Mid-July 1955, 889 years after the Battle of Hastings, the townspeople of Auvers, a one-steepled, overgrown tarry town near Paris, woke up to a spanking, hand lettered, red-white-and-blue poster festooned across the front of the cafe A Van Gogh:
LA METRO GOLDWYN MAYER
invites all people who
desire to figure in the
scenes that she’ll make
WEDNESDAY AUGUST 3
(all day before the townhall of Auvers)
to sign up as soon as
possible with Mr. Tagliana
cafe A VAN GOGH”
men and lady figurants
will receive 1500F a day
children will receive 500F
Costumes shall be furnished by
M G M
More ads came out in local papers offering 1ooo francs apiece for live crows, and a few days later red arrows marked XXX appeared around town, one pointing into the schoolhouse, another pointing up to the I2th-i3th-i6th century church, another XXX pointing around the church, over the bluff and XXX across the wheat fields toward the little cemetery where Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theodore are buried.
Near the end of July farmers and kids were out catching crows with gluesticks, and on Friday, July 29, the MGM hon romped into town: camera trucks, generators, searchlights, cranes, wind machines, field offices, field kitchen, wardrobe trucks—more than 35 units. The villagers, with stools and sausages, gawked as the caravan XXX’d slowly down Avenue General de Gaulle and columned left into the playground of the schoolhouse next to the cafe.
Offices were set up in the schoolhouse and back room of the cafe, where an 1894 wind-up phone was put at Minnelli’s disposal and a trunk line run in from Culver City, California. Kirk Douglas alighted from his shiny new trailer ($2,200) and rambled about town shaking off village curs and Art Buchwald of the New York Herald Tribune, European edition.
Cameras were set up in the cafe and Douglas made Coming Attraction “trailers” with an alleged Mile. Ravoux, whose parents had owned the cafe when Mr van Gogh lived there. She had known Mr van Gogh when she was only so high; she and the other kids used to tag along when he paint- ed in the nearby fields. Mr Douglas was his spitting image, all righty. (Mr Taghliana, the present owner of the cafe, felt left out and went around claiming he bought the cafe from another Mile. Ravoux who lives in Southern France.)
Douglas had his head in a sling and finally explained to reporters that the film was beginning at the end of van Gogh’s life and van Gogh had just cut off a piece, only a little piece, of his ear, but that the self-portrait with the bandage had been done using a mirror which made everyone think he’d cut off the other ear, but no, it had been this ear and just a little piece at that, but because he had painted himself in a mirror, everyone thought ...
Minnelli, a nice carefully-spoken man, beamed approval. He seemed due for another reputation film, something to stand beside Ziegfeld Follies, An American in Paris and The Bandwagon—perhaps even go Huston’s Moulin Rouge a few licks better. Lust For Life was going to get on the inside of a man and his art in a way that Huston never dreamed of. This was going to be a superlative movie. Let the doubters doubt; let the laughers hee haw; it was a great subject. Granted Lautrec was an easier box office touch than van Gogh: Lautrec was blacksheep, runaway nobility—a dwarf, physically set apart from his fellowmen, whereas van Gogh was a pretty husky chap. What’s more, Lautrec was a gogetter with a trade, poster making, whereas van Gogh, what could you say about him? Vincent van Gogh: a sponge, a nobody painter of nobodies—a sponge by his own admission.
Well. But this Vincent was what is known as a great painter, a great one. That boy could make your ears wiggle. And it was a good thing, too, he happened to be such a painter or his life would have been a pretty sorry circus. Cutting off his ear like that. But he had been a great painter: that was the gimmick. Still ... if the audience missed that point, or, worse, if they didn’t care, what then? what was left? This was no doubt just why Minnelli had been given the job. It was up to him to make the palette palatable. He had restraint:
“Why wish to condemn ’mannerism’ in the cinema when we allow it in the other arts? Like the minor painters of the Italian Renaissance, Minnielli seduces us with the finesse of his touch, the discreet elegance of his palette, the dream-like interpretation of his backgrounds:... if from a scene we retain only a lingering impression of two green gloves before a blurred red vista, what matter? A man of taste, when so clever a technician, should succeed in convincing us that good taste takes the place of everything.”
Cahiers du Cinema, Christinas Issue, 1955
In Spite of Minnelli’s merits and the confidence which MGM must have felt in him to let him pack off for Europe like that, Culver City was keeping its scissors crossed. After all, it was one thing to have a story and another thing to have one. A movie is born in its copy, but behind the alliterative wrinkles of the film’s promotion lies a bald concern with just what kind of a story the van Gogh story was.
OF THE MONTH
“Lust For Life” is the story of the great sensualist painter Vincent van Gogh who bounds through the pages and passions of Irving Stone’s perennial bestseller. And this is the Van Gogh overwhelmingly brought before us by Kirk Douglas in M-G-M’s film version, shot in CinemaScope and a sunburst of color on the actual sites of Van Gogh’s struggles to feel feelings never felt before.
(Two-tone drawing of Vincent attacking a model)
Above all others, this man is the passionate exemplar not only of the artist born ahead of his time but of the lover who loves not wisely but too well. Kirk Douglas has never before given so remarkably real a performance.
“Lust For Life” overflows with vivid flesh-and-blood portraits. Van Gogh’s violent friend Gauguin is explosively created by Anthony Quinn. His faithful brother Theo and the faithless Christine are consumately etched by British stars James Donald and Pamela Brown. Director Vincente Minnelli, producer John Houseman, scenarist Norman Corwin have indeed made “Lust For life” a must for everyone.
