#127 (tie) – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), dir. Vincente Minnelli

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Clang! Judy Garland sings up a storm in Meet Me in St. Louis, a nostalgic musical romp about growing up white and privileged in Middle America at the turn of the 20th century.

The first major sound film — The Jazz Singer (1927) — was a musical. And this is hardly a surprise; early talkies took their cues from the theatrical stage, and singing and dancing have long been a staple of plays and vaudeville. But despite the vast array of musicals that would grace the silver screen over the next several decades, they don’t feature all that prominently on the Sight & Sound list, with perhaps just five making the cut. In our exploration of the list so far, the only musicals we have encountered are a parody of the form (Duck Soup) and a children’s film (The Wizard of Oz). But that changes now with Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), the first honest-to-goodness adult musical on the Sight & Sound list. Directed by her future husband Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland stars as Esther Smith, a young woman pining for the boy next door ahead of the 1904 World’s Fair. The film pretty much evenly divides itself between Esther’s grasp for romance and the tomboy antics of her youngest sister Tootie, striking a tone of nostalgia for a bygone age that is celebrated through the use of period songs and a number of original compositions that have themselves become popular standards. Meet Me in St. Louis also features some of the most eye-poppingly vivid Technicolor cinematography ever captured on film, highlighting the movie’s already fever pitch energy and melodrama. (113 min.)

J. – I try so hard when I write the introduction for each film on this blog to be as positive as I possibly can, regardless of what I felt about the movie. I do this because I recognize that these movies have made this list for a reason — people love them. And not just any people, but individuals who have devoted their lives to writing and thinking about movies. So I make the effort to at least address the plot and point out some good stuff. Having started off like this, I believe am now being redundant by stating that I loathed this movie. Throughout most of our viewing I felt like I was being punished to make amends for some cosmically awful bad karma I had accrued.

I suppose, to be fair, I should state up front that I am generally not a big fan of musicals. But I think it is equally important to stress that there are some musicals I like quite a bit, and I consider future list film Singing in the Rain to be among my favorite movies. So I am not simply expressing a knee-jerk distaste for the film because of a rejection of the form.

I scarcely know where to begin with the problems I had with this film, so I suppose I will just start with the most glaring aspect in my eyes: the acting. I found most of the performances to be absolutely dreadful. Some were wildly over the top, while others were dead on arrival. The Smith family in general was of the manic persuasion, but I just felt like Garland and Lucille Bremer (playing the eldest daughter Rose) were not up to the task of directing that energy in a manner that felt the least bit convincing. I recognize that heightened emotion is an aspect of the musical, but even accounting for the performances being stylized they came across more often than not as awkward (particularly Bremer’s). And I think the awkward diction and cadences of these amped up performances are at least partially responsible for making Meet Me in St. Louis painfully unfunny. It is certainly meant to be a comedy, and indeed some of the jokes had some real promise, but I sat stone-faced through the film and I think it was because the timing on most of the jokes was simply terrible — no doubt a side effect of the already unconvincing performance style. And don’t get me started on the wooden Indian love interest played by Tom Drake — you know you’re in troubled waters when the male romantic lead in a musical doesn’t even get a single song.

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The Technicolor cinematography can be quite rich and vibrant (in S.’ opinion too much so) and some of Minnelli’s smooth moving camerawork is quite appealing, but the cast is not up to the challenge. Garland is too breathlessly manic to be credible and Tom Drake is handsome but awkward and bland.

S. – I also found this movie difficult viewing and had it not been a list film I would not have stuck it out beyond the 30 minute mark. Two of the stand-out (I use the term as in “impossible to ignore”) aspects of the movie are the musical numbers and the vibrant Technicolor, which I guess a lot of people must love but I wasn’t taken with. By and large the songs were disappointing and very awkwardly slotted into the action. The exception I thought was “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, which is a wonderful Christmas carol that I hadn’t realised originated here. However, the song does feel much grander than the action supporting it. The look of the film was certainly bright, to the point of being suffocating. I felt visually assaulted by the riot of colours on the frou-frou clothing inside the overstuffed houses.

Beyond the style of the film not being to my taste, the substance was also lacking. There was a rapport missing that is necessary to invite you into a story, particularly so when you are watching a family drama where the characters are expected to know each other intimately. At no point was I convinced that I was watching a family, instead it seemed rather obvious that there were a bunch of strangers on screen and most of them were shallow and vapid. The story itself was lightweight and disturbingly themed around Wizard of Oz sentiments (although at least Dorothy metaphorically left Kansas before deciding that there was no place like home). In the absence of any emotional ballast being supplied by the performances I just found that Meet Me in St. Louis didn’t have much to offer. The exception were the scenes centered around the experiences of Tootie. Margaret O’Brien brought charisma to the screen in that role and the extreme anxiety at having to move towns, displayed by all the Smiths, made a lot more sense coming from the point of view of a child.

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The “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” scene is one of the few truly effective moments in the film, largely because it is actually emotional and slows Garland down enough for her to be like a real person (even though she is in mid-song). The attentive, tearful performance of Margaret O’Brien as Tootie also sells the moment and makes the most of the static, moody staging by Minnelli.

J. – I was also struck by the lack of emotional resonance — which is somewhat strange as this is a film that is ostensibly driven more by emotion than actual story. But the character’s frantic energy never crossed the divide into true emotion, with the notable exception of Tootie, particularly during the “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” segment, which may have been statically staged but was emotionally rich. The other stand out scene for me was the section devoted to the mischief of the neighborhood kids — particularly Tootie — on Halloween. That was a great sequence and a wonderfully honest exploration of childhood fear, daring, and exhilaration in a film that often feels very artificial. And I think a lot of that comes down to story and storytelling issues, as the film often feels very disjointed and rather unsure who the main character is. Is this a film about Esther or Tootie? It doesn’t seem to know. I learned after our viewing that the film was based on a book written by Sally Benson, who was the real-life Tootie, so perhaps it isn’t all that strange that the segments drawing from her actual childhood have the most depth and feeling, whereas the material crafted for other characters feels flimsy by comparison. A movie that focused solely on Tootie’s experience might have actually been a pretty solid flick, but the Tootie-centric moments of this film are not enough to lift it anywhere close to my good graces. If anything they only highlight the myriad flaws with the unsympathetic characters and situations that drive the other two-thirds of the film.

You know I was about to get into how I generally liked the use of color and found some of the camerawork to be quite striking (particularly the Esther and John turning out the lights scene), but I honestly don’t feel like elaborating on it all. And I think that sums up my disappointment best when it comes to this film. Neither of us liked Gone With the Wind, for example, but we could still bring together a 3,000-plus word conversation about what we had seen. Meet Me in St. Louis simply makes me want to just move onto the next film — and so I’m [gladly] getting off the trolley. What about you, S., any final thoughts?

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The Halloween sequence is actually quite wonderful, with all the local children going full on Lord of the Flies and Tootie heading off on a terrifying mission to impress the rest of the crowd. It would work great as a little short film on its own — pity there’s another hour and half of movie around it.

S. – I am really at a loss for this being a list film. I had no sympathy for the spoilt rich teenage sisters and their preoccupation with landing a husband, and was unable to comprehend the tragic connotations of the family’s opportunity to move to New York City. The musical numbers were mostly disappointing, the attempts at comedy were abysmal and the narrative lacked cohesion. By and large it was tedious viewing and easily my least favorite of the movies we have yammered about to date.

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Unfortunately this shot serves waaaaaaay too perfectly as a microcosm of the film as a whole. Yeesh!

Related yammers:
#144 – The Wizard of Oz (1939), dir. Victor Fleming, and also starring Judy Garland
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