Vincente Minnelli’s Metaphysical Musical

I’ve been thinking about Vincente Minnelli’s films a lot lately. It started around the holidays after I caught one of my favorite Minnelli musicals, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), playing on TCM one evening. I’d seen the film many times before but I paid closer attention to the lush sets, beautiful costumes and meticulous staging. I became mesmerized by the bright pops of color and the unexpected ways that characters mingled with their environments. In the following weeks it seemed like Minnelli’s films were haunting me. In the past few months I’ve caught snippets of FATHER OF THE BRIDE (1950), THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952) and TEA AND SYMPATHY (1956) playing on television and I’ve been obsessively reading Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment edited by Joe McElhaney. Last week I decided to revisit another one of my favorite Vincente Minnelli films, his metaphysical musical ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (1970). The deceased director will be celebrating his 108th birthday on February 28th and I thought it would be as good a time as any to share a few of my thoughts about this vastly underrated film.

It’s not easy being an admirer of a movie that occasionally elicits eye-rolls and guffaws when it’s mentioned. According to many critics ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER is a complete disaster or an expensive failure (take your pick) and it confirms their belief that Minnelli had lost his magical touch late in life. But I don’t fall in line with that way of thinking. I just can’t agree with the commonplace assumption that the later work of many Golden Age directors as well as actors doesn’t live up to their earlier efforts. Filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and John Huston made some of their greatest movies during their twilight years and I happen to think actors like Bette Davis and Minnelli’s one-time bride, Judy Garland, delivered a few of their finest performances in the 1960s. So it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that I believe ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER is one of Vincente Minnelli’s most interesting films. Thankfully I’m not alone in my appreciation. The movie does have a small cult following and in recent years the film’s gained support from a number of critics.

The musical’s extraordinary premise involves a young college girl named Daisy (Barbra Streisand) who exhibits signs of E.S.P. or Extra Sensory Perception. When her habitual chain-smoking threatens to disrupt an important dinner party she’s attending with her fiancé (Larry Blyden), Daisy decides to ask a school psychiatrist (Yves Montand) to help her overcome her nicotine addiction. The psychiatrist agrees to hypnotize Daisy but during her hypnosis sessions something unprecedented happens. She suddenly begins recalling her past life as a 19th-century British aristocrat by the name of Lady Melinda who also happens to have more advanced E.S.P. abilities. Naturally the psychiatrist is startled by Daisy’s odd behavior and he considers the possibility of reincarnation but he keeps this discovery to himself. As the film plays out the psychiatrist begins to fall in love with Daisy’s past incarnation as Lady Melinda, while the naïve Daisy falls head over heels for her doctor. Things don’t come to a particularly happy end and the film never makes a strong case for or against reincarnation or E.S.P. but this thought-provoking tale of two would-be (or will be?) star-crossed lovers does include some wonderful musical numbers written by previous Minnelli collaborator, Alan Jay Lerner (AN AMERICAN IN PARIS; 1951) and Burton Lane, noteworthy production design by John DeCuir (CLEOPATRA; 1963) and some spectacular costume designs created by the renowned Cecil Beaton (MY FAIR LADY; 1964) in association with fashion designer Arnold Scaasi. How spectacular are the costumes in this film? They easily rival Beaton’s Oscar winning work in MY FAIR LADY and might very well be the finest costume designs featured in any film made during the ‘60s. Unfortunately we’ll never really know if that’s just a wild declaration on my part or the undeniable truth because many of the designer’s finest creations ended up on the cutting room floor. In fact, executives at Paramount cut an estimated 60 minutes of the film’s original footage before they finally released the film in 1970. What remains of ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER is just a shadow of the movie Vincente Minnelli originally made but it’s a glorious Technicolor shadow that leaves me wanting more.

Top: Some of the costumes that made it into the film
Bottom: Costumes that ended up on the cutting-room floor

This is a musical for the imagination. It doesn’t rely on a contrived plot or a typical Hollywood ending to tell its story. We’re given a window into two worlds; the modern world where Streisand plays a kooky college student trying to stake out her independence and the historic past set in Regency England where the actress plays a social climbing seductress who uses her E.S.P. to get ahead in life. Playing two completely different roles in the same film couldn’t have been easy but Streisand manages them both effortlessly and her performance is complemented by Vincente Minnelli’s camera. Few directors know how to shoot the female form as well as Minnelli and Barbra Streisand has never looked as beautiful as she does in ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER. Minnelli’s camera absolutely adores her. It encircles the actress like a lover at times and lingers on every curve of her body but it also knows when to rest on her big blue eyes and accent her trademark nose.

