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 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 typically 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, Elizabeth Taylor, and Minnelli’s one-time bride, Judy Garland, delivered a few of their finest performances in the 1960s and 70s. 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 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 it has gained support from a few outspoken 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 E.S.P. or reincarnation 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 sixties. 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 hour of the film’s original footage before it was finally released in 1970. What remains of ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER is just a shadow of the movie Minnelli originally envisioned but it’s a glorious Technicolor shadow that leaves me wanting more.

This is a musical for those of us with wild imaginations and boundless curiosity. 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 extrasensory perception 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 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 completely 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 on 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 film’s 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 ways 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 reminding us of the story’s themes.

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 already begun. Some believe that Lerner’s persistent drug use was responsible for his interest in reincarnation, which 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. But 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 scriptwriting 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 sparked 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 backstories 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 also took a lot of attention away from the esoteric themes the films were exploring. As a result, 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.

Left: A scene Universal cut from The Mummy
Right: 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 well 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 extensive cuts that were made to the movie before it was released.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com on February 24, 2011