Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Meet Me in St. Louis


Director Vincente Minnelli on the set with Judy Garland

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS            A                                                                                         USA  (113 mi)  1944  d:  Vincente Minnelli

You could say Meet Me in St. Louis was terribly sentimental, but it actually tapped into something primal, almost like a fairy tale.  Everything is perfect there, and we all desperately want the perfect family, the perfect house.  And it doesn’t seem arch or false because it’s done with such sincerity and passion.     —Terence Davies, British film director

I don’t want to be just introduced to him.  I want it to be something strange and romantic and something I’ll always remember!    —Esther Smith (Judy Garland)

Among the greatest musicals ever made, AFI listed it at #10, AFI's 100 YEARS OF MUSICALS | American Film Institute, capturing the same turn-of-the century nostalgia as Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), revealing the end of an era before the arrival of the automobile, suggesting times were simpler then, less cluttered and complicated, with most activities generated around the family home.  Released at the height of World War II, during a time when most of the news from the front was not pleasant, with food, gas, and clothing rationed, where for almost four years the U.S. military personnel suffered an average of 800 casualties per day, with 300 of them reported dead.  The American public at the time craved entertainment that distracted them from the incessant drumbeat of war, with this particular film reminding servicemen abroad what was waiting for them back home, creating an idyllic portrait of a happy middle-class family living in St. Louis in 1903, just months before the opening of the World’s Fair, otherwise known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, where the film highlights a time when all the drama is centered around the lives of the children.  What’s particularly noticeable is the powerlessness of women, as only men have jobs and a college education, controlling all the lucrative sources of income, while the role of women, just as it was in the era of Louisa May Alcott’s mid 19th century Little Women (2019), was to find a suitable husband, as a woman’s only means of support was through her husband.  Accordingly, the two older sisters spend the entire film searching for available husbands.  Opening with a different postcard image for each of the four seasons, which magically springs to life, it begins in the sweltering heat of the summer of 1903 (extending to the spring of 1904), with plenty of commotion surrounding the family dinner, wondering if the home-made ketchup is too sweet or too tart, with everyone offering their differing views, with Katie the maid (Marjorie Main) getting more testy with each opinion.  But from the outset, a fluid rhythm is established, as one by one all the children arrive home from their daily activities, each with their own stories to tell, all humming or singing the film’s theme song, and within minutes viewers are completely familiar with the goings-on inside the family home, Meet Me in St. Louis Opening Scene - Judy Garland YouTube (3:47).  Adapted from a short story by Sally Benson published in the New Yorker magazine entitled 5135 Kensington, the family address, there’s really not much of a story to speak of, more of an ensemble character piece, where the father (Leon Ames) at one point announces that he’s been promoted, heading a division of lawyers in New York, with the whole family moving shortly after Christmas.  Rather than the typical excitement he expected, everyone breaks out into tears, as their busy lives will be rudely disrupted, separated from relationships and friends, where they’ll even miss the World’s Fair.  Particularly devastated by the decision are two daughters, Esther (Judy Garland), the second oldest, who develops a romance with the boy next door, John Truett (Tom Drake, who was gay in real life, causing some degree of friction on the set, as an offscreen romance with Garland quickly fizzled out), and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), the youngest, filled with morbid imaginings, burying her dolls in the garden after inflicting them with imaginary fatal illnesses (“It’ll take me at least a week to dig up all my dolls in the cemetery”), yet who’s become accustomed to countless childhood traditions, but always as the youngest, wanting to grow into an expanded role, surrounded by friends and family (and dolls and snowmen), while also affecting the respective romantic entanglements of older sister Rose (Lucille Bremer) and brother Lon (Henry H. Daniels Jr.), while no one asks the opinion of grandpa (Henry Davenport).  While she’s not too keen on the idea either, the only level-headed response is his wife (Mary Astor), who calmly sits down at the piano and starts playing (after most have fled upstairs aghast at the thought), with her husband eagerly joining in (the dubbed voice is actually producer Arthur Freed), singing the pacifying duet “You and I,” You and I (duet) Meet Me In St. Louis YouTube (3:53), as one by one all the distraught family members return downstairs and gather around as they come to realize they still have each other, which is the essential family ingredient, hoping everything else will just take care of itself.  By the time Christmas rolls around, however, the sadness evidenced in the family household is just too much, with the father changing his mind, deciding to stay in St. Louis, as after all, it’s their home.  Continuing a prevailing theme, anyone who’s ever watched Judy Garland in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) already realizes “There’s no place like home.”

