Academic journal article CineAction

The Far Side of Paradise: The Style and Substance of Yolanda and the Thief

Academic journal article CineAction

The Far Side of Paradise: The Style and Substance of Yolanda and the Thief

Article excerpt

Yolanda and the Thief (1945) is perhaps the most widely underrated and misperceived of Minnelli's musicals. Minnelli himself, who conceived the film in avant-garde terms under the influence of the surrealists, defended it in his autobiography against generally lukewarm reviews. (1) Bosley Crowther's description of "a pleasing compound of sparkling mummery and glistening allure for eye and ear, hampered throughout by a flat script which doesn't match the visual elegance with wit" still exemplifies the critical consensus: whether evoking praise or contempt, Yolanda tends to be viewed as an exercise in formalism. (2) My aim here is to contest this assumption. The film's script, while flawed by compromises and evasions, is not lacking in suggestive and intriguing elements, and the dance sequences, while remarkable by any standard for their visual flamboyance, are scarcely unique in revealing an imaginative investment on the director's part. While I would not claim that Yolanda is a masterpiece, I want to do justice to the integrity and intelligence of the film as a whole, rather than dwelling on a handful of eyecatching sequences.

The story of Yolanda and the Thief, adapted by Irving Brecher from a treatment by Ludwig Bemelmans, unfolds in a Latin American Ruritania known as Patria, whose industry and wealth are controlled as a monopoly by the Aquaviva family. When the heiress Yolanda Aquaviva/Lucille Bremer attains her majority, she returns from a convent education to take control of her assets. Burdened by her wealth, she prays to her guardian angel, and is overheard by an American con artist, Johnny/Fred Astaire, who, masquerading as the angel, persuades her to sign over her riches to him. But his scheme is complicated by his own growing affection for Yolanda, while she, too, finds herself swayed increasingly by romantic rather than spiritual considerations. Ultimately, through the intervention of a real guardian angel, a happy ending is assured and Johnny and Yolanda are united.

The early, most verbose, sequences of Yolanda are also the most conventional, but the presentation of Patria deserves analysis. It is a country where almost everyone is happy; we may term it a utopia provided that we recognise that it is a utopia constructed of conservative elements. Capitalist enterprise is undertaken within the bounds of a rigid class structure, and everything unfolds under the sign of the cross. The opening scene makes the religious-utopian dimension explicit: a teacher (the first of the film's benevolent father figures), conducting a geography lesson under a garish studio sunset, describes the country in terms which take on an explicitly providential quality (he speaks of "the benevolent wind"). The incompatibility at this point between the director and his material--James Naremore has observed that "Minnelli and Freed have entirely secular imaginations" (3)--is clear as Yolanda, leaving her convent school, is comforted by the Mother Superior with the prospect of guidance from her guardian angel. The actress (Jane Green) is directed to deliver her advice straight and to speak with conviction, yet the context undercuts the effect of the performance. The speech is preceded by a brief scene showing the conclusion of a religious puppet play, after which the puppeteer descends with an angelic puppet and lays it lifelessly across a table. It remains in shot as Yolanda and the Mother converse. The visible artificiality of the puppet has a certain distancing effect as the nun declares her faith. Minnelli implies that God, like the puppet, might be a human fabrication, and this momentarily brings to the surface a subversive reading: that it is, precisely, Yolanda's faith which endangers her. Andrew Britton (drawing on the work of Norman O. Brown) has discussed the "mythological archetype of the tricksters", a figure with "connotations of fraud, stealth and deceit", personified in pagan mythology by such figures as Hermes and Loki, but "incorporated as the devil in Christian myth. …

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