Posted by Susan Doll on August 20, 2012
Today, the films of Anthony Quinn are spotlighted as part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. Lust for Life, one of my favorite movies featuring the earthy, expressive actor, airs this evening. However, this biopic of artist Vincent Van Gogh is not really Quinn’s movie. Nor is it star Kirk Douglas’s film, despite his intense, show-stopping performance. Instead, Lust for Life belongs to director Vincente Minnelli, who not only identified strongly with Van Gogh’s tortured life but also translated the artist’s techniques, palette, and compositions into cinematic equivalents. Minnelli was inspired and influenced by painters throughout his entire life career, from his days as a set dresser on Broadway to his years as one of MGM’s most talented directors. He filled notebooks with photos and illustrations of paintings, ornamentation, architectural details, and other imagery, which he used as references for set and costume design. He approached his work in Hollywood like an artist, and he strove to collapse the distance between fine and popular art. Alongside the 17-minute ballet at the end of An American in Paris, Lust for Life is his finest achievement in that regard.
The film was intended as an adaptation of Irving Stone’s 1934 novelization of Van Gogh’s life. MGM purchased the rights to the novel Lust for Life in 1946 with vague plans to turn it into a biopic starring Spencer Tracy. But, the studio didn’t seriously consider producing a film version until after John Huston’s dramatization of Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge, became a critical and popular hit in 1952. By the time MGM and Minnelli were ready for the film, it was 1955, and the studio had only nine months till the rights to the book ran out. Stone was not inclined to renew the rights, which meant that Minnelli and producer John Houseman were under considerable pressure to complete the film quickly. No one involved in the production was particularly impressed with Stone’s work, though they continued to promote the project as an adaptation. Scriptwriter Norman Corwin deleted some of Stone’s contrived devices, including an imaginary woman who served as a muse and foil for Van Gogh. Instead, Corwin turned to the letters between the artist and his brother, Theo, to drive the narrative. Once on location in Europe, Minnelli found Corwin’s depiction of Van Gogh’s experiences in Arles to be flat, and he reworked them with the help of another writer.
Minnelli interpreted Van Gogh’s life using two themes found in many of his films: (1) Van Gogh is portrayed as an outsider who is alienated from mainstream society by his creative impulses; (2) and, as an artist, Van Gogh is uncompromising in his commitment to his calling—to the exclusion of a happy family and the comforts of a normal life. According to biographers, Minnelli related to the artist’s emotional isolationism and the way he sought to escape life’s disappointments through rigorous creative activity. When he was involved with a film that he found worthy, he drove himself to the point of exhaustion to meet his creative vision. Ex-wife Judy Garland was one of the first to recognize Minnelli sublimated his internal struggles and neuroses through his work.
The narrative is divided into four phases: the early adult life of Van Gogh among the poor in the mining district of the Borinage; his recuperation from an illness in Holland; his brief stay in Paris where he met several Impressionist painters; and his years in the south of France, including his final days in a hospital in Auvers. Minnelli asked cinematographers Russell Harlan and Freddy Young (later David Lean’s go-to director of photography) to help him devise a separate color scheme for each phase. Three cinematographers worked on Lust for Life, including Joseph Ruttenberg who shot the wheat fields and landscapes around Arles. The first part of the film, which is set in the mining district of the Borinage, uses a dark color scheme of grays and browns. In the scenes in which Van Gogh is recuperating in the countryside of Holland, a cooler palette of greens and blues dominates. In Paris, when Van Gogh meets some of the Impressionist painters, reds and blues pop up in the production design. Yellows show up in the final section of the film after Van Gogh moves to the south of France. In his autobiography, I Remember It Well, Minnelli discusses the use of yellow in Van Gogh’s work. Based on the way that the sun, lamps, and other light sources were depicted in the paintings, Minnelli believed that the sun represented turmoil and torment for the artist. The color schemes in the four sections loosely echo Van Gogh’s own palette during each phase of his painting.
So instrumental were the color schemes to Minnelli that he informed MGM that he did not want to use Eastman Color film stock to shoot Lust for Life. Eastman Color had become the studio’s stock of choice during the 1950s, but Minnelli found that it did not adequately capture the subtleties of yellow. He cajoled MGM into allowing him to shoot with Ansco film stock, which had virtually been abandoned by the industry by 1955. MGM purchased the last reserve of Ansco stock for Lust for Life, and they persuaded the company to open a special lab to process the film for the duration of production.
In addition to referencing Van Gogh’s palette, Minnelli reworked the artist’s compositions into specific scenes in the film. In the first section, Van Gogh watches a peasant family at dinner, and the blocking of the characters matches the composition of The Potato Eaters. Later, the artist throws open his window on his first day in Arles to reveal rows of fruit trees in an orchard—a view recognizable in his painting The White Orchard. A composition that is repeated throughout the film shows Douglas as Van Gogh in the foreground painting one of the artist’s recognizable subjects visible in the background.
Minnelli wanted Van Gogh’s paintings, working methods, and style to permeate Lust for Life, so that the energy expended during scenes of the artist furiously painting were apparent in the art works themselves. Van Gogh’s actual paintings are shown throughout the film, usually as inserts in scenes of the artist working. The paintings had been photographed while Minnelli and his cinematographers were still in Europe. They photographed the paintings onto 8 by 10-inch plates. The plates were sent back to the studio in Hollywood, where they were set up on a table in the camera department at MGM. Transparencies of the plates were made, and during shooting, these transparencies were lit from behind and then photographed onto Ansco film. This process showed the paintings to their best advantage, even revealing the brushstrokes.
Shooting on location throughout France and Holland proved arduous, especially on a tight schedule. An exhausted Minnelli was sometimes contentious with Houseman and members of his crew. But, the director was at his happiest when in the throes of a film he believed had artistic merit. In his autobiography, he described his days of working on Lust for Life to be “the most thrilling and stimulating creative period of my life.”
Griffin, Mark. A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli. Philadelphia: DaCapo Press, 2010.
Levy, Emanuel. Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009.
Minnelli, Vincente. I Remember It Well. New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1974.
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