Complaints about the film often revolve around the lack of chemistry between Streisand and her male lead, the dashing and much older Yves Montand. But if you’re expecting sparks to fly when these two are in the same room together you’re misunderstanding the entire premise of the film. These characters are not meant to like each other. As a matter of fact, Montand is supposed to find Streisand rather unappealing and Minnelli stresses this fact over and over again by the way he chooses to frame his stars when they’re together. Over time Montand’s character comes to appreciate Streisand’s Daisy more and learns a little bit about himself as well as his own biases in the process but ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER is not your typical Hollywood romance. This unconventional musical is based around the idea of reincarnation and hints that both of the film’s flawed stars will have to live through a few more lifetimes before they’re ready to experience true love together. Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, I think the film’s unusual take on human relationships is what makes it so darn interesting and Minnelli’s execution of these ideas is amazing to behold.

In the films spectacular opening sequence we’re introduced to the appropriately named “Daisy” through her own eyes as she’s watching her rooftop garden blossom and grow. Then she suddenly appears in the college’s botanical gardens and sings her way right into the movie. From the moment the film starts we’re told that this is a tale about human growth. About the way we change due to our experiences as well as our encounters with various people we meet along this strange journey called life. Minnelli has always been fond of shooting bouquets and his decision to use stop-motion photography that highlights the beauty of the blossoming flowers was one of the director’s most inspired choices. This colorful beginning that leads into the psychedelic title sequence is just one of the film’s many highlights and the flower motif reappears again and again throughout the film.

ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER was originally planned as a three hour long “Roadshow” style musical similar to THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) and FUNNY GIRL (1968). These lavish productions opened in a limited number of theaters before they were released nationwide and contained an intermission so audiences could stretch their legs and visit concession stands. But problems on the set began to manifest almost immediately. The studio was quickly getting cold feet after the disappointing box office return for HELLO DOLLY! (1969) and didn’t want to take a chance on another expensive roadshow featuring Barbra Streisand. There were also early problems with casting. Richard Harris was originally set to star opposite Streisand but the two didn’t get along and more serious problems plagued screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner. Lerner was reportedly battling an amphetamine addiction, which led him to make obsessive changes to the script after shooting had begun. Some believe that Lerner’s persistent drug use was responsible for his interest in reincarnation and inspired him to write ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER but I believe that the film’s roots reach much further back and can be traced to the horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1930s and ’40s.

ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER began life as a Broadway production written by Lerner. The screenwriter had won multiple awards for his work on celebrated musicals like GIGI (1958), CAMELOT (1967) and Vincente Minnelli’s AN AMERICAN IN PARIS so it’s not a surprise that Paramount expressed interest in adapting ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER for the screen. Interestingly enough, Lerner’s original play wasn’t entirely his own creation. It was loosely based on the 1929 play Berkeley Square, which was written by another acclaimed screenwriter, John L. Balderston. Fans of classic Universal horror films should recognize Balderton’s name. His impressive list of script writing credits included DRACULA (1931), FRANKENSTEIN (1931), THE MUMMY (1932), BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), MAD LOVE (1935), DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936), THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940) and GASLIGHT (1944) as well as an Oscar nominated film adaptation of BERKELEY SQUARE (1933). Balderston obviously had a penchant for fantasy and BERKELEY SQUARE tells the story of a man who manages to travel back in time to inhabit the body of one of his long dead ancestors.

Balderston’s tale was inspired by an unfinished Henry James novel but it also contains fictional elements that can be found in the writer’s work for Universal. The torment of unrequited love and the possibility of reincarnation or reanimation after death were topics that Balderston explored again and again in the horror films he worked on. You can make a particularly startling comparison of THE MUMMY with ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER. Both films deal with similar ideas about reincarnation and they were both butchered by the studios before they were released. The films originally contained more extensive back stories for their female stars which focused on their past lives and allowed for some incredible costume changes. It’s impossible not to speculate about why studios like Paramount or Universal would waste huge amounts of money on wardrobes that never made it into the final film. The extensive cuts that these films suffered took a lot of attention away from the esoteric themes that were being explored. I have to assume that the material made a few studio executives nervous but other cuts just seem ill-advised and pointless. Fans can only hope that someone will uncover the lost footage for ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER as well as THE MUMMY someday so we can finally see these films as they were originally intended to be seen. But even with extensive cuts, both films would make for an interesting double feature.

Top: Example of one scene Universal cut from The Mummy
Bottom: A scene Paramount cut from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever

Vincente Minnelli’s metaphysical musical is currently available to watch on Netflix but the Paramount DVD has gone out-of-print. Minnelli’s work deserves better than that. Hopefully a smart company like Criterion will take on the challenging task of restoring and releasing ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER in the future. It’s a film that’s worth reconsidering and I think it will find modern audiences much more appreciative of its quirky charm.

