' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Meet Me In St. Louis

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

My Great Movies: Meet Me In St. Louis

"Sometimes, when I am very happy, I sing to myself. Sometimes, when they are very happy, so do the characters in 'Everyone Says I Love You.'" - Roger Ebert

This is what the esteemed Ebert wrote in regards to Woody Allen's great little musical from 1996. But that quote always seemed appropriate when also considering the 1944 musical "Meet Me in St. Louis", directed by Vincente Minelli and starring the one, the only Judy Garland (who would go on to be Minelli's wife not long after production). Very early one of the young Smith daughters, Agnes (Joan Carroll), enters the household that will be the primary and spectacular setpiece for the next couple hours and sings, "Meet me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me at the fair...." and so on. You may have heard this song. Then Grandpa Smith (Harry Davenport) enters and sings the same lines. The infamous 1904 World's Fair is set to descend upon the Smith family's hometown the next year and, hey, they're all so darn happy about it they sing out loud.

My generation was not raised on musicals. Rarely do they get made in this day and age and if they do, they are often considered spectacular failures (Coppola's "One From the Heart", last year's "Romance & Cigarettes"). Why is this? The most likely answer is the musical is typically not meant to represent reality. They are more inherent to the stage than the movie set. In most musicals the story (or what passes for one) stops dead in its track so the well produced song & dance number can make its dazzling appearance. The audience came for a show so let's put one on.

"Meet Me in St. Louis" was different. It was one of the very first movie musicals to integrate its songs into realistic settings. The tunes are all parts of the story and comment heavily on the action taking place within the actual story. This is rare, and is why, I think, I went along with it from the beginning. I've never danced in rain puddles like Gene Kelly but after Nebraska beat Colorado a few weeks ago I did a happy little dance around my kitchen while getting ice cubes for my cocktail glass and poorly singing a bit of ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down".

Consider one of the two most famous numbers from the film, "The Trolley Song". A group of people, including Garland's Esther, have assembled to take a trolley down to the burgeoning fair grounds. Esther was hoping the boy she loves, the boy next door, John Truett (Tom Drake), would be accompanying them. He does not show up. The trolley leaves and everyone bursts into song, not just because they screenplay dictates "burst into song" but because they are elated to get their first glimpse of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition's setting. Esther, on the other hand, dejectedly sits by herself. What does this fairground visit mean without the presence of the boy for whom she pines?

But alas, someone suddenly turns up, desperately running after the trolley! Why, it's John Truett! Now she gets a smile and excitedly descends to where he scampers after the trolley, singing along with the others. The song isn't just meant to be a show-stopper but a reflection of Esther's mood. These songs are not similar to the songs of last year's "Once" but their use within the film is the same.

The movie is divided into four acts, or vignettes, each one representing a certain season. Summer to autumn to winter to spring, briefly, to close things out. The World's Fair occupies everyone's thoughts but there are other developments. In spring we find the oldest daughter, Rose (Lucille Bremer), waiting on a proposal from Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully) in New York City, except he plans to do it via phone at dinner time and the only phone in the whole house is stationed off to the side of the dining room and surely no one wants to say "I do" when their entire family is within earshot. This is also when Esther first spies "the boy next door", instantly becoming smitten. Luckily, their brother Lon (Henry H. Daniels Jr.) is having a going-away party, as he is set to enroll at Princeton in the fall, and Rose quickly invites John Truett to attend.

The party itself contains several tunes but if you assume it to be unlife-like I strongly advise you to attend the next party at the apartment building I live in and wait to watch as it dissolves into a very un-rhythmic hoedown to Alabama's "Dixieland Delight" and then tell me how unlife-like it is.

The autumn vignette is set on Halloween, serving up the Smith household's exterior with sumptuous orangeish lighting, and initially focuses on youngest daughter Tootie (Margaret O'Brien), usually referred to as being rambunctious or perhaps precocious. As my friend Rory pointed out, though, perhaps "psychotic" would be a better term. Consider the exchange at the start of this scene establishing the Halloween plans of young Tootie and her sister and how their neighbor not only poisons cats but beats his wife with a "red hot poker." Uh, beats his wife? Shouldn't these claims be investigated a bit more deeply?

The prevaling theme in relation to the character of Tootie is the power of a child's imagination and overcoming the fears that can often be conjured by that imagination but older movies tended to be a bit less subtle in their delivery of themes, as seen here. None of this is meant to completely excuse Tootie's sidestory. I admit to sometimes skipping over these parts when I watch the film. And then there is O'Brien's performance which to this modern day moviegoer can sometimes get just a bit too grating.

Yet, the film is wise enough to know that the scariest Halloween event has nothing to do with poisoned cats but the discovery that the home you know and love will soon be no more. Once everyone has re-gathered at the house Mr. Smith sits them down at the dinner table and announces that because of a promotion at work the family will be leaving St. Louis behind at the start of the new year for a new home in New York City.

This understandably leaves the family heartbroken and so Mrs. Smith steps to the piano and plays "You and I" as her husband joins to sing along. Again, this is no showtune, this is two people using music as solace, and not unlike those moments when I play "Racing in the Street" by Bruce just so I can hear those last lines about he and his baby riding to the sea to wash their sins from their hands. And notice how the shot is framed - with the stairs in the background, allowing everyone to come back downstairs to gather around the piano, re-united as a family, the song healing wounds. This is the "Tiny Dancer" sequence in Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" 56 years before it happened.

The third vignette in winter may be the most memorable and is why "Meet Me in St. Louis" is often considered a Christmas film. A dance on Christmas Eve that finds Esther without a date when John Truett is unable to get hold of his tuxedo, only to be saved by gallant Grandpa who paves the way for an expected surprise that proves knowing what is going to happen often does not deflate a viewer's joy. (Sadly, if there is one character in the whole film with whom I can say I truly identify it would probably be Esther's initial dance partner, the hapless Clinton Badger. Poor guy. I always feel bad for him.)

Then, of course, in arguably the film's most famous sequence, Garland sings "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" to her younger sister who is lamenting the fact they are all on the verge of leaving the only home they've ever known. But again, this song may not be precisely as you remember it. Critic Eric Henderson has noted how this venerable yuletide anthem "actually reveals itself to be a bitterly ironic lament for the unreliability of everything, even the holiday spirit."

As we know, Judy Garland starred in another movie, a more famous movie, also involving the power our home holds, but the older I get the more I feel distanced from it because it primarily represents the childhood fear of leaving home and, in fact, the acclaimed author Terry McMillian has noted, "The land of Oz wasn't such a bad place to be stuck in. It beat the farm in Kansas." But "Meet Me In St. Louis" seems to address that as the older you get, the more you bounce around, you realize you're on a journey to find home, and sometimes you don't realize right away that you're there, that you're where you want to be.

Have I found home yet? I don't know. But I sense myself getting closer. On Election Night as I sat in my friend's apartment, watching the new President give his speech to thousands upon thousands of people in Grant Park, receiving voicemails and text messages from family and friends in relation to how the city I lived in was suddenly the center of the universe, I could have almost carried out my own version of the greatest closing lines any movie has ever provided, "It's right here where we live. Right here in Chicago."

2 comments:

Rory Larry said...

The Halloween sequence will haunt me to the end of my days. And Tootie is quickly on her way to serial murder. Aileen Wuornos in the making. But the film definitely has a fair bit of charm to it.

Nicholas Prigge said...

"On her way to serial murder." That would have been a great idea for an all Tootie sequel about 10, 15 years after this one: Meet Me In San Quentin.