For they have sent tumbling toward us, in a steady stream of primary color and emotion, the whole tempestuous truth of a career that vibrated from the black coal pits and sky blues of Holland to the voluptuous yellows of Aries and the red and ready lips of Moulin Rouge and Montmartre... from genteel ladies he frightened away to women of the Paris streets in whose dark souls only a Van Gogh could find the sun.
Here is the historic episode of the severed “Ear”. Here is the wild proposal to the woman whose “No! No! Never!” spilled like acid across his youth. Here is the gaucherie and greatness of one who clutched life to his breast as if to crush both it and him.
The ad winds up with an appeal to Americans to put aside lowbrow qualms and highbrow heir-splitting—
Some say Van Gock. Some say Van Guff. Some say Van Go. We say—simply and sincerely—Go!
The pronunciation of van Gogh’s name had been a thorny question since the film’s inception. A compromise was made; it was decided to change the pronunciation according to the country where the scenes were to take place: Van Go in France, Van Gock in Holland, Van Guff in Culver City.
There were other problems not so easily settled, and over the week-end Minnelli came and went between Paris and Auvers, everywhere and nowhere, seeing people, nice people like Gene Kelly, who dropped in to wish him luck, and re- seeing people like the son of Dr. Gachet, the doctor who cared for van Gogh at Auvers. You’d suppose that the son would take a lively interest in the film, perhaps model as his father, or at least let MGM make use of his fat collection of van Goghs. But the son was one of these unimaginative casuists who simply ask “why?”. He promised not to sue, but, adamant, he would have no part of what he seemed to feel was a base design.
Others in the town collaborated warmly with the project. Mr. Tagliana, the cafe owner, foresaw a boom in the tourist trade, and strutted around smoking heavy Bandwagon cigars while the grips (movie stagehands) tackled his cafe with the zeal of a vice-squad, carting off peanut machines and coke boxes, antiquing the bar, disposing of bottles with vintage dates, changing the lights, tables, wallpaper—all under the direction of la MGM’s art historians. Tagliana confessed him- self an art lover, but seemed unacquainted with the temporal nature of movie props; he said he thought he’d just leave everything as they left it and start a jimdandy museum.
The townhall across from the cafe had remained pretty much as van Gogh had painted it, except for the air raid sirens in the belfrey. These were fixed for the picture to look like bells. Trees were planted around the village square, pennants strung, cobblestones rolled out on Avenue General If de Gaulle and everything made ready for the big pay-off scenes leading up to the Go—kid’s death.
Monday, August 1. ’Twas brillig, and the company XXX’d out to the wheat field for set rehearsal. The farmer who owned the field saw la MGM coming and threatened to harvest, hut premium was paid for the wheat and the grips got busy plowing up paths and giving the grass a Toni so it all looked like van Gogh’s painting, except for the crows. The crows—about 100,000 francs worth—were being kept in a big cage in the middle of the field and, just for the exercise, budgetman Kaplan, a short, dark, broad-shouldered man, took Minnelli and Freddy Young, the British Director of Photography, out to count them again. Crows were out of season and Pierrot (Pierre Roudeix, Fr., Propman) had the cage covered with blankets and was hand-feeding the scarce black things.
The group went over to see how Claude was doing. Claude (Claude Garaches, Fr.) had been hired to copy parts of van Gogh’s paintings so Douglas could be shown polishing them off. Claude had taken over the job from Harry, a New York boy fresh out of art school. Harry, who had been flown over with the company, had lost his van Gogh touch at the last minute but Hans Peters had beaten the back yards of the Beaux Arts in Paris and found Claude. Claude really had the old stroke, and had worked up three or four wheat fields, some with crows, some without.
After kibitzing on Claude, Minnelli and Freddy Young, a toboggan-faced man with hornrims, set about spotting the cameras, a process in which the Director uses a small spyglass which frames the image to be seen by the camera lens. Minnelli went crouching around, squinting this way and that like a Gilbert and Sullivan pirate, while Sir Frederick followed along, counselling haste and nervously checking cloud speed through an amber polarized lorgnette. The sky was scattered with cloud-flak but everyone hoped shooting could begin in the afternoon.
Whenever Minnelli found a good angle for the camera, he’d freeze like a pointer while a cameraman dropped a chalk from the end of the spyglass, marked the spot and measured the height of the spyglass. The field was monotonously flat, and for variety, Minnelli called for a parallel, an adjustable platform used to elevate the camera. (Young called it a rostrum in relaying the order. This and other differences in nomenclature led to some confusion the first few days.) A parallel/rostrum was erected and Minnelli and Young climbed up, contriving to look very opera-boxy. More Ahabing around from the rostrum/parallel with Young getting more and more nervous. He felt rain, he said.
Enough spots were finally marked, lines drawn connecting them, camera elevations graphed, and tracks laid down for the dolly, a cart on which the camera is mounted for following the actors. (British term: velocilator.)
While the cameras were being set up everyone took ten, and the Le Dilhuit brothers, respectively Catering Man and Canteen Director, came around with the chuck-wagon and served alligator sandwiches, love-apple salad and cold veal, a last meal before the outdoor death scene.
