‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ is a nostalgic gem: a critical review

I rewatched Vincent Minnelli’s 1944 MGM classic Meet Me in St. Louis for the first time in a few years. I remember it being a lovely film with some wonderful music and great performance. My latest viewing didn’t disappoint, but I watched the film with a more discerning eye. I didn’t watch it as a Judy Garland fan, but as a literary critic.

The DVD edition of Meet Me in St. Louis I bought from Reckless Records was a special 2-DVD set that included a lot of extras – some better than others. The film begins with an introduction by Liza Minnelli, daughter of the director and the film’s star, Judy Garland. It’s a gushy introduction – to be expected because the singer-actress insists that the movie is when her parents fell in love. Among her pleasant – if fluffy critique – Minnelli pointed out some interesting cinematic facts, namely that Vincent Minnelli would often shoot Garland by framing her (either by window panes or doorways) and shoot her very attractively.

Keeping what Liza Minnelli said in mind, I re-watched Meet Me in St. Louis. I enjoyed the film, but I definitely looked at it with a more critical eye. Firstly, I realized just how much I disliked child star Margaret O’Brien, who plays Garland’s onscreen daughter, Tootie. I know this is controversial because MGM made a big push to make O’Brien a big star, and her performance overall is praised by film historians. I found the performance cloyingly sweet.

The script – based on Sally Benson’s book – written by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe, is an episodic tale of a year in the Smith family. It’s a slice-of-life tale of a family with each member having some sort of drama. The film focuses on Esther (Garland), the beautiful young girl who is crushing on her neighbor, John Truett (Tom Drake) and eldest daughter Rose (Lucille Bremer), who is waiting on tenterhooks for a marriage proposal from her beau. The main source of tension comes when the Smith patriarch Alonzo (Leon Ames) announces to his family that his law firm is relocating him to New York City. Instead of being met with cheers, his big news is met with tears and disappointment as his kids and his wife (Mary Astor) all mourn leaving their beloved St. Louis.

Meet Me in St. Louis as a period piece

The film is divided by seasons – we open with the summer. It’s when the movie shows period detail that it shines best. We meet the Smith family in the kitchen, with the family maid, Katie (an excellent Marjorie Main) making homemade catsup. The familial hierarchy is quickly established, as well – showing viewers how gender roles played out in the 1900s. Esther wants Rose access to the family phone without interruption, and hopes to schedule the family dinner an hour early. Contemporary viewers may feel a bit alienated at how tense and apprehensive the female members of the family are about broaching the subject of eating early to Mr. Smith.

The drama of the telephone is also handled well because today kids as young as five or six have cell phones, but telephones in private homes in the 1900s were rare. It’s also fascinating to hear from the script just how big of a deal it was to get a phone call – much less a long distance phone call. When Rose answers her call from New York City, both she and her boyfriend have to shout to each other, the reception being still relatively primitive. There’s also an economic element to the telephone scene – it’s mentioned more than once that long distance phone calls are prohibitively expensive, so much so that Rose’s boyfriend asks for discretion for fear that his parents would disapprove of his spending the money.

Alongside these markers, we’re also given more obvious notes of what time period we’re watching – namely the gorgeous costumes, designed by Oscar and Tony winner Irene Sharaff. Sharaff won Oscars for her work in An American in Paris (1951), The King and I (1956), The West Side Story (1961), Cleopatra (1964), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), among her fifteen nominations (surprisingly, she wasn’t nominated for Meet Me in St. Louis).

The costumes are elaborate and beautifully made – and highly idealized. The girls routinely waltz around in ball gowns. We’re to understand that the Smith family, while wealthy, isn’t rich, but we don’t see much in terms of economy or budget when the young ladies get suited and booted for social events.

I also noticed something pretty interesting – though, I’m sure I’m not the first to notice this tiny detail. In the famous (iconic, really) “The Trolley Song” number, Garland’s the only female cast member not to wear a wide-brimmed hat, nor is she bright colors.

In the sequence, Esther and her pals are piling into a trolley car to go to the swamp land to see the construction site for the World’s Fair. On the route, the group starts to sing the popular song, with Garland taking the lead. With what Liza Minnelli said in the introduction about framing, I realized that Garland wasn’t given a hat because she wouldn’t have been able to do the choreography, nor would she be able to stand out if her face was hidden by the brim of a hat; also there were moments when the other ladies surrounded her, and the brims of their hats created frames for Garland to appear; also, her darker outfit lets her stand out, as well. It’s this interesting collaboration between star, director, choreographer, and cinematographer that creates the interesting onscreen textual discourse.

Meet Me in St. Louis as a holiday film

There are two centerpieces in the film that take place during holidays: in the fall, we are visiting the Smith family during Halloween – and this is when the film becomes a star-making vehicle for O’Brien. After that sequence, we’re with the Smith family during the Christmas holidays (which is why this film is often referred to as a Christmas movie).

The Halloween sequence is the most controversial for me, because it contains some of the best elements of the movie, and yet some of the worst. Because the script is about a thoroughly functional, loving family, it does approach treacle schmaltz. The Halloween sequence allows for some of that sweetness to be cut through with some macabre humor.

