Vincente Minnelli’s Masterful Projections of the American Dream : Movies: The most comprehensive retrospective ever mounted of the director’s work begins Friday at the County Museum of Art.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vincente Minnelli’s name is synonymous with the glorious era of the MGM musicals--and rightly so. After all, he directed some of the greatest ever made, starting with the 1944 “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

Minnelli was a supreme stylist, possessed of an artist’s eye, an extensive and varied background in design, and considerable experience in the theater. The very mention of his name conjures up images of lush, often bold colors, stylized sets, fabulous costumes and fantastic dance numbers. Minnelli the artist was, however, at the same time a gifted, reliable craftsman who was one of the most versatile directors in the era of the studio system.

“Truly he was the only director who could be trusted with every kind of picture,” said Minnelli’s daughter Liza in a recent phone conversation. “He did everything! Musicals, melodramas, comedies. But, at the time, they were never Vincente Minnelli films or Rouben Mamoulian films or whoever’s films but always the studio’s films. People are always saying to me, ‘I didn’t know he directed that film.’ ”

The full range of that versatility will be on display in “Directed by Vincente Minnelli,” a series of Minnelli’s pictures that starts Friday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and which takes its name from Stephen Harvey’s handsome, incisive and photo-crammed new book. The retrospective, organized by the Museum of Modern Art (where Harvey is an associate curator), is a landmark occasion on two counts: It is the most comprehensive retrospective of Minnelli films ever mounted--it even includes sequences from other MGM productions he directed without credit--and is part of “American MovieMakers,” a major film restoration and exhibition program sponsored by AT&T.;

The new print of “Meet Me in St. Louis” (which will play one week at the Monica 4-Plex starting June 29, in addition to its Saturday screenings at LACMA) has been made from the original Technicolor negative, and the CinemaScope musicals will be screened for the first time in new color prints with stereophonic sound, courtesy of Turner Entertainment.

Although Minnelli is strongly associated with Hollywood glamour and fantasy, his daughter is right when she stresses the importance of his Midwestern roots in his values and clear-cut sense of right and wrong--these roots are as important as the fact that he was born into a theatrical family.

Minnelli made two of the best films about Hollywood in its golden age and the international era of filmmaking that succeeded it, “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Two Weeks in Another Town.” But when you think about it, he was just as concerned with the everyday lives of ordinary people. Think of the young wartime couple (his wife Judy Garland and Robert Walker) in “The Clock"; the family preparing for a wedding in “Father of the Bride” and then for a baby in “Father’s Little Dividend"; vacationing Lucy and Desi in “The Long, Long Trailer"; the troubled youth (John Kerr) in “Tea and Sympathy"; the father-and-son relationships in “Home From the Hill” and that ultimate nostalgic depiction of the traditional American family, “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

While it’s true that Minnelli never made a Western--and it’s too bad he didn’t--his range was indeed impressive. “Lust for Life” gave him full play to his acute sense of color as any of the Technicolor musicals--and remains one of the best film biographies of an artist ever, with Kirk Douglas ideally cast as Vincent Van Gogh.

Then there’s his remarkable version of “Madame Bovary,” starring Jennifer Jones, which was underestimated in its day and whose climactic, swirling, out-of-control waltz is as much a triumph of complex shooting and editing as the more famous Lana Turner hysterics-at-the-wheel sequence in “The Bad and the Beautiful.” And then there’s “Some Came Running,” based on James Jones’ novel of thwarted lives in a small Midwestern town in the late ‘40s, in which Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine and Dean Martin are at their most memorable.

Just think: Minnelli made those three films, not to mention other notable dramas and comedies in addition to such classic musicals as “Cabin in the Sky,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “An American in Paris,” “The Band Wagon” and “Gigi"--plus such venturesome musicals as “Yolanda and the Thief” and “The Pirate.”

“I did three pictures with Vincente Minnelli,” said Kirk Douglas, “and I was nominated for the Oscar for two of them--'The Bad and the Beautiful’ and ‘Lust for Life.’ (The third was “Two Weeks in Another Town.”) I always felt he was underrated because he was so self-effacing. He could do anything: He was great at musicals, great at dramas. He could be tough, but I always felt I was teacher’s pet: He’d look at me and yell at somebody else! Not very often did I feel I was the teacher’s pet of the director. Vincente Minnelli was a great guy, a genius, and I’m glad to see that even now he’s getting some recognition.”

Minnelli, who died in 1986, was a delightful raconteur and host, modest to a fault, gallant in the face of illness and possessed of a sense of humor that extended even to his well-known perfectionism. (It was not unusual for him to arrange the books on the shelves of one of his sets.) “He was never scornful of talent and gave everybody his due,” recalled Liza Minnelli, who thinks his greatest gift was building relationships within a movie--"and then intensifying them.

“He gave Americans another way of looking at themselves, he made them feel that was the way they had always seen themselves but never really had. There was a dream-like quality to his films. When people see ‘Meet Me in St. Louis,’ they feel ‘that’s the Christmas we’ve always wanted, the Thanksgiving we’ve always wanted, the childhood we wished we’d had.’ He had an affection for people that allowed him to project the American dream. He gave America a vision of itself.”