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Following his high school graduation, Minnelli moved to Chicago, where he lived briefly with his maternal grandmother and an aunt. His first job was at Marshall Field's department store as a window dresser. He later worked as a photographer for Paul Stone, who specialized in photographing actors from Chicago's theater district. His interest in the theater grew and he was greatly interested in art and immersed himself in books on the subject. Minnelli's first job in the theater was at the Chicago Theatre where he worked as a costume and set designer.
Owned by Balaban and Katz, the theater chain soon merged with a bigger national chain of Paramount-Publix and Minnelli sometimes found himself assigned to work on shows in New York City. He soon left Chicago and rented a tiny Greenwich Village apartment. He was eventually employed at Radio City Music Hall shortly after its 1932 opening as a set designer and worked his way up to stage director – he was also tasked to serve as a color consultant for the original interior design of the Rainbow Room.
After leaving Radio City Music Hall, the first play Minnelli directed was a musical revue for the Shuberts titled At Home Abroad which opened in October 1935 and starred Beatrice Lillie, Ethel Waters, and Eleanor Powell. The revue was well received and enjoyed a two-year run. Minnelli later worked on The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, Hooray for What!, Very Warm for May, and The Show is On. Minnelli's reputation grew and he was offered a job at MGM in 1940 by producer Arthur Freed.
With his background in theatre, Minnelli was known as an auteur who always brought his stage experience to his films. The first film that he directed, Cabin in the Sky (1943), was visibly influenced by the theater. Shortly after that, he directed I Dood It (also 1943) with Red Skelton and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), during which he fell in love with the film's star, Judy Garland. They had first met on the set of Strike Up the Band (1940), a Busby Berkeley film for which Minnelli was asked to design a musical sequence performed by Garland and Mickey Rooney. They began a courtship that eventually led to their marriage in June 1945. Their one child together, Liza Minnelli, grew up to become an Academy Award-winning actress and singer. The Minnelli family is thus unique in that father, mother and child all won Oscars.
Known as the director of musicals, including An American in Paris (1951), Brigadoon (1954), Kismet (1955), and Gigi (1958), he also directed comedies and melodramas, including Madame Bovary (1949), Father of the Bride (1950), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), The Long, Long Trailer (1954), Lust for Life (1956), Designing Woman (1957), and The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963). His last film was A Matter of Time (1976).
During the course of his career he directed seven different actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Spencer Tracy, Gloria Grahame, Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, Arthur Kennedy, Shirley MacLaine and Martha Hyer. Grahame and Quinn won. Minnelli received an Oscar nomination as Best Director for An American in Paris (1951) and later won the Best Director Oscar for Gigi (1958). According to Peter Bart in his book The Gross, Minnelli's films having 11 first-place finishes on Variety's opening release box office rankings.
He was awarded France's highest civilian honor, Commandeur of the Legion of Honor, only weeks before his death in 1986.
Minnelli's critical reputation has known a certain amount of fluctuation, being admired (or dismissed) in America as a "pure stylist" who, in Andrew Sarris' words, "believes more in beauty than in art." Alan Jay Lerner (of Lerner and Loewe) described Minnelli as, "the greatest director of motion picture musicals the screen has ever seen."
His work reached a height of critical attention during the late 1950s and early 1960s in France with extensive studies in the Cahiers du Cinéma magazine, especially in the articles by Jean Douchet and Jean Domarchi, who saw in him "a cinematic visionary obsessed with beauty and harmony", and "an artist who could give substance to the world of dreams". Minnelli served as a juror at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival. The MGM compilation film That's Entertainment! showed clips from many of his films.
On February 8, 1960, Minnelli received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions to the motion pictures industry at 6676 Hollywood Boulevard.