During the break Minnelli got out his attache’s case and started going over reproductions of the painting with Hans Peters, the Art Director. Peters had gotten off lightly in Picture, Lillian Ross’s account of the making of The Red Badge of Courage, and everyone eyed him warily. After talking with Peters, Minnelli took up the spyglass again. Young looked incredulous, but was beginning to see: Minnelli planned to frame certain van Gogh paintings exactly so that pictures of the paintings themselves could be smoothly spliced in later. He went about planting poppies, patting down divots, arranging lusty bits of color, etc., assisted by Peters, Assistant Director Andre Smagghe, and four or five grips. There were no props in the field where van Gogh might commit suicide so Minnelli and the carpenter went over to see the farmer about buying a tree. They came back a while later with a dwarfish, white-barked apple tree that had a devaricated trunk which Minnelli seemed to feel especially proud of. Young had to agree it was a splendid Specimen indeed. The tree was propped up since it was too short to be planted and a deep hole was dug beside it to plant Douglas so he could crotch himself naturally ready to end his denatured existence on celluloid.
While the tree was being dusted with pigment, Pierrot came puffing through the rye shouting incoherently: the crows were killing each other! A dozen were already dead. Impossible! And it began to rain.
And it rained. The sun came out every so often, just enough to keep the crew on stand-by. And it rained Tuesday: intermittent showers and low meter readings. Every few hours a weather report from Le Bourget airport and a crow count came in from Pierrot. Neither report was encouraging, doom at the wheat field, which was becoming a regular Mudville.
Wednesday, village extras were given a rain check on the fair and shooting went ahead in the wheat field in spite of a shifty-looking sky. There were some two dozen crows left, but Young guaranteed Minnelli that with a wide camera frame no one would be able to count them. Kaplan, who is a hand with birds (rumour had it that he began as a propman), showed each grip how to put his crow asleep until the moment to throw: you tuck its black head under its black wing and you rock it.
Minnelli: Now I want all you boys to all come over here: Andre, please translate. Andre; ... Where’s Smog? Andre!
Andre: Me voici, Mr. Minnelli.
Minnelli: Andre—here, take it; good for the old foie— Andre, I want you to tell all those people to come over here by the camera. I want the head grip to look in the camera viewfinder so he can tell them where to throw their crows; we can’t waste any crows out of the camera frame. I’d like them to throw their crows right at Kirk. I’ll give another cigar to every man who hits him.
Andre: You mean they can let go of the strings, Mr. Minnelli?
Minnelli: Just translate, Andre, and tell that grip to snuff his cigar. That wheat is dry.
The grips crawled off. Douglas, fatted for the kill, was found out near the company thunderbox and brought back to the easel. Minnelli waited for a little white cloud to get in the right place, then gave the order to roll ’em. Speed! Slate! —snap, crackle, pop: the wheat began tossing wildly and four or five tarballs blooped out and flopped back down again at the end of their strings. The grips stood up; they couldn’t wake up their crows, they protested. Buckets of water were brought, the crows dunked and the grips went crawling off again.
Slate (July 27, 1890). Douglas flails his arms about, muttering over and over, “S’impossible—S’impossible—” then dabs in the flying cigars and lurches over to the apple tree where he sinks into his foxhole and fumbles for his final solution. Leaning ever so ozzily in the tree-crotch, ’poco-molto’, slowly he turns, drawing a down-beat thumbbuster pistol Gauguin gave him from his pocket.
Down fell the apple-tree, snap went the devaricated branch and a disappointed office-seeker from the village whooped that the cigar-seeded wheat was on fire.
Minnielli panned the horizon where his little white cloud had been replaced by a squid-like black one. The cloud, like those that arise from Europe in the Chicago Tribune political cartoons, was labeled DOUBT ...
In the Penal Colony
“You boil it in sawdust; yow sail it in glue:
You condense it with locusts and tape:
Still keeping one principal object in view—
To preserve its symmetrical shape.”
—The Hunting of the Snark
While Minnelli, out in the field, was busy holding nature up to the mirror, back at the Culver City studio Mr. John Arnold, Executive Director of Photography for MGM, grappled with the hydra-headed problem of photographing the paintings into emotive Cinemascope.
For Mr. Arnold, “Lust For Life” was an 8000-foot clothes line on which to hang the paintings of a great (Dutch) painter:
“When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer first considered Lust For Life, based on the life of the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, the most challenging problem posed was how to reproduce on the screen in the CinemaScope format the many Van Gogh paintings essential to the story. Even more important was the problem of how we were to bring these paintings to the screen with all the richness of texture and the fidelity of color for which Van Goghs are famous.
“As the story unfolds, Van Gogh, played by Kirk Dougles (sic), is shown almost constantly in the process of turning out a canvas, a charcoal or an etching. The studio believed that interest in the story would be heightened considerably if (1) original Van Gogh paintings could be shown; and (2) reproduced on the screen with such vividness and fidelity as to arouse the admiration of art patrons and nonpatrons alike; and (3) if the photography could be made flexible enough to permit moving in the camera for closeups of certain details of a painting whenever desired.
“And here is the package of problems which the achievement of all this might involve: the essential Van Gogh paintings are scattered all over the world—in private homes and in museums—which would make it necessary for a CinemaScope camera crew to spend well over two years just to photograph them, assuming that permission to photograph them with a motion picture crew could be obtained. It was quite obvious that this procedure would prove both impractical and too costly. Also, it was felt that many owners of Van Gogh paintings would strongly object to our bringing into their homes or museums the lighting and camera equipment that motion picture photography would require.”
