin to locate the multiple levels which serve as the (queer modernist) architectonics which Minnelli brought to the cinema.
to the editor