Sunday morning I found myself happily ensconced in a seat at Film Forum for a screening of an old favourite: Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). I have seen this film at least a dozen times if not more but never on the big screen and boy was it a treat.
In many ways, Meet Me in St. Louis is a perfect film with just the right blend of drama, humour, romance, and music. Using the seasons to divide the story into four sections, the film covers one year in the life of the Smiths, a well-to-do, middle-class family living in St. Louis in 1903.
Parents Alonzo (an attorney) and Anna Smith preside over their brood consisting of their son, Lon Jr., and four daughters, Rose, Esther, Agnes, and Tootie. Wise Grandpa and a salt of the earth maid named Katie round out the household.
Meanwhile, Esther has been pining over John Pruett, the boy next door, and her efforts to get his attention are rewarded when she and her siblings throw a party, and the two are finally introduced. Sparks fly and soon after John joins Esther on a trolley ride out to see the construction of the World's Fair.
Their relationship is tested though on Halloween when Tootie is found injured and claims that John attacked her. Esther decides to take matters into her own hands and confronts John, punching him in the face. After Agnes arrives home the truth comes out: the two girls were in the midst of attempting a dangerous prank with the trolley when John dragged them away so they wouldn't get into trouble (the two youngest Smiths seem to have a fascination with the morbid). Esther apologies and all is forgiven.
Yet that same evening the family’s happy world is shaken up when Mr. Smith announces that his firm is sending him to New York and that they will have to leave St. Louis. Everyone is devastated.
Winter finds the house packed up in anticipation of the impending move. At the Christmas Eve Ball, the elder Smith siblings at first are without dates but by the end of the evening Lon is with Lucille Ballard (a visitor from back East), and John proposes to Esther who bursts into tears at the thought of being parted from her family.
Returning home, she has a conversation with Tootie, who’s waiting up for Santa, about the move. A tearful Tootie runs out into the garden to destroy her snow people because she'd rather "kill them" if she can’t take them to New York. Mr. Smith witnesses this and has a change of heart. Calling the family together, he declares that they will stay in St. Louis after all. The family is happy once again including Rose who finally gets that proposal.
The film ends in the spring of 1904 with the family attending the World Fair. Gathered together, watching the lights go on, they are overwhelmed by the grandness, and Esther utters the final lines: “I can’t believe it. Right here where we live. Right here in St. Louis.”
Meet Me in St. Louis is thoroughly delightful and one of the best of the MGM musicals. The cast is stellar, beginning with Judy Garland who is absolutely radiant. When she was first told about the role she didn’t want to do it because she had just recently graduated to adult roles and thought that playing a high school girl would be a step back. Luckily, she changed her mind. Esther Smith is the type of role that Garland was so good at: the young woman who is a mix of sweetness and pluck with a good dose of humour (Garland had excellent comic timing).
She also never looked more beautiful on screen. Much of this is due to make-up artist Dorothy Ponedel whom Minnelli personally chose. Garland was reportedly so happy with the results that she requested Ponedel for the rest of her films. She was also dressed in gorgeous outfits by Sharaff that flattered, including a dark red gown for the Christmas Eve Ball and the layered white confection and matching hat at the end of the film. And one cannot discount the film’s director who strove to capture Garland at her best. The two fell in love on set and married shortly after the film was over.
Leon Ames and Mary Astor are the perfect Mr. and Mrs. Smith; Harry Davenport makes a loving Grandpa; Tom Drake as John Pruett is a bit bland but good looking; Lucille Bremmer is right as big sister Rose; and the incredible Marjorie Mains as Katie is excellent, getting most of the laughs in the film. As for Margaret O’Brien as Tootie, I know that some people adore her (she even won a special Oscar for this role) but for me she’s just a bit too cute, a little too precocious.
Shot in glorious Technicolour, the film is lovely to look at. Minnelli made great use of colour from the costumes to the rooms to the red and white striped awnings over the windows of the house.
And then there is how he chose to shoot the scenes. At the Christmas Eve Ball, the camera pushes in from outside and stays high, showing the dancers on the ballroom floor, their gowns of various shades swaying across the floor, before coming down to focus in on Rose and Esther. When Esther and Grandpa waltz around the room, the viewer sees them dance away from the crowd and behind a Christmas tree. Without missing a beat of the music, Esther reappears in the arms of the newly arrived John and the two blend smoothly in with the other dancers. This scene brings to mind the brilliant ballroom scene that Minnelli would later film in Madame Bovary.
For the Halloween scene in which the local children burn old furniture and dare each other to ring someone's doorbell and then throw flour in the person's face when they answer (which they call “killing” someone), Minnelli had the camera shoot low to give the impression of seeing everything from Tootie’s viewpoint. It's a departure from the rest of the film and the studio apparently wanted it cut from the film but it works and adds the right tone.
The best though is the scene with Esther and John at the end of the Smith-hosted party. Esther asks John to accompany her around the house as she turns off the lights because she’s “afraid of mice.” He agrees and as the two move from room to room, the light getting dimmer and dimmer, you see John falling for Esther. Finally there are just two lights left on behind a glowing Garland. John is totally smitten with her as is the audience.
Minnelli had begun his career working as a set designer in the theatre and his legendary eye for detail is apparent in this film. The large Victorian house that the Smiths reside in is shown in all its glory with each room decorated and filled with items that make the house appear like a real home (it was, in fact, built specifically for the film on the MGM lot). Even in the opening scene in the kitchen, the ingredients that are shown and used give the appearance that they are really making ketchup.
Last but certainly not least there is the music. The film mixes traditional or preexisting works like "Skip to My Lou" and "Meet Me In St. Louis" with some new ones written specially for the film by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. "The Boy Next Door," which establishes Esther's crush on John Pruett, is the first song in the film (if you don't count the snippets of "Meet Me in St. Louis"). Esther sits staring across at his place, singing lines like "but he doesn't know I exist," with a poignancy that is pure Garland. "The Trolley Song" on the other hand is upbeat and fun with its "Clang, clang, clang went the trolley; ding, ding, ding went the bell." As for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," it's absolutely heart wrenching and probably as depressing a Christmas song as you can get. All of these songs showcase not only Garland’s range but also perfectly reflect the changing moods of the story.
At Sunday's screening, the audience laughed at all of the jokes, some people bobbed their heads along to the songs, and at the end there was applause. As I said, a perfect film.