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by Robert Andrew Parker
|Back in 1984, when "Van Gogh in Arles" came to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I found myself studying The Sower, a painting I know as well as some of my own. But then I ought to know it, because I painted it myself when I was working as an artist on the 1956 MGM film Lust for Life.
I was 28 years old then, a few years out of the Chicago Institute and a high school art teacher, when John Rewald, the art historian, asked Monroe Wheeler, curator of publications at the Museum of Modern Art, if he knew a painter who might be able to play the hands of Vincent van Gogh in the film. MoMA had purchased two or three of my watercolors the year before, and perhaps Wheeler knew when he suggested me how desperately I needed money.
Someone from the museum asked me to have my hands photographed -- they would have to match those of Kirk Douglas, who had been cast as van Gogh -- and then I forgot about the whole thing. But two months later, in July, I got a call from a man at MGM telling me to get my passport in order because I was going to France in two days. But before I did anything, the man said, I was to rush into New York City with my lawyer and sign some contracts. There was a significant pause: I didn't have a car, let alone a lawyer.
"Never mind," the man said, "we'll treat you fine."
I took the train from my house in Westchester County to MGM's New York offices and was given a sheaf of papers to sign. "Don't worry," said the man who handed me the pen, "we'll carry you like a baby."
I was too naïve to know that one of the things my own lawyer would have done for me was to guarantee that when the credits rolled, my name would be among them. I didn't and it wasn't, but I was too excited to worry about such things. Not only was I going to Europe for the first time, but I was being paid a huge sum to do it -- $150 a week plus $25 a day for expenses.
On board the airplane I met Kirk Douglas and a man who was even more excited than I was: Liberace. The pianist was on his first triumphant tour of Europe, and when the plane landed at Shannon Airport in Ireland for refueling, he was mobbed by hundreds of adoring Irishwomen. The poor man ducked behind some garbage bins and got his cashmere coat smeared with something. Fame was new to Liberace and he was extremely shy.
At Orly, it was Douglas' turn to be mobbed, but he and I were quickly whisked away by big black Citroens from MGM and taken to the studio, which was in an old-fashioned stone building in Montmartre. In 1955, Paris was different than it is today -- it was France. The men all wore blue boiler suits and berets, the streets were swept with witches' brooms and in the morning the city smelled like hot bread, Gauloises and coffee from the little bars.
My status had not yet been determined, and on my first night in Paris, I had dinner with the producer, John Houseman, and the director Vincente Minnelli. No one knew whether to treat me as one of the film's big guns or a humble technician. As time went on, my position decayed, and at the end of ten weeks on location, I was eating with the seamstress, the still photographer, the makeup man and the camera crew.
The company was in a state of panic. As soon as I arrived, I began to get messages in the folded blue envelopes that were sent by pneumatic tubes all over Paris. They were from MGM's London office, and the initial missive asked me if I could possibly make a copy of van Gogh's last work, Wheatfield with Crows. They next offered me an unlimited account at an artists' supply store. I dashed out and bought paints and brushes in such quantities that I was still using them many years later.
In all I must have received 50 blue envelopes, each contradicting the other, instructing me to paint so far and no farther, explaining and re-explaining that on location in Auvers my hands would be filmed frantically daubing the finishing touches on the canvas. Then, of course, there would be a gunshot and Lust for Life would end.
While I was painting the crows, Minnelli came to my room at La Terrasse with his daughter Liza, then a girl of about nine. She held her nose and said, "Phew, it smells in here." I thought she was a little brat.
After three days in Paris, the company went by car to Auvers-sur-Oise, where the last scenes of the movie were being shot. MGM had purchased 600 crows for the crow-painting scene, and each one was tethered to the ground with a long piece of monofilament. Men hid in the wheat and clapped to make them fly up, then reeled them back in.
Minnelli was very exacting: At one point he decided the tree under which Douglas as van Gogh shoots himself would look better elsewhere, so he dispatched a crew to dig it up and move it to the other side of the field.
Meanwhile, MGM had run into problems with van Gogh's nephew, who objected strongly to the script of Lust for Life. Minnelli's plan was to photograph van Gogh's paintings and then have them printed on canvas, but the nephew made it impossible to photograph the works he owned as well as many others in private hands.
Minnelli insisted that these were the very paintings he needed, but eventually he had to abandon this scheme, and I was asked to paint some more van Goghs. Rewald and I were soon off to the Netherlands to copy the paintings at the Kröller-Müller museum. Cameras were forbidden, and I had to sneak photographs of the van Goghs when the guards weren't looking. At night, I worked on my copies in my room at the Krasnapolsky Hotel.
We rejoined the cast at Arles. I stayed with the technicians at the Hotel du Nord; the actors were billeted in the Julius Caesar; Houseman and Minnelli rented villas on the outskirts of the city; and MGM took over a school, Ecole Emile Loubet, for its headquarters. All the schoolrooms had a different function: catering, film storage, publicity, makeup. I had a studio on the second floor, where I often worked from J.B. de la Faille's catalog of all of van Gogh's work, including the many paintings that were destroyed in World War I and II.