Mr. John Arnold, A.S.C.,
“A New Method of Insert Photography”
from American Cinematographer, January, 1956
Mr. Arnold got off to a good start in solving his problem. He decided to make handy 8” X 10” Ektrachrome color slides (technically called transparencies) of van Gogh’s paintings, then take the color slides back to the studio where he could work his will on them with a CinemaScope camera. If practicable, this would save a lot of fuss, cost and time in the museums and private homes.
Step one was to get some 8 X 10’s to practice with. Van Gogh owners Edward G. Robinson and Wm. Goetz let the studio into their parlors to make some dummy runs. More trial runs in New York’s Wildenstein Galleries and the first phase of the battle was won: there was van Gogh in quarto size with a texture so rich you wanted to lick your fingers. Two crackerjack photographers, Ed Bagley in America and Dave Boulten in Europe were sent out to bag more 8 X 10’s.
“A Urge rose-tree stood near the entrance of the garden: the roses growing on it were while, but there were three gardeners at it, busily painting them red...”
—'The Queen’s Croquet Ground,’ Alice in Wonderland
St Paul de Mausole was not in A1-OK 1889 condition, but providence had settled on the former monastery. The Ariel- like grips buzzed all over the place, dusting up the Roman church, retiling the cloister, scything the grass in the garden —thousands of dollars, but all the Mother-Superior could talk of was a chicken killed by the trucks, and complained ceaselessly that the crews must act and dress comme il faut, and cut the Boccacciola.
Lilacs and irises were other motifs in the garden. (On such matters the company double-checked with Mr. Douglas Cooper, the well-known American art historian who lives near Arles.) The grips tripped about planting them under the photosynthetic eye of Minnelli while Brother Young, anxious to shoot as usual, paced back and forth doing a sort of Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister.
Other people were swinging about in a tree-prop, drilling in extra branches like you do with a lopsided Christmas tree. Nearby was a petrified bench beside a round stone basin with a fountain in the center. The fountain had no water, but otherwise it looked pretty dam good through the spyglass.
A plastic hose was uncoiled and run from the fountain back to a faucet near the asylum cloister and buried with leaves and grass. Since the faucet was beyond meg’ range, Miimelli worked out whistle signals with a grip to regulate the water pressure: one tweet meant mucho aqua; two tweets meant poquito aqua. The grip savvied and cantered off; Minnelli handed the MP whistle to Assistant Director André, who took it willingly.
André started tweeting on cue but the fountain, manned by that goofball, geysered, then did a Manneken Pis, spouted up and spouted down, but wouldn’t hold at the 1889 level. The rope trick went on and on while Brother Young kept making sounds in his throat and trying to light the spout from behind to set it off from the asylum buildings in the background. How discouraging. And of the great public who would see Lust For Life? How much real mail like this would Vincente receive?
“Hats off to you. Sir. Comparing van Gogh’s design, J.-B. de la Faille’s catalogue numero 1531, with your fountain at St. Paul de Mausole, I fail to detect one minim’s difference. Hats off to you. Sir, and a vigorous handshake in thought.
Slate (May 9, 1889). Van Gogh half-hears the gates snap shut behind him and, one ear off, the other ear on, walks up the lilac path to the asylum office. Dr. Peyron, the head of the asylum, welcomes the guest artist. Vincent would like to keep his paint-kit, but this is unadvisable, explains Dr. Peyron who, as played by Mr. Jeffries, is a balding, moustached, distraught widower who proves once more that an insane asylum director’s work does rub off a bit.
Slate (May 9, 1889). It seems like a quiet friendly place. Van Gogh hangs up his brushes and is shown the way to his new cabanon: up a forbidding stairway and along a depressing corridor. Safe at last in the cabanon, Vincent tries the mattress, tips the MGM decorators and looks around. The cell has changed quite a lot since 1889 when he described it to Theo as having grey-green wallpaper, an old speckled armchair and sea-green curtains with pale-rose designs and blood-red streaks. Maybe the curtains are being cleaned. The walls have been whitewashed and Vincente has pinned a couple of nice prints on the wall to make it more homelike. The ceiling begins to crack from the heat of the arc lights. Time for just one transparency of Vincent looking out the window and another out the window, then everyone cleaned out. In making a transparency like the one out the window, a record is made of the camera height from the ground so that in projecting the transparency against a screen outside the rebuilt cell window, the vertical perspective can be preserved. All other important data such as camera type, pan, tilt, lens, stop, etc., is also carefully kept on a background report. This record makes it possible months later and— in this case— thousands of miles away, to reset the scene and add or subtract from it with perfect cinematographic homogeneity.
Slate (July 8, 1889). Vincent asks Dr. Peyron to please give back his brushes and says he’d like to paint outside the asylum walls. “Permission granted!” Tra la da-dum-da Dee dum— Peter Sweeney Vincent gambols out of the gate into the Tuigey Woods. We meet him face to face, 3” lens, over the rocks near the quarry. Hi there, Vincent! All in a twinkling his happy face distorts. He squeeeeezes out a two-months’ supply of chrome yellow “high note” on the rocks and tumbles backwards, beating his head viciously in an anthill, then on some foam rubber cow pads, then on some pine needles.
“Lily,” says Vincente, meaning mark that take for positive development by Culver City. (A “Lily” is a spectrum board graduated from white-white to black-black, photographed at the end of a take to serve as a processing guide when the film is sent to the laboratory for development.)
