Saturday, August 30, 2008

Meet Me in St Louis


Filling up the gap in my film history education, as I haven't seen even the most famous and classic movie musicals which everyone else seems to have. This 1944 film by Vincent Minnelli looks to me the most typical and generic of not only musicals but also those movies in which everything ends happily ever after just right at the time of Christmas.

As I said in my post on The Bandwagon, criticising these films feels pointless, and worse, almost like kicking a puppy, however irritatingly cute. Meet me in St Louis makes a case for regionalistic identity and the value of family and community ties - though it doesn't really take this theme of big city vs small town life too far. The songs are all wonderful though there aren't as many I would have liked. I specially loved the "The Boy Next Door" and "The Trolley Song". The title tune is also great, something that will keep you humming long after you have seen it.

Unlike in regular musicals most of the songs are not part of the narrative and they don't forward the plot, on the other hand they halt the narrative by making us aware of the inner feelings and mood of the character, which normal dialogues wouldn't have been able to do. Unlike The Bandwagon this is also much more conventional in visual design - there are no graceful camera movements or dissolves or things like that. It is mostly static with characters just standing and singing.

It is not all happy ending however. There is a little girl who is alarmingly obsessed with death, though ultimately her artificial cuteness offsets any dramatic import that those scenes might have had. There is however one scene in which she "kills" her ice statues after realizing that she wouldn't be able to take them with her when she leaves St. Louis which is genuinely powerful. Overall a good wholesome entertainment something I should have seen when I was a kid.

4 comments:

puccinio said...

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This 1944 film by Vincent Minnelli looks to me the most typical and generic of not only musicals but also those movies in which everything ends happily ever after just right at the time of Christmas.
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Actually that is only from a modern perspective. In it's day, ''Meet Me in St. Louis'' was regarded as a highly radical film and a breakthrough in the film musical genre. Musicals until that film had(with few exceptions) concerned the lives of backstage singers, broadway theatre society and the like.

''Meet Me in St. Louis'' was the first time that musicals were set in the everyday world. The film has no plot at all. In fact the move out of St. Louis happens only in the final quarter or so before that it's just a seires of episodes of everyday detail, rituals, celebrations of life in a small-town American society.

It was also one of the few times that a musical wasn't adapted straight out of Broadway but based instead on stories by Sally Benson based on her own childhood(Ms. Benson was later one of the credited writers for the screenplay of...''Shadow of a Doubt''). In fact the title song, ''Meet Me in St. Louis'' was a real life folk song from the early 1900's of America as was ''Skip to the Lou, My Darling''.

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As I said in my post on The Bandwagon, criticising these films feels pointless, and worse, almost like kicking a puppy, however irritatingly cute.
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That's a very weird way(and I must say, condescending) way of looking at musicals. Yes musicals are about celebration, about joy, about fun...things which are very much part of real life...but to say that tey are inferior because they don't deal with..."deep themes" is frankly elitist.

''Meet Me in St. Louis'' is about the transcience of day-to-day lives and pleasures. About simple rituals that make life worth living that people take for granted but which musicals celebrate into something transcending. That's actually at the heart of many of the greatest musicals. Like Gene Kelly, "singin' in the rain", it's just him, an empty street, an umbrella and the result is the most euphoric moment in film history. The reason for the euphoria...the man has just fallen in love.

''Meet Me in St. Louis'' also has this very iconoclastic view towards childhood that's very different from most films dealing with the subject. Like the bit where Tootie yells in delight that "she's the most horrible". It's about childhood as anarchy and how little Margaret O'Brien gets to be absolutely free as a bird and speak her mind and say what she feels with perfect innocence, innocence that's shattered when she breaks those snowmen. The older characters have their own concerns and own life bothering them and they don't share the innocence that the little girl, the baby of the family does and what drives the father to stay in St. Louis is of course her breakdown which he sees as too big a price.

And actually the thing of the film which was perfectly aware to it's original 40's audience but goes over the heads of the 21st Century Folks is that the small-town life that it celebrates is lost foreover even if they decide to stay in St. Louis forever. Audiences knew fully well that it's nostalgic idyll was already gone for good in the Great Depression which made the ending very sad to some.

Musicals of the MGM variety while people criticized(not without reason) for being conservative and the like were like many Hollywood films carefully subversive and iconoclastic and not really as black-and-white conservative as people make them out to be. And in fact ''It's Always Fair Weather'', one of the last major musicals of the classical era, is as bleak and sad a film you'll ever find.

