Not in My Wheelhouse: Meet Me in St. Louis
Welcome to “Not in My Wheelhouse,” a weekly column in which one of our staff members recommends a movie to another that is outside of their cinematic comfort zone! See other entries in the series here.
Meet Me In St. Louis (1944). Directed by Vincente Minelli. Screenplay by Irving Brecher and Fred Finkelehoffe. Starring Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, Mary Astor & Lucille Bremer. Recommended by Jill Malcolm as an example of classic Hollywood musicals.
How Far Outside Of My Wheelhouse Is Meet Me In St. Louis?
I have several blindspots in cinema. I have seen perhaps half of one Charlie Chaplin movie. That accounts for the only experience I have had in silent film. I have seen embarassingly few films from the decades of Japanese auteurs, ranging from Kurosawa, to Ozu, to Koreada. Yet aside from Singin' In The Rain, the one that feels most glaring to me is the golden age of Hollywood musicals. Even as a musician, I could never care too much for the genre. I didn't particularly care for the music growing up, and seeing them live onstage bored me to tears. As contemporary musicals significantly waned through my coming of age in the 90's 00's, and continues today, there was never much of a reason to seek them out.
Yet in my work now as a creative arts therapist, I often encounter people for whom musical theatre is their lifeblood. I became aware of my blind spot in a big way while on the job. Then, like manna from heaven, I ended up discovering and loving the television show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. That show took a knowing, winking nod to the absurdity of big musical numbers as interruptions to the world of the show, and leaned fully into it- parodying the entire genre but also allowing me to come to a more loving embrace of it in the process.
This was a film I had been meaning to see for a long time but never bit the bullet on- so I was happy to be have a good reason to do so. I had very high expectations, considering how I had recently become aware of how wrong I might be about the musical genre. Plus, most of the time, when I see a mid-century film, I love it. I am generally impressed by the set design, the highly theatrical nature of the performances, and the pure muscle that gets poured into the production. These were populist pieces of entertainment made with the upmost levels of artistry and intent, with no computer tricks at their disposal. I had heard positive word of mouth as well, whether seeing it pop up on my Letterboxd feed with a 5 star rating, or praised by the likes of Michael Phillips on the Filmspotting podcast.
This ended up being far weirder than I expected it to be. Directed by Vincente Minelli and starring his future wife Judy Garland, Meet Me In St. Louis follows a year in the life of the wealthy Smith family in St. Louis, Missouri in 1903- leading up to the 1904 World's Fair which took place right in their titular hometown. The Smith family consists of four daughters: Esther (Garland), Rose (Lucille Bremmer), Agnes and Tootie (Joan Carroll and Margaret O'Brien, the latter of whom gives one of the more annoying child performances ever). There's a brother too, who is so inconsequential that I really can't be bothered to look up his name. There's also, of course, the hard working, child rearing mother (Mary Astor), Katie the Corn-Beef cooking maid (Marjorie Main) and Grandpa (Harry Davenport, an actor who was born the year after the Civil War ended). Everyone seems in pretty good spirits and health, but they are low-key terrorized by their shitty dad Alonzo (Leon Ames), a lawyer who comes home exhausted and defeated on a daily basis, sulking, complaining, and yelling at everyone that he is not ready to eat dinner yet because he needs to soak in the tub for an hour. He is a major asshole, and they would all be better off without him except for his money. But, it's 1944, and even if the audience identifies more with the female characters (who are the film's main focus), I suppose they are also supposed to give dad the benefit of the doubt–at worst finding him comically curmudgeonly. Watching it in 2019, you just want him to get the fuck over himself.
Meanwhile, we hear the title song approximately 2,000 times, as we become acquainted with the two oldest Smith sisters, Rose and Esther. They are young but ready to marry, both already with their eyes set on potential suitors. They are ultimately the focus of the film's story, of what little story there is- it is essentially an episodic film where we get to live alongside their trials and tribulations in love and life. It's a comedy of manners with occasional musical interludes, most of which are honestly quite forgettable save the famous "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" moment that comes at the end. You see, Alonzo got offered a job in New York City and has declared that the family is moving there after Christmas, and before they even get to see the World's Fair. That song comes at a key point, where Esther sings it to her little sister Tootie, while she's crying about how everything is about to change for their family. That's the moment that made the song famous, perhaps the emotional climax of the film- and the song itself was permanently catapulted it into the Christmas canon soon after.
Meet Me In St. Louis also comes across like an exercise in nostalgia for everyone who was perhaps Esther or Tootie's age when the film is set–in 1944 they would be between 40 or 60. In this world, life is very much based around home and family, and it doesn't seem like there is much to do but work around the house and get up to various kinds of mischief. America was also, of course, engaged in World War II in 1944, as the film was released only months after the D-Day invasion of France. I imagine a return to the turn of the century, back when America was not even 150 years old, must have felt like a comforting escape back to simpler times.
But if they were simpler times, they were still quite strange. There's an extended sequence here set on Halloween where little Tootie goes trick or treating, and celebrates with the other kids in the neighborhood by starting a huge bonfire in the middle of the street. This is, by the way, a very nice neighborhood. Filmed on the MGM back lot, the houses in the set are essentially mansions. The family bonds like a middle class family, but in their style and presentation they come off as upper class. It is quite an unexpected place for such mischief to brew.
Suddenly at home, the elder Smith sisters are alerted that something is the matter outside–Tootie has been attacked by John Truett, the cute boy next door that Esther has a huge crush on! Esther runs next door and basically punches John in the face. But wait, it turns out that Tootie was injured when John was trying to save her from the police after they tried to pull off some kind of a prank. Tootie, I guess, is now even more the face of white privilege than she was before. None of the drama that happens in this movie ever ends up having any kind of real consequences, and it makes the whole movie feel a bit inconsequential as a result.
I imagine that Meet Me In St. Louis is definitely not a representation of all big musicals of the mid-century. If anything, the shortcomings of the film made me want to seek out even more, better musicals. Because what works about it- the costumes, production design, cinematography and music- works extravagantly well at most points. I now look forward to crossing off some others that I have never seen- coughSoundOfMusiccough- and revisiting more that I haven't given a proper adult viewing of. Hopefully this genre won't be out of my wheelhouse for much longer.
Passing The Baton
Picking a movie for my friend Dan Santelli is a challenge, because he is our resident film scholar. It seems like there are very few movies he has not already seen–but I found one, and it's good! Dan is not a big superhero movies guy- neither am I exactly, but I embrace the good ones. When I was lurking through his thoroughly curated Letterboxd profile and discovered he had not seen Thor: Ragnarok, I knew it had to be that one. It is one of the few Marvel films directed by someone I would call an "auteur"- Taika Waititi- and his style and sense of humor are all over it. I think that Dan would find a thing or two to appreciate here. I look forward to reading his reactions.