three-loves1The early 1950s saw the rise of the Hollywood anthology film, collections of shorter films linked together with a unifying theme. The popularity of anthology films was based in part on European trends, as well as a desire to provide a cinematic experience that would bring television viewers back to the theaters. In 1952, producer-director Gottfried Reinhardt approached Vincente Minnelli with the opportunity to direct the featured segment of an anthology entitled The Story of Three Loves. By the time the film was released in the spring of 1953, however, Minnelli’s segment was no longer the central feature of the film.

The first episode of the trio of tales in The Story of Three Loves is “The Jealous Lover,” directed by Reinhardt and concerning one Charles Coutray (James Mason), first seen brooding on a ship sailing from Paris to the United States. In flashback, we learn Coutray is a dance choreographer whose search for the perfect dancer lead him to Paula Woodward (Moira Shearer), who auditioned for him at his palatial estate. Woodward and Coutray fall in love immediately, of course, and most of their nearly 40 minutes on screen is filled with Shearer’s exceptional dancing and screenwriter John Collier’s stilted dialogue. With this segment, The Story of Three Loves reveals itself as a G-rated pile of mush, overwrought melodrama designed to be as inoffensive as possible. The reproductions of classic statuary that fill Coutray’s estate, for example, have all had bright scarves and frilly tutus placed over their scandalous nether regions, thus saving the easily distressed from having to run to the nearest fainting couch.

The overarching theme that allegedly brings the segments of The Story of Three Loves together is “love,” and one would be hard pressed to think of a more generic, insipid theme. In its unrelenting desire to evoke brain-numbing banality, the link between the main characters of the three segments is their shared voyage on a cruise ship. Once Mason is finished with his excessive brood, the camera pans over to Leslie Caron, also on deck, looking pensive and glowing under a Vaseline lens.

Thus begins the second episode, this one directed by Minnelli, entitled “Mademoiselle.” Caron thinks back on the life she has just left, as governess to a precocious 11-year-old American boy living in Paris while his rich parents are away. Caron — whose character has no proper name, and is referred to only as “Mademoiselle” — is a hopeless romantic, but her young charge Tommy (Ricky Nelson at his most shrill) is a little hellion who gives her trouble at every turn. Girls are icky, you see, especially 20-something women who like romantic poetry.

three-loves2Tommy discovers an older woman by the name of Mrs. Hazel Pennicott (Ethyl Barrymore), whom he has been told is a witch, living in a dilapidated annex of his hotel. Hazel is pleasant, forthright, and apparently actually a witch, and promises to fulfill his wish of becoming an adult so he doesn’t need Mademoiselle as a tutor anymore. Thus, Ricky Nelson turns into Farley Granger, a boy who gets one night in an adult’s body before he turns back into his real self in the morning, a la Cinderella.

The adult Tommy somehow finds Mademoiselle in the middle of Paris without any effort at all, falls in love with her, then runs off to prevent her from discovering his secret. Mademoiselle is left to believe this man will return to her and pines in futility at the train station, but Mrs. Hazel Pennicott has a cure for everything, and in the post-flashback scenes on the ship, all is presumed to be well.

In an interview, Farley Granger reported that much of “Mademoiselle” had been cut in order to make more time for the third episode, “Equilibrium.” This cartoonishly grim tale is the featured segment of The Story of Three Loves, again directed by Reinhardt and starring Kirk Douglas as a disgraced trapeze artist whose previous partner died in an accident said to be his fault. When he happens upon a suicidal Nina (Pier Angeli), he decides she would be perfect as his new partner, giving him a chance at career resurrection.

As dire as “Equilibrium” is, it’s doubtful that story exists at the expense of the “Mademoiselle” segment. While “The Jealous Lover” could plausibly be missing scenes, it’s impossible to believe anything of substance was cut from “Mademoiselle;” there is not one hint that any necessary content beyond what we see in its 37-minute runtime ever existed. While Ethyl Barrymore gives a delightful performance, everyone else in this episode, right down to the smallest of bit parts, possesses the most astonishingly irritating qualities imaginable. The plot is deliberately simplistic, an adult fairy tale, but rendered clumsily by overwrought direction. Minnelli’s trademark set design looks cheap and silly here, with Hazel’s overgrown garden a satirical model of plasticine plantlife.

The Story of Three Loves unsurprisingly flopped, MGM recording it as a $1 million loss, and it was critically panned. Though it’s a short segment of a larger film, “Mademoiselle” illustrates plainly how much Minnelli needed complete artistic control over his output, and how, without proper context, his directorial style could so easily look like the work of a precocious teen. The Story of Three Loves is a footnote in his career, a vague precursor to themes revisited later, in more depth and with more skill, in A Matter of Time (1976).

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