Hark! The guardian, Trabu, does a sack race through the olive trees and on the eighth hole overtakes the raving artist. Together they do a three-legged race back to the magic fountain. “Put that one in the icebox,” says Minnelli. (The film was being kept in an icebox in Aries to preserve it while awaiting shipment.)
Oratorio of St. Paul de Mausole in St. Rémy
Andre (translating in meeting hall to mausoled Tarascon peasant):Tiens, c’est un cadeau de M. le Directeur, C’est tres bon d’ailleurs. Alors, maintenant tu es fou. Tu sais ce que c’est, un fou? Toque! Dingue! Tu fais le montagne russe. Tu fais comme ça: (unwholesome antics): tu fais comme cela. Eh bien, vas~y!
Minnelli: That’ll do, that’ll do—Andre! Tell him to stop! Okay, quiet, quiet please everyone. Now that man there— no, not that one, that one—that apple is hanging on the threshold of eternity. Tell him, Andr6, to look it. Quiet please everyone! No, on this side of the bars, Andre Charlie (Charlie Parker, Br., Make-up Director), Charlie, you and Vasco (Vasco Reggiani, It., Hair Dresser), work that man over. Here’s the picture, got it? The Old Man in Blue. Hans, do you have the postcard? Put away that book. What is that you’re reading? Picture? Picture! I don’t care what she says. Freddy, give me a big blue brute-light over that man. Painter, give me some Cobalt there, some Powder there, some Prussian there, some Navy there, some Limehouse there, some True there, some Baby there, some Myosotis there, some Robin’s Egg there, some Gillette there, some Sky there, sky blue.
In the Penal Colony
MinnelIi and his roster had been in die field for more than a month now and the results were just beginning to trickle in to Culver City. The first 1000 feet marked ’Print Me’ was not electrifying. Fifty-cent-a-second phone calls went out to Arles and Baumaniere, wherever the samhill that was. The film rushes, as soon as processed, were sent right back to Provence so those goofballs could see for themselves.
Puzzle from Wonderland: Okay, so more than a month had passed since location had started. Supposing 1500 feet of Lust For Life interiors would be shot back in Culver City. A 1000 feet had already been shot in Auvers-sur-Oise and half of a predicted 3000 feet had been shot in Provence. Another 3000 feet would be shot in the Lowlands. Rights to the Stone book expired in December. Why was Minnelli being rushed, especially since this was big-budget and Mr. Arnold’s 8 X 10’s would run only a few minutes on the screen?
(And who in Culver City is responsible for putting Vincent’s painting of the Restaurant des Sirenes at Arles in the Paris period? And who was it hung that self-portrait of Vincent-Half-Mad-in-the-Straw-Sombrero in Theo’s apartment before Vincent had even arrived in Provence?)
Mr. Arnold, by the way, was getting along fine making pictures of van Gogh’s paintings. Moscow was holding out on the Rey portrait, but his boys Bagley and Boulten by this time had brought back some two hundred 8 X 10’s—worth eleventy-seven million dollars, said Mr. Arnold, counting them out in his laboratory. Just think, 16000 square inches...
“What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba?’’
Near the end of August, the Culver City Mail brought some film rushes back from processing. News of their arrival swept the stockade at Aries. On Sunday the leaders came down from Les Baux and the Belgian chauffeurs drove everyone north to Avignon which boasted the only CinePalace in the neighborhood. Along the aisles it was whispered that Producer (Jules Caesar) Houseman was in the house.
Director of Photography: Young
Sound ( ) Silent (X)
Name: Kirk Douglas
Make up: Ear# 12 Whirr, flicker...
Eyes front: Whirr
Left face, right ear: Buzz
Right face, left ear: Whirr
Flicker, whirr. Bloop...
Director of Photography: Young
Scene: 103 Take: 12
Lens: 2”, Ansco color #248
Then there was Kirk, overwhelmingly brought before us, big as life, coming through the rye. Then there he was, doing the wheat field Claude by Claude: dab-biff-parry-dab-dab... Then there came the birds. Golly. There came the grips standing up (rushes of a film are neither cut nor edited). Then there came the cigar-cutter. Bloop...
Snappo! There came Kirk again, big as hell, dabbing away at the wheat field. “It’s impossible, it’s impossible!” Baby! Then there came the crows again. Gosh, they looked like thousands! There came Pierrot. Bloop...
There came Kirk to the apple tree, tumbling toward us in a steady stream of primary color and emotion. There he goes in. Look at that look! Charlie, you did a great job of make up there! Gee, that’s a jewel. Look at Kirk, boy, what a baby—look at that ol’ sugar beetle go... There comes the woofledust. There he goes into his pocket. Look out, here comes the tree. Look out. Dumbo! Snappo! Bloop...
B.O. maybe, but, no, the rushes weren’t exactly electrifying. After the matinee everyone filed out soberly into the lobby where Producer Houseman was waiting. Houseman, a renaissance man, speaks Linguaphone French, but didn’t say a whole lot. There was some popcorn talk of how not so had the rushes weren’t, and the movie maxim never to judge a film by its rushes was invoked.
The ride back to Aries was long.
The rushes as they came back from Culver City were shown biweekly. After the second seance a small CinemaScope theater was discovered in Aries where the projection operator was more efficient, but nevertheless attendance slumped off. The directors were either exhausted or had eaten a bad . It was true that the rich Provencal diet had worked riot among the crew, especially the British members, and Dr. Andre Mottin, the medicine man, was doing a big business in castor oil jujubees.