Musicals of the classical era probably have their equivalents in those comedies Shakespeare wrote, many of them are light and frothy but they also had a philosophical character. In fact, the MGM unit included many Francophiles and they were fairly influenced by existentialism when it came out although they put their own optimistic, light-headed way to do it.

Vincente Minnelli made many excellent musicals. His first film, ''Cabin in the Sky'' is a great film. Today people have issues with it being an all-black musical which are usually set in fantastic lands with no white people and there's no doubting the fact that the form of the film was an easy conservative way out by the bosses and did nothing to stop or prevent the spread of racism.

That said, it's still a beautiful film(with visual beauty worthy of ''Sunrise''), great music and great performances by great singers like Ethel Walters, Lean Horne(one of the most sexy presences in film history) and a cameo by the Duke Ellington band.

Then ''The Pirate'' his final film with Judy Garland was a box-office failure in it's day but to many people it's one of the greatest and most intelligent of musicals(and comedies and adventure stories as well).

''An American in Paris'' and ''Gigi'' have lost some favour these days but both are great. But his last musical, ''Bells Are Ringing'' is a masterpiece.

Alok said...

I think I was a bit harsh and unfair there and also a little facetious.

I loved those few moments which as you said show the rituals of daily life, like the one in the beginning in which everyone tastes the soup and says something different. Too sour, too sweet, too thick... that made me smile and also reminded me of my own family, actually it is true for every family in the world.

What annoyed me was the portrait of the romantic relationships of both the girls. Judy Garland seemed as if she was doing an unintended parody without realizing that she is not in the wizard of oz anymore. (btw, I love Wizard of Oz very much!) The Boy Next Door was good, but i had to get over my cringing.

The little girl has quite a few great scenes but like her elder sisters she looked artificial. Still the scene with the snowmen was great and so was the halloween sequence.

In general at no place did I think that it was dishonest, manipulative and hypocritical. In fact the framing device of using dissolves from a fantasy picture book to separate different parts of the story clearly shows the element of self-consiousness. It makes no pretense of being anything other than a portrait of reality as people would like it to be which I guess has its use since it makes us contrast this with the reality as it is.

puccinio said...

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Judy Garland seemed as if she was doing an unintended parody without realizing that she is not in the wizard of oz anymore.
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Actually...you're going to love this...Liza Minnelli on the introduction she does for the DVD says that Judy Garland(who in real life was a very complex, tragic person) didn't want to do the film because she felt it typecasted her even further as a child actor which she didn't want to be and didn't see herself. So initially she did in fact do the role tongue in cheek like. Vincente Minnelli got irritated and convinced her to be sincere in the role of an old-fashioned girl of early 1900's America whose world did revolve around romance, love and other things.

Both she and Vincente Minnelli fell in love with each other during the shoot and Liza Minnelli was their only child. Vincente Minnelli also helped her a lot by removing much of the make-up that the MGM brass put on her. The thing was that studio bosses at MGM whose films in the 30's depended on children's fare went to great lengths to keep their child stars looking like children.

This included the then condoned idea of giving them prescription drugs, barbiturates and forcing ugly make-up on them, like strapping their breasts so that they they don't show to create that image for them. This "treatment" at the hands of MGM which by today's standards is very much child abuse gave her a lifetime depression and dependance on drugs that ended up killing her. But on ''Meet Me in St. Louis'', it was the first time she was allowed to look and be like she actually was which was what made it so happy. Vincente Minnelli gave her the best roles in this film, then ''The Clock'', a beautiful non-musical wartime romance and then in ''The Pirate'' which highlights the sexiness of Judy Garland that audiences at that time didn't want to see.

After that their marriage ended(apparently because of their respective bisexualities) and Minnelli went from strength to strength while Judy Garland had one more great role ''A Star is Born''(a really stunning musical for adults...it's more a tragedy) and then she concentrated on her singing career, earning much success and then she died eventually.

So the people who made these musicals were well aware of what their films were about and well aware that much of it is fantastic and nostalgic.

Alok said...

I think I had the same DVD. I did start watching the introduction after the film but didn't finish thinking she would just be bragging about her mom and dad :) When I get some more time I will check the additional features on the dvd.

Actually I have the same problem with The Wizard of Oz too, but I love the original story so much that I am always more than willing to look over her act.

I was not really looking for overt sexuality... in fact often that can be even more artificial, irritating and off-putting but a more naturalistic persona.