Vincente Minnelli (1903-1986)

Vincente Minnelli
Vincente Minnelli

Vincente Minnelli was a movie and stage director famous for his elegant and effervescent film musicals during the 1940's and 1950's, such as 'Meet Me in St Louis' in 1944, 'The Bandwagon' in 1953 and 'An American in Paris' in 1951. His fifty year career began as a designer for the Broadway theater before he moved on to Hollywood glory.

He was the husband of Judy Garland and the father of Liza Minnelli. As well as movie musicals he also successfully directed dramatic and comedic movies. He directed seven different actors in Oscar-nominated performances during the course of his career and he himself won a Best Director Oscar for 'Gigi' in 1958.


He was born Lester Anthony Minnelli in Chicago, Illinois on February 28, 1903, the fifth child of Vincent Charles Minnelli and Mina Le Beau, and the only child to survive infancy. In later life he adopted his father's name Vincent, adding an 'e' to make it sound more Latin.

His father's family were immigrants from Sicily and when he was a child his parents worked with his uncle as travelling musicians in a group called "Minnelli Brothers' Tent Theater". During the summer they toured the small communities to the south of Chicago, between Ohio and Illinois and young Lester got his first taste of show business by appearing in some of their productions. In the winter he used to stay with relatives in Delaware, Ohio whilst his parents took what work they could get in vaudeville. Eventually the family settled in Delaware where Minnelli's father began working as a freelance musician.

Design and Decoration

After graduating from High School, Lester went to stay with his grandmother in Chicago and began studying at the Chicago Art Institute to develop his growing interest in literature, art and theater. He took a part-time job as a window dresser in a department store which instilled in him a lifelong interest in costume design, color and decoration. He also made and sold backstage sketches of actors at the local theater. From there, with his new name of Vincente, he went to work as costume designer at the Chicago Theater for the Balaban and Katz Theater Corporation, later becoming their set designer as well.

As part of the series of mergers and takeovers which characterised the movie business in the 1920's, Balaban and Katz were taken over in 1926 by the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, later to become Paramount Pictures. Minnelli had established an excellent reputation during his time with them and he went with them when they moved to New York. Here his growing love of the theater and his obvious flair and eye for detail combined, and he began designing for the prestigious Earl Carroll review show 'Vanities'. Eventually his talent and hard work gained him the position of art-director for the Radio City Music Hall when it opened in 1932.

Broadway and Hollywood

In 1935 Minnelli progressed to directing with the musical revue, 'At Home Abroad' and the following year he was the scene and costume designer for 'Ziegfeld Follies of 1936'. Now established on Broadway it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling. He had one brief flirtation with Paramount in 1936, before finally finding his niche in 1940 in the famous Arthur Freed unit at MGM. The great studio of musicals and the future great director of musicals had at last found each other. Minnelli was to spend over two decades at MGM.

MGM 1940

Minnelli's learning curve was steep during his first years at MGM. Freed allowed him the freedom to spend time in every department of the studio and assigned him to work on musical numbers for several Busby Berkeley films including 'Strike up the Band' in 1940 and 'Babes on Broadway' the following year, both starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. In 1943 he was given the responsibility of his first full movie directorship with 'Cabin in the Sky', a musical with an all-black cast starring Ethel Waters and Lena Horne. The film was a success and was widely praised for its innovation and style. Vincente Minnelli had made his mark as a movie director.

His next film was 'Meet Me in St Louis' made in 1944, and it immediately established Minnelli's individual style with powerful, expressive colors and sweeping camera techniques. It was Judy Garland's first film as an adult actress and the year after it was made, she and Minnelli were married. She was the first of his four wives and their daughter, singer and actress, Liza Minnelli, was born in 1946.

