Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Dir. Vincente Minelli
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer 

Clang-clang-clang goes the trolley, ding-ding-ding goes the bell, and we are off and transported to 1903 St. Louis. The city is full of excitement and hubbub, for the very next year the eyes of the universe will be on it as it hosts the 1904 World’s Fair. (It will also host the Olympic Games, but no one makes any reference to that at all. No exhaustive media coverage, no torch relays, no Sebastian Bloody Coe – it’s all quite reassuringly refreshing!). 

One family certainly revelling in the excitement are the Smiths of 5135 Kensington Avenue. A big, bustling family comprising eight people of three different generations (and their maid) they live in upper-middle-class comfort. Eldest daughters Rose (Lucille Bremer) and Esther (Judy Garland) are busy falling in and out of love, younger daughters Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) are engaged in the mischief that young girls habitually engage in, and mother Anna (Mary Astor) and the maid Katie (Marjorie Main) try to keep the household running whilst keeping Mr Smith (Leon Ames) oblivious. Basically, he brings home the money, and his family obligingly spend it. 

To bring home more money Mr Smith accepts a promotion. The promotion means that he has to go to New York. His family shrug and state that they expect they will survive without him. But they misunderstand – he has to go to New York for keeps. And he intends to take his family with him. This prompts uproar. It means that they will miss out on the World’s Fair, that Agnes and Tootie will be taken away from their friends, and Rose and Esther will be torn away from their beaus. This is particularly upsetting for Esther who has fallen in love with “The Boy Next Door” John Truett (Tom Drake). Even Katie joins in, muttering that they won’t have space for the large kitchen that forms the focal point of the house in a pokey New York tenement. And all this, just for money. “Money!” Rose scoffs: “I hate, loathe, despise and abominate money!” “You also spend it”, Mr Smith points out. 

And so, over the course of a year, the domestic life of the Smiths play out – the games, the romance, the squabbles, the humour and the threat of being uprooted from a place they love. Esther tries to win the heart of John, Tootie gets into scrapes, Grandpa (Harry Davenport) twinkles appealingly. There is a party and a trolley-car ride and Halloween and a ball and Christmas and the opening of the World’s Fair itself and it is a Technicolor treat full of warmth and humour and music. It is not in any way hard-hitting or fantastical or revelatory. It is a nice big hug of a film that one can imagine the entire Smith family sitting down on the sofa to appreciate. 

Public transport: if it isn't someone with their iPod on full blast
it's only Judy Flaming Garland singing at top volume!

The film was released only two years after another film about a prosperous Midwestern family: Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. But the two films could not be more different. The Ambersons were haughty and decadent and slipped into obscurity in a film of heavily shadowed black and white. The Smiths are loving and muddled and look to engage with people outside their front door and their life is rich in colour and texture. Director Vincente Minelli (who married star Judy Garland the following year: Liza Minelli is their progeny) lets warm wood-hues and pastels light up the screen, an orchestral score swelling behind the action, its principals bursting into song. The period tune Meet Me in St.Louis that provides the name and the refrain from the film; it showcases the sense of excitement and expectation that suffused the city. Judy Garland does what she does best: she puts on a show. Whether it is her lovelorn rendition of ‘The Boy Next Door’, the cheeky excitement of ‘The Trolley Song’, or the haunting rendition of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ she is there to take centre stage. In particular the latter song stands out. Listen to the lyrics again: “One fine day we all will be together / If the fates allow / Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow…” This is no joyful festive tune. This is a sad song, a song of parting and loss (until Garland insisted they were changes the original words were ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last…’). She stares agonised out of the window, the words that were meant to provide comfort to little Tootie bringing tears to her eyes. Very powerful. 

Ah yes. Tootie. Tootie is the youngest daughter of the Smith household, based upon the real-life Sally Benson, whose series of short stories about her childhood inspired the film. Margaret O’Brien who played her got second billing in the film, heaps of critical praise and even a special Junior Academy Award. And she is almost unbearable. Gap-toothed, smudge-cheeked, cheeky and precocious, she is everything I hate about child actors. But she was a big draw in the 1940s and hence she is given full reign to indulge her ragamuffin charms with her Halloween escapades, her cakewalks and her family of dolls (none of whom have long to live: “I suspect she won’t live through the night. She has four fatal diseases!”).  

What really comes out is the manipulation young women can employ. The entire family endeavours to make dinner an hour earlier so that Rose can have some private time to receive a long-distance telephone call from her beau in New York. If she is not in private “she may be loath to say the things a girl is compelled to say to her man to get a proposal out of a man.” In the end it takes until Christmas of her ignoring him for him to burst into her house to declare his love (“Rose Smith, we can’t go on like this any longer! I’ve positively decided that we’re going to get married at the earliest opportunity and I don’t want to hear any arguments! That’s final. I love you. Merry Christmas.”) Esther tries again and again to engineer an introduction to John Truett, and then pretends that she needs help turning off the gas lights to get him alone with her (“If we’re going to get married I may as well start it.”). When it emerges that Warren Sheffield is going to the ball with someone else Rose and Esther engineer to fill the girl’s dance card with losers and no-hopers (a plot that backfires when she swaps partners with Rose, who had attended with her brother; Esther then has to martyr herself to the god of unsuitable dance partners. But poor old John and Warren never stood a chance. 

What have I learnt about Missouri?
Firstly, I’ve discovered that the city is pronounced St. Lewis rather than St. Louie. So that’s important. It hosted the 1904 World’s Fair on what used to be a swamp. Inhabitants were proud of their city, so proud that even relocating to New York sounded like a terrible thing. 

Can we go there?
If you want to see where the film was set you really will have to meet me in St. Louis. The Smiths lived at 5135 Kensington Avenue which today is sadly just a vacant lot), and John Truett was the boy next door at 5133. They then caught the trolley out to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in what today is Forest Park. Several buildings from the Fair still survive in St. Louis. The St. Louis Art Museum was the Fair’s Palace of Fine Arts, the Administration Building is now Brookings Hall at Washington University, and an aviary survives at Saint Louis Zoo. 

The Kensington Avenue seen in the film was specially constructed on MGM’s vast Backlot #3 at Jefferson and Overland Boulevards in Culver City. This set, known as ‘St. Louis Street’, remained in use and existence until 1970, when it was demolished to make way for condos. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

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