Most of the crew were still staying at the Jules Cesar in Arles and were now joined by Freddy Young who came down out of the hills, apparently done in by mosquitoes and Mr. Thuilier’s daily no-choice menu. Minnelli, Tanto, Kaplan and Douglas also left Les Baux, but went to Avignon, only 25 miles north of Aries, just a breeze for the Belgian chauffeurs who made the run each morning in the hopped up Cadillac and Chrysler. They felt at home in the flat Rhone delta. Quiinn, single, was supposedly still boarded up at the Baumaniere.
Slate (May 16, 1890). Daytime. In Tarascon, ten miles west of St. Remy, Vincent van Gogh, on the comeback road, boards an Iron Horse bound for Paris and Auvers-sur-Oise. The postman Roulin bids him adieu and flattens a centime on the rails. (In the screen version, shot used for Vincent’s departure for St. Remy— a trip both unlikely and impossible by rail.)
Slate (October 1888). Nighttime. Someone descends the staircase from the train station, pack-a-back, a seaman he. It is Vincent’s violent friend Gauguin (Tony Quinn). On the second turning of the second stair, he pauses under a lamp- light to roll a ciggie. The big-bad mistral—five walloping wind machines, courtesy le MGM, London—blows paper and tobacco from his hands and shivers the lamppost (paper mache). Gauguin gargles annoyance and wobbles down the dark street to roll van Gogh in the “house of light” at Arles.
Slate (August 1888). Phoofff!. Van Gogh stuntmans down a staircase and bumps into Postman Roulin (Niall Mac Ginnis) who, rollicking good piano-moving Samaritan that he is, gives Vincent a hand moving Japanese silks and paint kit out of a hotel. Vincent is looking for a place with about four rooms, a red brick floor, with walls yellow on the outside and whitewashed inside so he can project the rushes in private.
“I know just the place,” says Roulin.
Slate (May 1888).
“Here we are,” says Roulin.
They have reached a market place on the other side of town. Lo! There stands the httle, green-shuttered, canary yellow house, ”la maison de lumiere”, basking in sunshine like a civet cat.
“The landlord runs the place next door,” says Roulin. “I live right over there, between the tracks of the tortillard.”
Next door it’s in full swing—a merry crowd scene, a little more air to sweeten the bottle. The hawkers’ carts are brimming with colorful things, nearly good enough to eat. Vincent reaches for a strawberry lipstick, but Roulin cuffs him and marches him through Minnelli’s cornucopia to see the greengrocer.
“Rent my little green-shuttered, canary-yellow house? Peut-etre” says the greengrocer, a British surprise who speaks a fine Tuscan patois. The postman and the Green Knight haggle while van Gogh casts an oblique look about and picks his ear...
“Whoops! Stop! Cut! Ginette (Diamant-Berger, Fr., Scriptgirl) ! Where’s Roulin’s pouch! And Kirk, will you please quit telegraphing your ear: you know why.”
Sure enough, Roulin didn’t have his mailbag from the hotel scene—and the greengrocer’s awning wasn’t down! This was the last straw. Minnelli, dressed in a pale shantung suit of which he had an inexhaustible supply like little Orphan Ainnie, folded up into his Italian campaign chair and refused to go on. He felt rushed, he said. Someone up there didn’t like him. The Hessian crew rallied around the camp chair and while Dee and Dum worked a miracle with slate sandwiches Douglas climbed into a convenient corral with an Arlesienne toreodoress and made breathless passes at her with a horn-bumpered chariot. The girl did veronicas this-a-way and that while reporters took pictures, used later for bullfight publicity posters.
Slate (September 18). Back in character. Kirk has an Ameri-can Flyer wagon and moves into the little yellow house, helped by Roulin and his son, Armond «Portrait of the Young Man in Yellow: 8 X 10, played nearly as well as painted by Claude Garaches). Deliriously happy, Vincent trips with a mattress in his excitement. A mischievous note darts from the flute section. (Music by Miklos Rozsa.)
“My Sunkist Ear!”
Slate (Christmas Day 1888). A mob is gathered before the little yellow house. Gauguin dashes up; a gendarme stops him. Gauguin elbows past and goes indoors ... (Finished in Culver City.)
(Christmas Eve 1888) Van Gogh has rashly cut off what looks like a little piece of dried apricot, wrapped it up and put it in one of Rachel’s red stockings at a local brothel. Prudish Aries is scandalized. The incensed citizens gather beneath the windows of the little yellow house. Someone in the mob must step forward and shout “Hey, crazy redhead, show us your ear!”
Who’s going to say it? Extras get paid more if they’ve got a line, but this mob was composed of 100% Arlesiens who spoke no English. One by one, Andre tried out contestants. The flops—there were no discoveries—got a crack at more grisbi by competing for the job of shinniying up Pierrot the Propman’s drainspout to beat on van Gogh’s shutters.
This big scene, extremely visual and packed with all sorts of contemporary allusions, should demonstrate the intelligent use of a parallel/rostrum. If Young’s camera were placed on the ground with the up-looking crowd, either the camera would seem antagonistic or van Gogh would look like a Goodyear ad when he appeared in the window. If Young’s camera were placed behind van Gogh’s shoulder, the apparition effect would be lost and his windup hampered. With the rostrum / parellel however, the camera could be on van Gogh’s side but still see him do his spectacular cuckoo. So a parallel/rostrum for the camera was erected beside the green shuttered, second-story window and loaded with a dozen rounds of ammunition for van Gogh.