Tootie and her sister Agnes (Joan Carroll) dress in hobo drag and meet up with the other kids in the neighborhood who are throwing old furniture into a bonfire. Again, for modern audiences, the Halloween traditions of the kids in the film may seem weirdly alien – boys are dressed in drag (picture hats, skirts, and bustles), and the kids go to neighbors’ front doors and throw flour in their faces to ward off the banshees. Oh, and the children throw furniture in a bonfire in the middle of the street.

It’s a strange scene that well-written and gives the film a much-needed dark edge. The lighting is suitably creepy – the kids with their false moustaches and plastic witch noses look grotesque in the orange glow of the bonfire. And the bonfire itself is pretty scary, because, let’s be honest, when has a bonfire not been scary?

Then in a strange twist, later on Halloween, Tootie is rushed to the Smith family, injured, crying with a bloody lip. She tearfully recounts a story in fitful spurts about Esther’s beloved John hitting her. Suddenly Meet Me in St. Louis takes a dark and disturbing turn as we’re watching a film about a grown man who beats up a five-year old.

Esther, incensed, rushes to his house and beats him up. Garland, a funny, if underrated comedienne, plays this scene of fury wonderfully.

But this would not be an MGM musical if the film really dealt with issues like violence against children – and it’s not. The twist is that instead of beating up Tootie, John was really saving her from the police after she and her pals threw a dummy onto the trolley tracks, causing a trolley car to derail.

And again, I have to say that the writers miss an opportunity leave a huge gaping hole: instead of being appropriately punished, Tootie is babied and coddled, despite lying about John beating her up, and more importantly almost killing dozens of people by causing a trolley to derail, all she gets is good-natured scolding and ice cream with cake. Earlier when Mr. Smith nearly broke his neck by stepping on Tootie’s errant skate, he deadpanned over dinner, “Tootie, remind me to spank you after dinner.” This movie takes place in a time when corporal punishment wasn’t frowned upon; so even though leaving a skate warrants spanking, derailing a trolley merely causes annoyed raised eyebrows.

Much more consistent is the Christmas sequence. With the move to New York City impending, the members of the Smith family are trying to make their last winter their best. Among the festivities, the kids build snow people in the yard and Esther and Rose are going to a ball, and are plotting a mean revenge on Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart, future star of TV’s Lost in Space), Rose’s rival for Warren Sheffield’s heart. To make her evening a nightmare Esther fills up the girl’s dance card with the dweebiest guys in St. Louis.

But quicker than you can say “mean girls” Lucille returns Warren to Rose’s arms, leaving Esther to dance with all the dance card rejects. It’s here that we get more of Garland’s comedic talents, as she’s passed around from one awkward and dorky dancer to another, ending up in the arms of a twelve year old before being whisked away by John.

The highlight of the Christmas sequence is Garland’s masterful performance of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which Esther sings to little Tootie as they gaze out a snowy St. Louis. Minnelli and Garland both made smart decisions in choosing to perform with the song with austere restraint instead of chest-beating emotion. Garland never looked better as she wistfully croons about a future Christmas “far away.” In O’Brien’s best moments in the film, she flees to the front yard to massacre her snow people and evinces sincere emotion from her audience – the only time when the young actress doesn’t feel forced or too cute.

An actor’s showcase

When presented with the role of Esther Smith, Garland bristled at yet another ingénue role. Though she was in her twenties, she was supposed to play a 17-year-old. In response to the role, Garland decided to play the role with an acidic archness making fun of the melodramatic highs of the script. Minnelli stopped filming and after some constructive instruction from the director, Garland removed her tongue from her cheek and performed with more sincerity. But there are moments where her slyness sneaks by, despite Minnelli’s objections. Unfortunately, she also indulges in some throbbing-voiced lamentations and emoting – the kind of performance most folks expect from Garland (few actresses in film history cried as much as Judy Garland).

Meet Me in St. Louis is one of MGM’s most enjoyable films – a nostalgic, feel-good sort of film with little drama. In her effusive intro, Liza Minnelli talked about how her father was selling the film to MGM execs and had to convince them to produce the film despite its light plot. It’s the stellar music that really sells the film.

The extras

I normally don’t review the extras but some of the extras including on the 2-DVD set of Meet Me in St. Louis run the gamut for great to head-scratchingly awful. The best is behind-the-scenes documentary, The Making of an American Classic. There are also some great trailers of Vincent Minnelli’s films including An American in Paris, Designing Woman, father of the Bride, and Gigi, among other musical classic. Speaking of trailers Turner Classic Movie includes Becoming Attractions: Judy Garland, that provides an incomplete viewing of Garland’s film trailers. These extras while not as great as the film, are enjoyable.

But there are some terrible inclusions, as well – most notably the pilot for the TV sitcom version of Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Shelley Fabares, Celeste Holm, and Reta Shaw. Filmed as a late 60s sitcom, the show is awful. The excruciatingly bad jokes are met with a low-din laugh track, and it feels like a strange episode of The Beverly Hillbillies.

What’s worse is something called Vintage Vitaphone Varieties musical short Bubbles, a bizarre short piece with child singers performing a celestial musical number. A tiny Garland is featured as part of the Gumm Sisters (the sister act she belonged to during her Vaudeville days). The musical number is creepy – the tiny tots were performing in that unnerving way that toddler hoofers do; it’s akin to baby beauty pageants.

Click here to buy Meet Me in St. Louis on DVD from amazon.com.

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