It’s important to mention Arthur Freed, the Tin Pan Alley songwriter turned producer whose famed unit at MGM helped reinvent the movie musical in the 40’s, basically setting the gold standard.  Judy Garland signed with MGM Studios at the age of 13, already a professional, performing in vaudeville with two of her siblings in The Gumm Sisters since the age of 2, but it was the studio that was largely blamed for Garland’s addiction to pills and booze, though her mother actually introduced her to amphetamine pep pills to keep her awake for late-night shows, then alcohol or barbituates to help her sleep afterwards.  Her big break was the lead role in THE WIZARD OF OZ when Garland was only 16, but she was constantly overworked by the studio with hopes of turning her into a superstar, promoting her as a triple threat, able to sing, act, and dance, yet behind the scenes were constant rumblings about not being pretty, constantly subjected to unwanted pressures about her looks, ordered to go on diets with regularity, where she was never viewed as a glamor girl, with studio head Louis B. Mayer referring to her as his “little hunchback.”  Finally turning 21, Garland was done playing child roles and wanted to play an adult, and was initially adamantly against her role in this film, but it was the director Vincente Minnelli who insisted, believing the role needed a certain maturity, in particular vulnerability, as she’s a bridge between childhood and adulthood, offering her a chance to showcase her beauty, where the camera’s love affair with her eyes is unforgettable, perhaps never looking so alluring, yet also needing the skill to dramatically perform the songs, which she could easily handle, introducing three songs that remained associated with her for the rest of her career, the a joyously upbeat “The Trolley Song,” the epitome of a young woman’s yearning for love in “The Boy Next Door,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” an extraordinarily tender rendition that just reverberates with sadness and heartache, where it’s hard to keep a dry eye in the house.  Unlike the Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly musicals that tap into the male mystique, this film is defined by strong women, which was particularly relevant due to the absence of men who were off fighting the war, with women taking many of their vacant jobs in factories and shipyards, helping to produce needed munitions and war supplies, embodied by the symbol of Rosie the Riveter.  Perhaps responsible for nostalgia films like Fellini’s AMARCORD (1973) or Woody Allen’s RADIO DAYS (1987), but also the plotless character studies of Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) and Gosford Park (2001), it’s impossible to talk about this film without mentioning the utterly spectacular use of Technicolor, where the director was an absolute master in capturing the aesthetic artistry of color during musical production numbers, with elaborate costume design, but in this film it continues throughout the entire film, a fantasia that explodes with unending luminosity, matching mood with vivid color designs.  No scene is more memorable than after a family party, just before John Truett returns home, Esther invites him to accompany her in the dimming of the household gaslights, moving from room to room, finding themselves engulfed in more darkness, with their closeness and the prospects of romance only magnified, where Minnelli’s gliding camera follows an overtly seductive Esther as she cajoles his polite assistance in carrying out the simple yet erotic task of turning off her house lights.  The sensuality of the moment is beautifully expressed, elevating all expectations, only to come crashing back down to earth an instant later by a dimwitted remark when he identifies the perfume she’s wearing as the same brand his grandmother wears.  In this film the color palette is utterly spectacular, bringing an extraordinary appeal to what we’re watching.  The director’s style tends towards longer takes, exquisite camera movement, including mesmerizing close-ups, while also accentuating distant framing, with cinematographer George Folsey given a free hand to glorify the flamboyant use of color, which feels bolder and more vibrant here than ever before. 