Slate #1—12, The upturned faces of the crowd mill and de-mill about, all torchlit and griffithy. What is this, a fraternity panty raid?
“Huh-hey, crrrazy rrredhhead! Shshhow us yer earrr!” Which ear? A lucky scalawag scampers up the drainspout to knock up Vincent. Powwy! The shutters fly open. Pius X? Titus A.? Oedipus Rex? Mr. Belaker? Mr. Magoo? Old Lady O’Leary?
It’s Douglas, our passionate exemplar, tbe spirit of Christmas past, wearing a swaddled head, orchid nightgown and a tasselled icepack with a sprig of holly through his ear. Whillikers! What’s Charlie done to him!
Bleary-eyed and obviously interrupted, he coocoos thrice then cocks his arm and a grip hidden under the camera begins pelting down bed pans, paint tubes and porcelain ears on the crowd who recoil in a cowardly fashion. (Cut in Released Screen Version)
But what about that ear? For the inside events of this and the preceding nights (which will follow), Minnelli, Stone and other scholars have had to rely on Gauguin’s version of things. So let’s skim through a recent study of Gauguin’s life and see what’s what about that ear.
“The days sped by in the yellow house under that yellow sun. …
Van Gogh said, ’Paul, am I a great painter?’
Gauguin said, ’Sure. We’re all great painters.’
Van Gogh nodded. ’That’s true, isn’t it? You, I, Daudet, Millet, Mauve—’
Gauguin snarled. ’You and your damn Daudet and Mauve. And that sickly romantic Millet.’
Van Gogh said, ’Don’t talk about them like that. I won’t have it. With that low forehead of yours, you have no right to criticize.
Gauguin began to laugh. Van Gogh picked up his absinthe and threw the drink in Gauguin’s face.
Instantly Gauguin’s hands were at van Gogh’s collar. He pulled the Dutchman halfway across the table. ’Listen,’ he hissed, ’Don’t do that again. I swear I’ll throttle you next time.’...
He had made up his mind to leave the yellow house as quickly as possible. At supper, Gauguin said, ’You’ve poured turpentine into the soup again.’ He tried to smile so that van Gogh would not get angry.
Van Gogh got up from the table and picked up his brush, still wet and dripping with red paint. He wrote on the wall:
Je suis Saint Esprit
Je suis sain d’esprit.
Then he howled with laughter, tears running from his eyes. Gauguin heard him outside, stumbling in the dark, his laughter rising above the lashing mistral.
Gauguin went upstairs and packed his belongings. Then he started for the cafe.
Halfway across the Place Lamartine he heard heavy erratic footsteps behind him.
He whirled. Van Gogh stood poised, sunlight pouring out of his crazed white eyes. A razor lay naked in his hand...
In the morning Gauguin returned to the yellow house. A crowd gathered before the yellow door. Gauguin pushed forward. An Aries gendarme grabbed him.
He pushed into the house. A trail of blood led to van Gogh’s bedroom. Vincent’s body lay under the sheet, unmoving.
Gauguin reached forward a trembling hand. He pulled away the sheet. A bloody bandage covered the right (next question) side of van Gogh’s head.”
Ad Gordon, The Flesh Painter,
1955, Lion Library Editions.
On the Screen
It is perhaps interesting to note that the released screen version of Lust For Life follows Mr. Gordon’s account point for point and nearly word for word. The argument between the two artists, however, is made to take place in the yellow house immediately after Gauguin’s arrival and is, incidentally, an extremely effective universalization of the polarity between the two artistic temperaments. Realist Cauguin, on one side of the table, is portrayed as a rebellious sort who seeks to externalize his passions in violent recreation so he can create a static, highly-stylized and romantic world on canvas. Romantic van Gogh, though equally a man of violent frustrations and passions, finds an outlet for his emotions only in his paintings. Algebraic and post hoc though this characterization is, it succeeds where the movie seemed bound to fail, in dramatizing the differences not only between the artists’ temperaments but between their aesthetics.
(In the movie the bandage does cover the left side of van Gogh’s head, but Gauguin is told by the inspector simply that “He sliced off his ear”—we are still in the dark about how much of the ear.)
Slate (December 24, 1888). House guest Gauguin takes his tooth-capbrush and leaves the wee yellow house. Van Gogh chases him. The two artists play a hair-raising game of ’I spy’ around the Arles’ Coliseum. Cats in the narrow streets (Kaplan, who is a hand with cats, showed the grips how to keep them in place with pieces of meat). Close-up of a frothing, eyeball-rolling Vincent—no genial host, no sir.
“Give me another bird in another cage and I’ll do it again, so help me, I’ll do it again!”
Blackstone the Magician
Terrasse de cafe, la nuit
The jogged, narrow streets of Arles—laid out (says Irving Stone) to baffle the mistral—were tough to work in, and the Place du Forum was all activity under the floodlights. A statue of Frederic Mistral, tete dans la lune, stood in the center of the little square with on the right the Hotel Nord-Pinus, on the left the Braque-esque sidewalk cafe front which beetled back and forth over the heads of the company. In the background some fluted columns supported the Forum Hotel. A narrow street led back into the shadows where something that looked like the stump of the Eiffel Tower (this is 1888) was bobbing on the skyline making the place seem like a stage set for La Folk de Chaillot. It was midnight but the Arlesiennes were hanging from their windows, humming the theme from La Strada.