To learn more about the troubled production history of ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER I highly recommend visiting The Barbra Streisand Archives. Site owner Matt Howe has done an incredible job of detailing the the extensive cuts that were made to the movie before it was released.

22 Responses Vincente Minnelli’s Metaphysical Musical
Posted By Tweets that mention TCM Movie Morlocks Vincente Minnelli’s Metaphysical Musical — Topsy.com : February 24, 2011 7:50 pm

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Posted By Tweets that mention TCM Movie Morlocks Vincente Minnelli’s Metaphysical Musical — Topsy.com : February 24, 2011 7:50 pm

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Posted By suzidoll : February 24, 2011 8:10 pm

My cousin, who was several years older than me, took me to see this when I was a little kid. I remember her husband making fun of us because we liked movies in which people “broke out into song at the most ridiculous times.” We didn’t care. We both loved it; it helped make me such a big fan of musicals.

Posted By suzidoll : February 24, 2011 8:10 pm

My cousin, who was several years older than me, took me to see this when I was a little kid. I remember her husband making fun of us because we liked movies in which people “broke out into song at the most ridiculous times.” We didn’t care. We both loved it; it helped make me such a big fan of musicals.

Posted By lisaem : February 24, 2011 10:48 pm

One of my best friends was a big Streisand fan and I certainly remember watching this movie and also our treks to Hollywood bookstores to buy Streisand photos, including many from the movie because it was so beautiful and unusual.

There was just such a hate on for musicals at that time, and this is a strange one, definitely. I also think fans of the Broadway show weren’t thrilled with Streisand getting the lead. That was pretty much standard Hollywood practice for ever, of course.

I like the time travel-theme similarities you point out — fascinating!

I had the soundtrack to this, too, long ago. You are so right — time for a revisit and a revival and a reconstruction of this one!

Great post, Kimberly!

Posted By lisaem : February 24, 2011 10:48 pm

One of my best friends was a big Streisand fan and I certainly remember watching this movie and also our treks to Hollywood bookstores to buy Streisand photos, including many from the movie because it was so beautiful and unusual.

There was just such a hate on for musicals at that time, and this is a strange one, definitely. I also think fans of the Broadway show weren’t thrilled with Streisand getting the lead. That was pretty much standard Hollywood practice for ever, of course.

I like the time travel-theme similarities you point out — fascinating!

I had the soundtrack to this, too, long ago. You are so right — time for a revisit and a revival and a reconstruction of this one!

Great post, Kimberly!

Posted By lisaem : February 25, 2011 10:11 am

Let me also second your recommendation of Matt Howe’s wonderful site. I just spent some time going over the section on this movie and it’s heartbreaking how it was trimmed. This film definitely needs a reincarnation!

Posted By lisaem : February 25, 2011 10:11 am

Let me also second your recommendation of Matt Howe’s wonderful site. I just spent some time going over the section on this movie and it’s heartbreaking how it was trimmed. This film definitely needs a reincarnation!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 25, 2011 4:10 pm

Suzi – It’s always funny when people point out how ridiculous that musicals are with their “sudden bursts of song.” As if giant monsters, alien invasions, apocalyptic scenarios, and countless other movie storylines are just perfectly normal and acceptable but breaking out into song isn’t. So silly! I love a good musical.

lisaem – Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I love Streisand’s films from the ’60s and ’70s. I’m always baffled when people point to HELLO DOLLY! as one of the musicals that broke the studio system because I adore that movie. But I think its failure at the box office had a lot to do with the political climate, changing tastes, etc. The end of the ’60s was an incredibly turbulent time in America and these lavish roadshow style musicals seemed to represent decadence and waste to people who were eager to see more earthy stories or films like EASY RIDER (which I also love!) that dealt with the problems facing the country, etc. And I’m glad you made time to visit that Streisand site! It’s a terrific tribute to the actress and he’s done a wonderful job of detailing all the cuts that were made to ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER. I really hope the film can be restored (and reincarnated!) some day.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 25, 2011 4:10 pm

Suzi – It’s always funny when people point out how ridiculous that musicals are with their “sudden bursts of song.” As if giant monsters, alien invasions, apocalyptic scenarios, and countless other movie storylines are just perfectly normal and acceptable but breaking out into song isn’t. So silly! I love a good musical.

lisaem – Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I love Streisand’s films from the ’60s and ’70s. I’m always baffled when people point to HELLO DOLLY! as one of the musicals that broke the studio system because I adore that movie. But I think its failure at the box office had a lot to do with the political climate, changing tastes, etc. The end of the ’60s was an incredibly turbulent time in America and these lavish roadshow style musicals seemed to represent decadence and waste to people who were eager to see more earthy stories or films like EASY RIDER (which I also love!) that dealt with the problems facing the country, etc. And I’m glad you made time to visit that Streisand site! It’s a terrific tribute to the actress and he’s done a wonderful job of detailing all the cuts that were made to ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER. I really hope the film can be restored (and reincarnated!) some day.

