Thursday, December 31, 2015

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS 1944

I don’t believe in perfection, but were someone to really press me to name what I consider to be the most perfect musical ever made, I wouldn’t hesitate a second before placing Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis at the top of any list. An unpretentious gem of a movie small in scale, meager of plot, modest in ambition, and blissfully devoid of any of those so-called “sure fire” elements associated with most major movie musicals; Meet Me in St. Louis is nevertheless a  nonstop, smile-from-ear-to-ear delight which features more moments of genuine magic than all eight Harry Potter movies, combined..
Judy Garland as Esther Smith
Margaret O'Brien as Tootie Smith
Lucille Bremer as Rose Smith
Meet Me in St. Louis is a nostalgically idealized little memory book of a musical chronicling a year in the life of a suburban family in turn-of- the-century St. Louis. Divided into a series of charming and delightfully idiosyncratic vignettes, each designated by a season of the year, Meet Me in St. Louis presents itself as slice-of-life Americana – circa 1904 – with nothing loftier on its mind than a desire to pay gentle tribute to the imperishable bonds of home and family.
What it ends up being is one of the few films I can recall which manages to strike a perfect balance between sentiment and sentimentality.

Setting a tone of lighthearted innocence and old-world charm that Minnelli captivatingly (not to mention, miraculously) manages to sustain throughout the film, Meet Me in St. Louis opens with an introduction to the members of the Smith household that’s ingenious in its economic conveyance of character  info and narrative function. There’s level-headed lady of the house, Anna (Mary Astor); no-nonsense housekeeper, Katie (Marjorie Main); college-bound only son, Alonzo “Lon” Jr (Henry H. Daniels); next-to-youngest daughter, Agnes (Joan Carroll); grandpa (Harry Devenport), a collector of hats and firearms; Esther (Garland), the romantic pragmatist ; eldest daughter, Rose (Lucille Bremer); precocious (and downright weird) youngest daughter, Tootie (O’Brien): and, last but not least, Alonzo, the quintessential father figure (Leon Ames).
You and I
Mary Astor as Anna Smith /  Leon Ames as Alonzo Smith
Director Vincente Minnelli, whose only third film this is, displays a remarkably sure hand with this opening sequence. For not only do we come away from it with a vividly distinct sense of each of the main characters, but the seamless manner in which the action and camerawork is interwoven with the impromptu singing/humming of the title tune is positively balletic. It’s a virtuoso bit of narrative filmmaking worthy of Kubrick or Hitchcock.

We accompany the Smith family throughout the year as they weather sundry domestic and romantic crises, the chief conflict, such as it is, being the zestful anticipation surrounding the opening of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair vs. the dispiriting news of the impending uprooting of the family to New York.
Boy Meets Girl
Tom Drake as John Truett / Henry J Daniels Jr. as Alonzo "Lon" Smith Jr
The uncluttered simplicity that is the screenplay by Irving Brecher & Fred F. Finklehoff, (the DVD commentary makes mention of the excising of a superfluous subplot) is based on the largely autobiographical stories of Sally Benson. Stories first serialized under the title, “5135 Kensington” in The New Yorker in 1941, expanded and novelized later in 1942 as “Meet Me in St Louis.”  
I’ve never read the novel, but as a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (on whose screenplay Benson was a contributor) Benson seems to have a disarmingly quirky eye when it comes to family. Meet Me in St. Louis is funnier than most films of its ilk, largely due to a great many wonderful throwaway comic lines and the characters being afforded humanizing traits like vanity (“It would’ve been nice to be a brunette.” “You should have been. Nothing could’ve stopped us. Think how we’d look going out together, you with your raven black hair and me with my auburn.”), self-seriousness(“I hate, loathe, despise and abominate money!” “You also spend it.”), precocity (“You’re nothing less than a murderer!  You might have killed dozens of people!” “Oh, Rose, you’re so stuck-up!”), and eccentricity (“The ice man saw a drunkard get shot last night and the blood squirted out three feet!” – That would be Tootie again).
All of this is tunefully buoyed by a lovely musical score comprised of period standards and originals songs, four of which are composed by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine. 
I've seen it a million times, but Judy singing the Oscar-nominated
  The Trolley Song is always such a thrill to watch
A treat for the eyes and ears, Meet Me in St. Louis never fails to win me over with its charm and heart, but I really get a kick out of its character-based comedy. And while many other films have tried to duplicate its formula (the rather dreadful Summer Holiday- 1948), they only wind up getting the material trappings right. Meet Me in St. Louis - from its talented cast and their inimitable chemistry, to the creative artists behind the scenes, to the degree of loving care lavished on this entire production by Vincente Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed (who co-wrote the lovely song "You and I" and voiced Leon Ames' voice) - is a film that remains in a class by itself.
Marjorie Main as Katie

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
From all this gushing praise you’d think Meet Me in St. Louis was a movie I’ve been in love with all my life. On the contrary, I saw the film in its entirety for the first time in 2007. My avoidance of Meet Me in St. Louis for so years stemmed from an assumption on my part that it was just another one of those aggressively quaint, synthetically folksy period musicals that tend to cause me to break out in hives (think The Music Man or Hello, Dolly!). Nothing wears me down faster than hardened show biz pros barnstorming their way through cloying depictions of homespun simplicity.

