Cine-East Film Club Presents #36 (Christmas Special): 1944, Meet Me In St Louis (Vincente Minnelli)

by George_East on December 30, 2013

Esther Smith:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

Let your heart be light

From now on your troubles

Will be out of sight’

Last year’s Cine-East Film Club Christmas presentation was, as it had to be in the Club’s debut year, Frank Capra’s wonderful but darker than sometimes appreciated, It’s A Wonderful Life.

This year we turn to the greatest director of film musicals, Vincente Minnelli’s first big hit and maybe Judy Garland’s most perfectly realised film, Meet Me In St Louis.    Indeed it is one of the most perfectly realised of all of the MGM musicals – to my mind, only a couple of pegs below Cine-East Film Club’s debut presentation and the greatest musical ever made, the peerless Singin’ In The Rain.

The film tells the tale of a well-to-do St Louis family, the Smiths, in the run up to the 1904 World’s Fair, told in four seasonal sections.   Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames) is a successful lawyer whose salary supports a large household consisting of his wife, Anna (Mary Astor), Anna’s father (Harry Davenport – best known as Dr Meades in Gone With The Wind) a son Lon (Henry Daniels), and four daughters: Rose (Lucille Bremer), Esther (Judy Garland) and the much younger Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien).   Alonzo  accepts a promotion to head up his law firm’s New York office threatening to disrupt the lives of his daughters and thereby preventing the family from visiting the world’s fair.

Meet Me In St Louis is a film which essentially takes the opposite basic tack to It’s A Wonderful Life.  Whereas in Capra’s film, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) spends his entire life and most of the film dreaming of escaping Bedford Falls and seeing the world, in Meet Me In St Louis the Smith daughters want nothing more than to stay in St Louis where their whole world is.  Indeed, with the coming of the World’s Fair the whole world is coming to St Louis, so what possible need is there to leave their hometown?

The outside world is portrayed in It’s A Wonderful Life as a life-enhancing place of adventure; in Meet Me In St Louis, it is a threat to the family and its happiness.  In particular New York is portrayed as a threat, full of ‘tenements’ and buildings with 100 or more flats, rather than the detached houses of the upper middle class bits of St Louis where the Smiths live.  It is a house which is wholly their own and within which they are safe.   There is more than a hint that they are afraid that Alonzo’s salary won’t go quite as far in New York as it does in supporting their very comfortable mid-west lifestyle.

The outside world also threatens the happiness of the eldest daughter, Rose.  When Rose’s boyfriend, Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully) calls from New York, despite all of her expectations he fails to propose.   He will, later, rather comically get round to it, once he is back in St Louis.    The threat to Rose’s happiness and rival to Warren’s affections is identified as ‘north eastern girl’, Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart).  Although this will turn out to be a threat largely existing in the minds of Rose and Esther, it is no doubt that they believe that Lucille’s non-St Louis background makes her extra-dangerous.

This is really the film’s key message: nothing can really threaten the family and home, providing they stick together, which they will.  This is wonderfully emphasised by Minnelli by showing immediately following Alonzo’s announcement of his promotion and their imminent move to New York to his family’s chagrin, the family slowly gathering again in the sitting room to eat cake and listen to their parents playing the piano and singing.  Family unity is quickly restored..

Indeed Alonzo’s change of mind towards the end of the film, which comes as he watches his youngest daughter, Tootie, in rage that they are to move to New York, decapitate the snowmen the family has patiently built, comes at no apparent or at least no anticipated cost (he is simply going to tell his employer that as he is a junior partner he isn’t going).   Family (or at least family rooted in their home) trumps all.    It is a film, which barely moves outside of the Smith residence for a very good reason – it is where happiness can be best assured.

Of course this is an MGM musical and so happy endings and neat resolutions are to be expected.  It is a fantasy of middle class contentment.  Both Rose and Esther get their proposals – Rose’s in her house, Esther’s to the boy next door, the family stays in St Louis and they all get to go to the World’s Fair.   However, to dismiss the film for such convenient and cosy resolutions is to be in danger of missing its delights.

And if you look closer it is not all warmth and family bonhomie.  The 5 year old Tootie (and to a lesser extent Agnes) is positively psychopathic.   She kills off numerous of her own dolls and buries them in the garden, she throws flour at a poor unsuspecting neighbour who is singled out by the children in a rather sinister trick or treat sequence (‘kill them, kill them all’ is the invocation).   Most disturbingly of all, Tootie and Agnes put a fake body on a tram line in an attempt to derail the street car.  This is something they think is hilarious (as if the police would suspect little girls, as Tootie brags knowingly).  Tootie even attempts to blame her injuries on Esther’s boy next door, John Truett.

It has always struck me that the Smith family, in taking Tootie’s potentially fatal acts in trying to derail the tram as mere childish japes, are way too indulgent, that perhaps their emphasis on the sanctity of the family above all has given Tootie a belief that she is untouchable and can get away with anything.  This is only underlined by the fact that it is Tootie’s destructive acts in massacring the snow people on the front lawn, that leads to Alonzo changing his mind about the family moving to New York.  A five year old girl having a strop has caused the family’s only breadwinner to refuse the promotion he has been offered.  Why wouldn’t she think she could literally get away with murder?

Margaret O’Brien as Tootie is extraordinary – I cannot think of any comparably crazed but credible performances from a child her age (she was 7 years old when Meet Me In St Louis was made).   Next to Judy Garland, it is her film.

The setting and art design are wonderful.  As ever Minnelli’s attention to detail is extraordinary – with the clothes of the Smith family changing with the seasons – getting darker and darker as their departure from St Louis approaches and then turning into bright white in spring 1904 when they have had their reprieve and are on their way to the world’s fair.  The title cards announcing each of the four seasonal sections go from black and white to colour drawings of the front of Smith house to a dissolve to a live set up exactly replicating the drawings.  It is gorgeous.

To top it all the songs are perfection.  Judy, who sings solo or part of all but one song (the one between the father and mother) has two songs which give free rein to her incredible ability to express raw emotion:  the longing of The Boy Next Door and the sad and plaintive Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (as used in the film it is not the happy song of popular imagination), when they still think they are going to have to leave St Louis.  She also has the key part in the Trolley Song (‘clang clang clang went the trolley, ding ding ding went the bell), one of the great set piece ensemble songs in any musical (up there with Good Morning in Singin’ In The Rain).   And then there is that theme song, repeated throughout the film, with its genius and cheeky mispronunciation of the name of the city (Louis as in King rather than Lewis as it should be) and which is utterly infectious.

Meet Me In St Louis is famous for its groundbreaking use of song to develop plot rather than, as with most 1930s musicals, the songs being set pieces for which the action stops (in many early musicals the songs were numbers performed on stages, incorporated into the plots, whether in theatres or in night clubs).   There were, of course, other films, which had done this before (not least Judy’s own Wizard of Oz), but none with as much skill in their integration of the songs into the plot.   It would become the model for musicals throughout the genre’s heyday from the second half of the 1940s to the mid 1960s.

One last thing, though.  Is it me or is there a sense of anti-climax and disappointment in the Smiths in the end sequence at the world’s fair?  Even though they have been waiting all year to go and it is the moment that St Louis makes its mark on the world, there is a sense that the Smith family are trying to pretend that it is as spectacular as they hoped.   But maybe this isn’t surprising, after all.

In truth, they didn’t need the whole world to come to St Louis in the shape of the world’s fair, because their whole word is not even St Louis but their house on Kensington Avenue.  For them, maybe, this is where they really want to meet in St Louis, not at the fair.

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