Minnelli continued to work at MGM for a quarter century (longer than any director in the studio’s history), specializing in musicals, romantic comedies, and melodramas.  Some may attribute a distinct “gay sensibility” to the film, as the director remained closeted his entire career.  Knowing he was gay, Garland happily married him anyway a year later, producing a daughter Liza who became the love of their life and a star of her own.  For such lighthearted material, there are subversive underlying tones of darkness, released the same year as film noir notables Double Indemnity (1944) and Laura (1944), actually expanding the shadowy interior of the large Victorian house, with much of the second half of the film taking place at night, yet dealing with the impending anxiety of moving to New York seems to uproot the safety net surrounding these characters, now more than ever needing to form romantic relationships, as nothing is guaranteed in the future except distance and instability.  For a lavishly decorative musical of its era, there’s a surprising amount of existential dread that adds emotional weight to the film, yet the mesmerizing talent of Judy Garland is indisputable, where no other performer, before or since, could provide the same range of expression, culminating with Garland’s melancholic singing on Christmas Eve of Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) – Judy Garland – Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas YouTube (3:12) in an attempt to console her younger sister Tootie, whose world is simply turning upside down, emphasizing their despair, as the entire house is dark and empty, stripped of its intimate decor, with stacks of boxes lying on the floor, with Tootie running outside afterwards to destroy the snowmen she so carefully and proudly constructed, representative of their happy family, simply breaking down into tears.  The movie was released in late November 1944 as Allied troops were approaching Germany, with the Battle of the Bulge occurring just a few weeks later, the last major German offensive on the Western Front.  No one could anticipate what might happen, anxiously awaiting who might prevail, whether the tide of the war would turn, and certainly no one knew who would perish and who would return home safely to their families.  This great unknown is what the song so beautifully anticipates and why it resonates with so many people, offering the lyric, “Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow.  Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” The song was especially popular with American troops, and it’s the dramatic turning point of the film, with their father witnessing the discomfort and unhappy emotional turmoil the move to New York is having on his youngest daughter, and really the entire family, so he changes his mind and opts for stability, exactly what was needed at that particular moment in America.  It should be pointed out that Sally Benson, author of the literary source material of the film, also co-wrote Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), released a year earlier, which may as well be the polar opposite of this film, filled with sinister implications and devious acts of evil in the form of Joseph Cotton as a murderous uncle, with Hitchcock relishing how easily his vile behavior is submerged under the optimistic charm of small town America, as if pretending it doesn’t exist.  Interesting the way these two films are intertwined, where happiness and evil are both part of the historical reality of the nation’s character.  Easily the most euphoric musical number is The Trolley Song - Meet Me In St. Louis - 1944 - Judy Garland YouTube (3:59), which is also a reflection of changing moods, with Esther showing her disappointment when John Truett isn’t there with the others to take a trolley ride to visit the construction site of the World's Fair.  Disconsolate and sitting alone, her mood quickly changes upon seeing him run to catch up, suddenly joining the happy festivities by singing along, beautifully capturing a mood of pure unfettered joy.  The exaggerated size and dazzling style of the women’s hats match the brightly coordinated costumes, creating a colorful pastiche of Americana.  In contrast, the wistful nature of yearning for love is beautifully captured early on before she even meets John Truett, but already has her heart set upon him in Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) – The Boy Next Door YouTube (3:41).  This picture of dreamy hope has a kind of innocence captured in THE WIZARD OF OZ ('39): "Over the Rainbow" (2:39), yet the performer has blossomed into a mature young woman, black and white has transitioned into glorious Technicolor, and Garland has never looked more radiantly appealing on film, offering what she felt at the time was the finest performance of her career, surpassed a decade later in A STAR IS BORN (1954).  

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