We always ate great lunches on location -- sun-ripened tomatoes, huge, chewy loaves of freshly baked bread, cold pork and beef, local cheeses and olives, and wine, a demibottle for each of us. I was able to turn an $18 profit on my expense allowance as well as pocket my entire salary.
Guests were often present at lunch and one day one of them tried to persuade Minnelli that van Gogh was a repressed homosexual and his paintings should be viewed as valentines to his brother, Théo. Minnelli listened raptly.
My hands never did appear in the movie, because Kirk Douglas was always filmed painting madly away behind the canvas. So I had plenty of time to myself. The filmmaking drew great crowds of townspeople, and I was often among them. One night, during the shooting of the scene based on the painting called The Night Café, a carriage horse bolted and I grabbed him by the bridle, losing a thumbnail to the stiff leather reins.
Houseman turned to me and said, "The hero type, eh, Parker?" I wished I'd let the horse trample him. By then I hated Houseman and Minnelli, both of whom behaved like the Roman emperors whose subjects had colonized Arles. Daily flights from the United States brought Minnelli his favorite brand of cigarettes; Houseman strolled about languidly, giving orders that sent people scurrying in all directions. Neither man had any feeling for the country, the light or anything else that interested van Gogh, and I think the movie shows it. It's all papier-mâché; there is no sense of being in France, no sense of the hot Provencal sun.
But I never lost my admiration for the workers or the actors, particularly Douglas and Anthony Quinn, who played Paul Gauguin. Once a scene of the two of them rolling drunkenly out of a tavern was being filmed at two o'clock in the morning. There were dozens of takes, and one or the other of them had to keep saying one line over and over again, something like, "Watch it, fella." I was struck by what good sports they were -- they never complained, although even the dedicated townspeople had drifted home to bed.
I left Arles in September and finished van Gogh's early drawings at home in the United States. When I was done I mailed them to Hollywood. I never saw any of my van Goghs again, except in the movie.
I learned a lot copying van Gogh's work and of course I greatly admired him. He took more risks with color than anyone before him. And once, at Ecole Emile Loubet, I copied his drawing of an old man with his head in his hands called At Eternity's Gate that so moved me I had tears in my eyes.
[this text was originally published in American Film magazine]
LUST FOR LIFE: AN UPDATE
Christian Ferry, the Lust for Life go-fer, was a very nice guy. I was often in Ireland during the1960s; I ran into him when he was producing The Blue Max. One day he and I watched a very exciting scene being filmed of a couple of planes in a dogfight over some pastures in County Kildare.
As for Kirk Douglas, I re-met him in an elevator in the Westbury Hotel. I was with Danny Selznick and he reintroduced us as co-workers on LFL. Douglas's handshake was still powerful. He said he remembered me well. I doubted it, but it was very gracious of him.
John Houseman. I saw him often on TV ads for Smith, Barney, where he said something like "We make money the old-fashioned way. We earn it!" He referred to me in his book, as "a scholar but no artist," whatever that meant -- I was a scholar because I'd heard of van Gogh? Houseman was an annoying presence on the movie, a pompous ass.
John Rewald, the art consultant for LFL, was very interesting to be with. One night at dinner at the Black Sheep (or some restaurant in Amsterdam), we were researching the pictures to be used in the movie. It was very hot in the restaurant. We were seated by the maitre'd, who had a bunch of minute national flags in his pocket. He put a French tricolor in the center of our table, I assume since Rewald addressed him in French. But Rewald asked for an American flag. Near us was a table of four men, Germans, all in their shirtsleeves, their necks like those of George Grosz characters.
Rewald told the maitre'd to tell the Germans to put on their jackets. He did. They did. They saw our American flag and looked very angry. Rewald seemed to like it. I also met his mother once, when she was staying at the Forum hotel in Arles, and I watched her peel an orange in one graceful circuit.
Minnelli -- "faun eyes" -- pale, chain-smoking, cigarette holder; dank, short-sleeved white shirts, dark, high-wasted slacks, huaraches (with socks). He was nervous, mournful, agitated, a lot of lip working. As she grew older, Liza looked more and more like him. Minnelli was ill suited for LFL. I used to wonder why MGM did not use him for Moulin Rouge, and John Huston for LFL, so there probably would have been two good movies instead of what they got.
After I returned to the U.S., I had to teach at the junior high school in Pleasantville, N.Y. I had agreed to do that while a friend of mine enjoyed his Prix de Rome. I was about a month late because of Lust for Life, and my class had been through a lot of substitute teachers; the classes were completely out of control. Chaos reigned. The whole year was a nightmare. On the other hand, the local Westchester paper did several features about me as Vincent van Gogh's hands, etc., and that summer of 1955 was the end of my life as a teacher of the deaf, or as the teacher of annoying teenagers.
ROBERT ANDREW PARKER has a solo show coming up this spring at Davis-Langdale in New York.