Posted By lisaem : February 25, 2011 7:04 pm

Kimberly, interesting you mention “Hello Dolly” because I’ve seen bits of it lately on pay-TV — a lot of interesting movies are finally out of syndication and back on Pay TV, where I sample lots of things — and it is beautifully done and charming. There’s obviously still power and emotion in musicals and their music, as “Wall E” used to great effect.

Definitely doesn’t seem like anything that should might have come out of the ’60s, though. I also watched “Star!” on TCM the other day…just the wrong time for movies like that.

A lot of well-made films were swept away in the youth revolution, weren’t they?

All the photos you posted were incredibly lovely, too! Truly, they don’t make them like that anymore! I mean — Cecil Beaton? Amazing!

Posted By lisaem : February 25, 2011 7:04 pm

Kimberly, interesting you mention “Hello Dolly” because I’ve seen bits of it lately on pay-TV — a lot of interesting movies are finally out of syndication and back on Pay TV, where I sample lots of things — and it is beautifully done and charming. There’s obviously still power and emotion in musicals and their music, as “Wall E” used to great effect.

Definitely doesn’t seem like anything that should might have come out of the ’60s, though. I also watched “Star!” on TCM the other day…just the wrong time for movies like that.

A lot of well-made films were swept away in the youth revolution, weren’t they?

All the photos you posted were incredibly lovely, too! Truly, they don’t make them like that anymore! I mean — Cecil Beaton? Amazing!

Posted By lisaem : February 25, 2011 7:04 pm

Oops…lisaem is Medusa! Hi!

Posted By lisaem : February 25, 2011 7:04 pm

Oops…lisaem is Medusa! Hi!

Posted By Benjamin : February 25, 2011 9:27 pm

I would LOVE to see this film restored to Mr. Minelli’s original vision for it. I think it’s a wonderful film, Barbra is wonderful in the role, so funny and she sounds and looks amazing.

It would be really amazing ( Hint hint: Barbra and Liza) if someone would take the time and $$ that is necessary to reincarnate this wonderful work of art!!

Posted By Benjamin : February 25, 2011 9:27 pm

I would LOVE to see this film restored to Mr. Minelli’s original vision for it. I think it’s a wonderful film, Barbra is wonderful in the role, so funny and she sounds and looks amazing.

It would be really amazing ( Hint hint: Barbra and Liza) if someone would take the time and $$ that is necessary to reincarnate this wonderful work of art!!

Posted By David Del Valle : March 6, 2011 2:38 pm

What an inspried and insightful post! I read it with a knowing eye regarding THE MUMMY and the lost footage. I had interviewed Zita Johann regarding this ages ago and my encounter with ON A CLEAR DAY has always been one of not really seeing a complete print even though I saw it the day it came out. I only knew of the cuts involving Jack Nicholson’s character. This of course brings up Minelli’s last film A MATTER OF TIME which also is in need of restoration. Bravo! you have made me waht to see this one again.

Posted By David Del Valle : March 6, 2011 2:38 pm

What an inspried and insightful post! I read it with a knowing eye regarding THE MUMMY and the lost footage. I had interviewed Zita Johann regarding this ages ago and my encounter with ON A CLEAR DAY has always been one of not really seeing a complete print even though I saw it the day it came out. I only knew of the cuts involving Jack Nicholson’s character. This of course brings up Minelli’s last film A MATTER OF TIME which also is in need of restoration. Bravo! you have made me waht to see this one again.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 7, 2011 5:05 pm

Thanks so much, David! I’m glad you found my post interesting. I hoped it might spark some interest from classic horror fans because I think the connection between Minnelli’s film and Balderston’s work is pretty interesting. I appreciate your feedback a lot.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 7, 2011 5:05 pm

Thanks so much, David! I’m glad you found my post interesting. I hoped it might spark some interest from classic horror fans because I think the connection between Minnelli’s film and Balderston’s work is pretty interesting. I appreciate your feedback a lot.

Posted By Sara Schwartz : April 19, 2011 10:28 am

For more on how Minnelli’s “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever” was chopped up by Paramount prior to release, check out Mark Griffin’s new biography “A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli.” The book goes into a lot of detail about what happened to this film and also Minnelli’s “A Matter of Time.”

Posted By Sara Schwartz : April 19, 2011 10:28 am

For more on how Minnelli’s “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever” was chopped up by Paramount prior to release, check out Mark Griffin’s new biography “A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli.” The book goes into a lot of detail about what happened to this film and also Minnelli’s “A Matter of Time.”

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