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MGM goes the omnibus route with The Story of Three Loves, which could easily have been fashioned from three separate story ideas that weren't deemed suitable for full-length development. Famed director Vincente Minnelli spins the second tale, "Mademoiselle" into an almost direct blueprint for the later Tom Hanks comedy-fantasy Big. Lesser-known Gottfried Reinhardt, son of the legendary Max Reinhardt of the German stage, directs the first and third episodes. One is perfectly scaled to the short-story requirements of a half-hour format, while the last episode seems both compressed and stretched out at the same time. MGM gives the experiment the Technicolor treatment and music by Miklos Rozsa, along with an impressive selection of stars, not all of which are used to their best advantage.
The first episode, The Jealous Lover becomes the most satisfying by keeping things simple and uncomplicated. Clearly inspired by The Red Shoes, it stars that film's Moira Shearer as an aspiring ballerina with a heart ailment. She's already given up on her career when she's spotted by impresario-choreographer James Mason, who takes her back to his bachelor apartment to dance for him. Mason is artistically inspired and personally enraptured, and intrigued when his new discovery isn't forthcoming about identifying herself or explaining why she might not be able to drop what she's doing to be with him. The episode is thin on story but the chemistry between the stars is superb, with Shearer dancing like a dream in motion and James Mason doing amazing work just watching her. Shearer dances to a famous Rachmaninoff piece that expresses every bit of their hopeless passion. The choreography is by Frederick Ashton of Tales of Beatrix Potter.
Agnes Moorehead is present to contribute a few moments of concern. The Jealous Lover is one of those pieces that just seems a perfect short story in miniature. It's the kind of bittersweet romance that frequently becomes unbearable when drawn out to feature length.
Mademoiselle, the Vincent Minnelli episode, is much praised by critics, but from an entertainment viewpoint could use some more running time. It plays as a lot of fantastic preparation for just a few minutes of interesting drama. Young Ricky Nelson is a rich kid left on his own in an Italian hotel with a bossy teacher-companion (Leslie Caron). He rebels against his French lessons and allows another kid in the hotel to lure him into meeting a supposed "witch". She turns out to be kindly old Ethel Barrymore, who apparently has retained the supernatural powers over age and love she demonstrated in Portrait of Jennie. Little Ricky wants to be grown up and independent, so Barrymore transforms him into a male Cinderella for the evening. At an appointed hour Ricky becomes the handsome Farley Granger, who naturally runs into Leslie Caron and instantly falls in love.
The segment spends most of its time just setting up this complicated situation, which leaves us with some thin characterizations. Again, the casting has some interesting aspects. Ethel Barrymore is sort of a given item; she plays most of her part from a single chair. Leslie Caron's boy's companion is sort of an undernourished character. She complains a bit and smiles a lot and then meets the boy of her dreams. Little Ricky Nelson is just fine as the kid who wants to grow up and be free of people telling him what to do. I was genuinely surprised when I figured out whom that very familiar face belonged to. And this is one of the better (if briefer) screen roles for Farley Granger, who truly does resemble a kid in grown-up clothing, busting out to be an adult. But by the time the adult kid is set free in the hotel, it's time to wind things up: after a love-at-first-sight scene the segment must rush to a finish. This story probably has a special appeal for women convinced that their mates seem to be nothing more than little boys in grown-up bodies.
The longest and most serious episode is Equilibrium, a Paris-set romance that strives for topicality by having its suicidal young heroine (Pier Angeli) be a concentration camp survivor. Eight years later, this woman is pulled out of the Seine, a tradition for imagination-challenged writers. Her rescuer is another lost soul, a circus aerialist (Kirk Douglas) sidelined by pangs of guilt for taking risks that led to the death of his previous partner on the high trapeze. The frankly angelic Angeli is depressed but to-die-for attractive, while Kirk-Baby indulges in his usual histrionics, flying into a Spartacus-like rage and pounding a table with his fist. It works fine for Van Gogh but here he just seems to be chewing scenery.
The grim story is a mismatch for the slick Technicolor trappings, which give us far too many repetitive scenes of Douglas teaching Angeli to fly through the air with the greatest of ease. That he chose a partner for her indifferent attitude toward life seems perverse until they fall in love with each other. Throughout a series of training routines it becomes apparent that they're following a course of action that neither still believe in. The message seems to be that healthy love and daredevil professions don't mix, an idea that I don't think would fly among circus folk. High wire acts are often family affairs, often husband and wife teams, who I suppose must work out a practical approach to the possibility of immediate death.
Douglas and Angeli try not to admit their feelings for one another as they face a big audition for an American circus mogul (Paul Maxey). He insists that the safety net be withdrawn. Will they go through with their dangerous stunt?
Both leads are doubled quite well by professional aerialists, although it looks like Kirk Douglas does some of the simpler tricks himself (and is very impressive at it). But the conclusion isn't all that memorable, and the lack of compelling chemistry between the lovers makes this segment the least effective.
The MGM production team seems to be the star of this show, as opposed to the two directors. Vincente Minnelli's episode has been analyzed in the context of the rest of his carefully designed film works. All we notice in particular is that the color green keeps turning up just prior to "magical" events. Joining the three stories is a framing story set on an America-bound ocean liner. We see James Mason looking disconsolate on a deck chair, and his episode begins as a flashback. When we return, the camera drops Mason and picks up Leslie Caron, and so forth. The structure is an improvement over simple start-stop chapter marks and does indeed organize all three stories into one narrative, but as the characters have nothing to do with each other it still comes off as a device of convenience. 1
Talent spotters should be on the lookout for interesting actors not always given dialogue lines, as Peter Brocco, Robert Horton, Steven Geray, Paula Raymond, Hayden Rorke, Alix Talton, and Kaaren Verne all have brief walk-throughs. MGM apparently decided to brighten the Mademoiselle episode by giving Zsa Zsa Gabor a twenty-second bit as bachelor bait at the hotel's fancy bar. She looks plenty irked when Farley Granger walks away.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Story of Three Loves benefits from a good transfer of this handsome Technicolor production. Hues seem correct and common flaws in vintage Tech transfers are absent, unless I missed something. The audio is quite clean, highlighting Miklos Rozsa's score and the moving ballet sequence in episode #1. A trailer is included that couldn't have generated much interest in the movie. I imagine that many husbands in 1953 were dragged to this one, only to find they liked big parts of it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Story of Three Loves rates:
1. Very few omnibus-formatted stories successfully cross-relate their characters. The prime example of one that does is the superlative horror collection Dead of Night.
A wicked editorial idea ... it would be fun to cut a "short" version of The Story of Tree Loves by dropping all three flashback stories and just joining the material on the ocean liner together. That would leave us with a handsome title sequence, followed by three mysterious bits on the passenger deck, followed by a fancy end title. Voila! Instant surreal masterpiece!
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