Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. USA, 1956. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Screenplay by Norman Corwin, based on the novel by Irving Stone. Cinematography by Russell Harlan, Freddie Young. Produced by John Houseman. Music by Miklos Rozsa. Production Design by E. Preston Ames, Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters. Costume Design by Walter Plunkett. Film Editing by Adrienne Fazan. Academy Awards 1956. Golden Globe Awards 1956.
Irving Stone’s novel about Vincent Van Gogh is the primary reason that the details of his life (poverty, cutting off his ear, etc) became widely known to twentieth-century North Americans, who interpreted it as biography and allowed its myths (alcoholism, madness, women) to run rampant; a more recent book like Bernadette Murphy’s Van Gogh’s Ear puts all the information that is widely known about the father of Impressionism to the test and comes up with a different result, but even knowing this does not stop Vincente Minnelli’s adaptation of Stone’s book from being a very enjoyable biopic, and a very mature one for its time. Kirk Douglas is wonderful as the tortured soul who gives his father’s life in the church a go before failing as a teacher and retreating in shame to the French countryside to paint. Longing to put vivid colours onto the canvas, almost as if to heal his own dark view of life, he is also intent on taking the sensitivity he has for the peasants he sees toiling to death and putting it into his work; as is pointed out to him in one key scene, he may think he’s doing something for others but his efforts are for himself (mainly to confront the people who believe his emotional instability to be complete madness), since none of the pain he puts into his work can match that of the actual workers. Unlucky in love and eventually driven to self-mutilation, Van Gogh tries to alleviate his loneliness by beginning a minor artists commune in his “yellow house” in Arles with fellow artist Paul Gaugin (Anthony Quinn, who bursts through all mild-manners like a steam engine), but friction between them develops quickly. Made during the heydey of post-war prosperity and abandoning the habit of artist biopics to scrub up the subject’s life for public consumption, this one goes to some very dark places and pulls few punches before the tragic ending, but Minnelli, the master of colour cinematography, turns the sorrow into art through the use of gorgeous colour cinematography that recreates the palettes of the master’s work.