Dee and Dum passed around baskets of real, honest-to- goodness grapes and while Mimielli swivelled back and forth with the spyglass. Young swept about in his worsted toga, camouflaging “hot spots”, flat areas that reflected too much light. Van Gogh had left out the shadows in many of his paintings, making lighting was a real headache.
Young: Pierrot, we need a blackout board at the end of the street and do please ask those people up there to be good enough to stop that obscene whistling and close their shutters. Leave those two and that one and that one open. (To Mssrs. Champel-Policard, Fr., Gaffers-in-Charge-of-Juicers:) Mr. Minnelli would like some stars up there above the street. Floodlights with blue paper should do it, what would you say, Mr. Cooper? Oh, snows you too, does it?
(To cameramen:) Blimp it; Mr. Minnelli says that this is sound. Now then: the camera will velocilate down the alley, pan with Mr. Douglas and Mr. Quinn, then follow them into the cafe. Tout pret, there? Places chalked? Now, in panning, the camera will discover the Zouave, Mr. Milliet... Where is he? Mr. Minnelli would like him slouched against that wall as—hrumph—in Mr. Goof’s painting.
(To Charlie Parker, Makeup Man:) Mr. Parker, have you the reproduction? O, there we are, thanks. Say! Who’s been writing on the back of it like this?\
Parker: Vasco done it. He wanted to send it to his mother in Genoa, but I wouldn’t let him. Young: TeU Vasco he can bloody well buy his own postcards. Where’s Mr. Milliet, the Zouave?
Parker: He’s all made up having a drink, but he’s gotta look drunk anyhow so it don’t make much difference, any- how that’s what Vasco says. Jiggers, hide the grapes; here comes Vince with the keyhole.
Minnelli duckwaddles past, looking through the finder and talking to Hans Peters.
Minnelli: I don’t care what she says, Hans. I’m not John Huston.
Young: Mr. Plunkett, have you seen the Zouave?
Walter Plunkett: I gave him his costume and he took off for the North Pole over there.
Charlie and Vasco, the Gemini twins, went across the street to find the Zouave, and Young continued to direct the electricians who were stringing up a brilliant Dog Star between the roofs. The Arlesiennes were giving Pierrot and his door-to-door men a hard time about closing their shutters, but one by one the windows darkened, Canus Major came out above the street, and through the spyglass the scene be- gan to take on a church Christmas crib surreality. Virtually all that Douglas and Quinn had left to do was stand on the chalk marks and put their heads through holes in the cafe front like Modiglianis.
Vasco and Charlie, the two stars and Mr. Milliet came out of the Nord-Pinus’ Bar Americain. Vasco, Charhe and Plunkett spruced the artists up a bit and a brule-geule, a ponder some pipe with a trap in the stem like on a Drano label, was plugged up with some manufacture d’etat and planted in Douglas’ pocket.
Slate (September 1888) Van Gogh and Gauguin are still on liberty in the cat-ridden streets. Someone whistles La Strada. The two come down an alley where a Zouave is slouching against the wall. It’s Milliet, to whom van Gogh has been giving art lessons.
Gauguin and van Gogh sit down at the clean, well-lighted place across from the Nord-Pinus and Vincent tinders his pipe as the camera pulls up a chair for a ping-pong shot of the two talking art. (The camera doesn’t really “bounce” back and forth between the two speakers. The entire dialogue must be reshot as many times as there are different camera positions, and the successive shots of the dialogue are later cut up and interspliced back in the studio. The following ping-pong shot is seen from the cutting room.)
Camera on—Vip van Gogh who begins puffing away meditatively, coughs, and starts making conversation with Gauguin who is heard ordering an absinthe. Gauguin says, What’ll you have? Van Gogh says, Gimme a brimstone lamp inlayed on a jade, ultra-violet Louis XV counter—with lemon. He sketches one. We hear Gauguin say, Two straws; give him my absinthe. Vip bites hard on his powder horn and continues marking up the tablecloth, then leaps up and shouts Give me tobacco. A hand appears like to Moses in the Ravenna mosaics (this is color, Sarnoff) holding a tin of P. A. Another hand snaps a slate, Pierrot, the snip, screams.
Camera on—Gauguin, who hiccoughs, orders another house lamp, two tartes a la creme, and a caveman sandwich with a side of love-apple salad. Van Gogh is heard puffing away meditatively and scratching on tbe table. Gauguin hums “My little Bimbo down on a Bamboo Isle,” chuga-lugs his lamp and says Let’s go inside (to the poolroom at Culver City).
Camera on—Van Gogh, who says Paul, guess what? I see a cauliflowery ear on a conical nimbussed head walled up in infinity. We think we hear Gauguin chalking a cue stick and listening to the mistral in Vincent’s left concha.
Camera on—Gauguin, who is not chalking a cue stick, but lasciviously sipping van Gogh’s absinthe. We hear van Gogh struggling to feel one of those feelings never felt before. Gauguin, who has had one suphur lamp too many, leers cheerily and says. What a crazy mixed up kid. Come off it. Brigadier. Relax. Come on, play; one-eared jacks are wild, Brando. We think we hear van Gogh stropping a razor.
Camera on—Van Gogh, who is not stropping a razor but wetting his color chalk.
Camera on—the table top, which is taken away from Vincent by the manager, a little bonhomme in white, but replaced at once with a nice clean one covered with Claude’s spiffy sketches.