Friday, October 25, 2019

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

USA, 113 minutes
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Writers: Irving Brecher, Fred F. Finklehoffe, Sally Benson, Victor Heerman, William Ludwig, Sarah Y. Mason, Doris Gilver
Photography: George J. Folsey
Music: Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane, Roger Edens, Conrad Salinger
Editor: Albert Akst
Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, Tom Drake, Leon Ames, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, June Lockhart, Harry Davenport, Marjorie Main, Joan Carroll, Hugh Marlowe, Robert Sully, Chill Wills

I always think of Meet Me in St. Louis as a Christmas movie because the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is such a memorable part of it, but it's actually an all-seasons story playing across a single year, from one summer to the following spring. I also tend to keep thinking of it as a '50s picture because the technicolor is so glowing, warm, and magnificent it feels about 15 years more modern. But there it is, cognitive dissonance or no, all the way back in 1944, taking a sudsy warm bath in nostalgia for 1903. When will it ever end? Nowadays we are nostalgic for the 1980s, when we were nostalgic for the 1940s. I should also mention this picture left me cold when I finally caught up with it for the first time not so long ago. I might have liked it more if I'd seen it first when I was younger. But honestly, it can ooze saccharine like putrescence (e.g., everything about the "You and I" scene).

Lately, seeing more movies from the times and coming to a late appreciation for the MGM musical as such, and Judy Garland specifically, I've made my peace with the relentless corn, which is not actually that relentless, only in isolated spots. If you take this movie for what it is—a wartime cotton candy escapism musical made of costumes and lighting and nostalgia—it's virtually undeniable, with decent to great tunes and dance sequences and a musical family clan like the von Trapps in The Sound of Music (obviously inspired by the children here, notably Margaret O'Brien, who is notable). But I want to talk about Meet Me in St. Louis as my somewhat unlikely pick for a Halloween picture this year (or sharing it with last week's Dead of Night). The bizarre Halloween quarter of Meet Me in St. Louis was reportedly director Vincente Minnelli's favorite part of the movie to work on, and it shows from the opening crane shot on.

There are strange details of Halloween rituals. The costumes, for example, are rags and charcoal markings. The youngest in the family, a morbid tomboy named Tootie—O'Brien, a careening prodigy who is half-splendid and half-trainwreck all through—explains that she is a horrible ghost and her sister Agnes (Joan Carroll) is a terrible drunken ghost. One was murdered in a den of thieves and the other died of a broken heart. She's never been buried because people are afraid to come near her. Then there is this dialogue: Mother (a graceful Mary Astor): "Now children, when people answer the doorbells, don't throw too much flour." Tootie: "Just a small handful right in their faces." This prank is referred to by the kids as "killing" someone. All this is news to me. I had a thought it might be like proto-giallo or something from the Italian Minnelli but the internet assures me some of these goings-on (such as flour throwing) have some historical basis that may make them plausible enough for 1903.

Still, I remain shocked, most of all by the bonfire. It's a bonfire. It's in the street, it's about the size of an automobile, and there is obviously no adult supervision. Nobody is older than 12. Apparently these kids are tearing down fences and stealing furniture to keep the flames stoked. They are continually busy at it. Some of the stuff going in the fire looks like parts of carriages and there are also nondescript wooden boxes of many sizes. When Tootie screws up her courage and kills a neighbor of whom they're all afraid (because of his bulldog), she's declared the bravest and the most horrible of them all and given a dining room chair to throw on the fire in recognition.

Later, Tootie is injured and needs stitches in a prank that involves stuffing a dress and putting it on the trolley tracks to create a riot of reaction and possibly throw the trolley off the tracks. The words might even still be ringing in our heads from not 20 minutes before: "Clang, clang, clang went the trolley / Ding, ding, ding went the bell / Zing, zing, zing went my heart strings / From the moment I saw [the body] I fell." Everyone laughs Archie Comics horse laughs over Tootie's hospital bed about the incident as if spending part of Halloween on such business is perfectly normal. At the end of the night they all gather together for ice cream. The maid (Marjorie Main) comes in and says, "Well, another Halloween. We're all a year older."

In fairness, Tootie is an unusually morbid girl at other times of the year too. But I don't believe Halloween has ever been observed the way it's shown here in St. Louis or Italy or on any planet. And then just like that the picture pivots into winter, and Christmas, and snow, and a group of snowmen that are more like an art installation in a sculpture garden. The story lurches into a manufactured happy gear, but not before we get Judy Garland giving it up for "Have Yourself." I was raised on the Sinatra version myself, so in a way I prefer those lyrics, which scrub out the melancholy more. But exactly because these small sad lyrical notes are alien, they feel unnaturally vivid with Garland singing them before us. For example: "Once again, as in olden days / Happy golden days of yore / Faithful friends that were dear to us / Will be near to us once more" (as opposed to Sinatra's "Faithful friends that are").

Well, that's Judy Garland for you all wrapped up in a beautiful Christmas bow. She's an iconic movie star for a reason and that song is enough to make the movie right there, never mind the treacle. But I love the Halloween section too. In its way, Meet Me in St. Louis is a kind of anthology film like Dead of Night, with notable shifts of tone and discontinuity in the changing seasons, even as it tells a rolling frame story. The autumn sequence is also unusual in that it mostly leaves out Garland and many of the musical trappings. The spring sequence is a coda of under five minutes, celebrating the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904. As a musical Meet Me in St. Louis soars on "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself," plus there's one of those dance sequences that make me insanely happy for "Skip to My Lou." This movie is a mixed bag—exactly.

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