There followed a golden period for Minnelli and for the MGM musical. After 'The Pirate' in 1948 which also starred Judy Garland, Minnelli directed the superb 'An American in Paris' in 1951, starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, which incorporated his love of fast-changing colors, modern art and innovative ballet. The film won six Oscars including Best Picture, and Minnelli was nominated for the Best Director Award. He directed more magnificent musicals such as 'The Band Wagon' in 1953 starring Fred Astaire, 'Brigadoon' in 1954, 'Kismet' in 1955 and 'Gigi' in 1958 with Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. 'Gigi' won nine Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Minnelli.

During this time Minnelli showed that he could also direct non-musical movies of high quality, with comedies such as 'Father of the Bride' in 1950 and 'Designing Woman' in 1957, and dramatic films such as 'The Bad and the Beautiful' in 1952, 'The Cobweb' in 1955, 'Lust for Life' in 1956 with Kirk Douglas as van Gogh and 'Home from the Hill' in 1960 starring Robert Mitchum.

The successful partnership between Minnelli and MGM ended in 1962, as the spectacular musical extravaganza which MGM had begun to make its own, gradually began to lose popularity. Minnelli formed his own production company, Venice Productions and continued to direct although in the new movie age of harsh reality his films after this time were not as well received as his earlier work.

Comedies such as 'The Courtship Of Eddie's Father' in 1963, starring Glenn Ford and 'Goodbye Charlie' the following year did not attract favorable reviews and even his musical 'On A Clear Day You Can See Forever', starring Barbra Streisand, which contained his trademark use of colorful sets and costumes, was not as successful as his MGM work. His last film, in 1976, 'A Matter Of Time' which starred his daughter, Liza Minnelli, was critically panned and he later tried to disown it saying the distribution company, American International Pictures, had taken control of the picture away from him.


During his time in New York during the 1930's Minnelli was known for wearing light makeup and he did not hide the fact that he was gay. However once he was established in Hollywood he had to repress this side of his life as none of the big studios, including his own employers, MGM, would countenance openly gay employees. An established way of hiding a gay lifestyle was to get married. Minnelli did this four times and fathered two children in the process.
His first wife was his most famous - Judy Garland. The two first met on the set of Strike up the Band' in 1940 and again during the making of 'Meet me in St Louis'. They married in 1945 and Liza Minnelli was born the following year. The couple did not have a conventional marriage. During filming of 'The Pirate' in 1948 Garland accused Minnelli of being in love with her co-star, Gene Kelly. She several times threatened her husband with suicide when she caught him "in flagrante" with men. She and Minnelli divorced in 1951.

In 1954 he married Georgette Magnani and the couple had one daughter, Christiana Nina. they divorced in 1958.

Minnelli's third marriage was to socialite Danica "Denise" Radosavljevic and lasted from 1962 to divorce in 1971. His fourth and last marriage was to Lee Anderson in 1980 and ended with his death.

Minnelli suffered from emphysema and was hospitalised several times with breathing difficulties during early 1986. He died of respiratory problems on July 25, 1986, at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, aged 83. He is interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

There is no doubt that Minnelli's vision and talent helped to change the Hollywood musical and change it for the better. During his heyday in the 1940's and 1950's he injected color and vitality into the form, and when we think of the bold MGM musicals of the period, it is the magical Minnelli movies with their wonderful sets, outstanding costumes and rich colors which spring to mind. We owe him a great debt.

Vincente Minnelli Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Director ... Gigi (1958)
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Director ... An American in Paris (1951)

Vincente Minnelli Filmography (as Director)

Panama Hattie (uncredited)
By Hook or by Crook
Cabin in the Sky
The Heavenly Body (uncredited)
Meet Me in St. Louis
Under the Clock
Ziegfeld Follies (segments)
Yolanda and the Thief
Till the Clouds Roll By (uncredited)
The Pirate
Madame Bovary
Father's Little Dividend
An American In Paris
Lovely to Look at (uncredited)
The Bad and the Beautiful
The Story of Three Loves (segment "Mademoiselle")
The Bandwagon
The Long, Long Trailer
The Cobweb
Lust for Life
Tea and Sympathy
Designing Woman
The Seventh Sin (uncredited)
The Reluctant Debutante
Some Came Running