But of course, it’s within this very arena that most critics contend (and I agree) Vincent Minnelli scores his greatest triumph. In convincing the actors not to play down to the material, to treat the characters, dialog, and situations seriously, he infuses this gossamer-light fairy tale with genuine warmth of emotion. The result is a sincerely sweet and touching family movie devoid of the usual mawkishness sentimentality.
The entire "Long-Distance Phone Call" sequence is hilarious.
A favorite scene in a film comprised almost entirely of favorites
Considerable assist is given by the Oscar-nominated screenplay (Meet Me in St Louis was nominated for four, winning only a special juvenile Oscar from O'Brien)  which consistently keeps clichés at bay by subverting anticipated payoffs with unexpected twists. Every time a scene threatens to become too sentimental or hackneyed, some bit of business or dialog is introduced that wrests the proceedings back to something honest. This is especially true of the two youngest Smith girls, Agnes and Tootie; angelic of face but mischievous and possessed of extravagantly gruesome imaginations (Agnes, after being told [in jest] that her pet cat has been harmed: “Oh, if you killed her I’ll kill you! I’ll stab you to death in your sleep, then I’ll tie your body to two wild horses until you’re pulled apart!”).

What I think appeals to me most is Meet Me in St. Louis’ refreshing lack of schmaltz. Where a less thoughtful film might have the characters express their feelings through manipulative emotional outbursts and maudlin displays designed to elicit a sentimental response from the audience, I’m impressed by the way the closeness of the Smith family is illustrated in the ways they treat one another.
This beautifully composed shot is a testament to Minnelli's painterly eye. The detailed production design and eye-popping Technicolor cinematography only add to Meet Me in St. Louis' enduring appeal

1) When Rose’s much-anticipated long-distant call turns out to be a bust, I’m always so charmed by how Ester rescues her sister from embarrassment by putting a new spin on the events.
2) Instead of having a tired subplot involving Rose and Ester vying for the same man, I adore how Rose is excited for Ester to go out on the porch and try to catch the eye of the boy next door.
3) The way Esther puts aside her feelings for John Truett and is ready to do battle with him in defense of Tootie.
4) Of course, the most touching (for me) is the tender way the mother, in spite of being upset by the news of moving to New York, kisses her husband and in effect plays a love song for him. Multiple viewings reveal all the little routines of family togetherness that play out in the background when everyone returns to the parlor. It’s no small wonder that so many people consider Meet Me in St. Louis’ Autumn sequence (comprising the Halloween and moving to New York announcement scenes) to be the strongest in the film.
Grandpa schools Tootie & Agnes on the finer points of flinging flour
into the faces of victims on Halloween
I have a bit of an aversion to the trite, artificial sentimentality of "wholesome" family programming like The Brady Bunch and Father Knows Best (Hazel is another matter...that Shirley Booth can reduce me to tears in an instant, even in a sitcom), and I flat-out  reject the alternative trend which asks me to find snarky, wise-ass children to be adorable. That's why Meet Me in St. Louis is such a marvel. Minnelli & Co. found the magic formula to get me to care about a family that genuinely cares about one another.
I'm not sure I'd trust anyone immune to the absolute
adorableness of Esther's crush on neighbor John Truett

PERFORMANCES
The cast of Meet Me in St Louis could hardly be better. Ensemble acting at its finest, with the standout performances only serving to add luster to the already glowing efforts of the rest of the troupe. I’m partial to the delectably neurotic Margaret O’Brien (I always crack up when in one scene, out of the blue, apropos of nothing, Tootie announces plans to start digging a tunnel to a neighbor's terrace for the express purpose of grabbing her leg when she walks in her garden), but lovely Lucille Bremer has many fine moments (“The plans have been changed!”). Everybody's favorite dad, Leon Ames, the master of confounded exasperated, is solid as always. I’m citing these particulars, but the truth is that every single character int he film is exceptionally well-cast. The result is that we not only like the Smith family and care what happened to them, but we appreciate why they feel so strongly for their town and friends. 
The Smith Family
Depending on the source, any number of people have claimed responsibility for casting the reluctant Judy Garland in this, my favorite of her non-Oz roles, but the who doesn't matter so much as trying to imagine what this film would be like without her. Even if everything remained exactly as it is, without Garland I'm 100% certain the result would merely be one of those disposably competent, workaday musicals MGM churned out with regularity in its time. Judy Garland is the element that makes this film magic, and it's amazing to me that she was overlooked come Oscar time. People don't tend to think of vocal performances as acting, but just check out the variance in Garland's singing of "The Boy Next Door" contrasted with the performance she gives during "The Trolley Song" and ultimately, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Were one to regard each of these unforgettable moments as a dramatic scene, scenes Garland commands and puts over with touching sincerity and depth of feeling...well, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett would both have to concede they're not in her league.
Striking a perfect balance between spunk and youthful innocence ("I've worked all my life to be a senior!"), Judy Garland's Esther Smith is a testament to her uniquely accessible and likable star quality 


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I'm always taken a little aback when I realize just how few musical numbers there are in Meet Me in St Louis. It always feels like wall-to-wall music! One listen to the score of the 1989 Broadway adaptation of the film, expanded by at least eight more songs by the same composers (and in which we learn Tootie's name is Sarah), and you're likely to come away with a better appreciation for the virtues of brevity.
Under the Bamboo Tree
I've written before (in reference to the dull soirees in every version of The Great Gatsby I've ever seen) that parties in movies rarely ever look to be much fun. The going away house party the Smiths throw for brother Lon is the exception. This lively, well-staged sequence features a clever reworking of "Skip to My Lou" and of course, the cute Margaret O'Brien / Judy Garland duet, "Under the Bamboo Tree."

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Movie musical magic moments don't get much better than Judy Garland's sublime rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." I love the song and the way Garland sings it, but it's truly how the song is used in dramatic context of the story (along with Margaret O'Brien's doleful performance) that makes it the memorably heartbreaking classic scene it is. As the pivotal event necessary to inspire the father to change his plans, this number delivers both narratively and emotionally.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS 
Like the character of Lon Smith, I grew up as the only boy in a household of four sisters (hence my desire to escape to the movies every chance I got), only in the pecking order of age, I was where Agnes would be. My earliest memories of my family, before my parents divorced in 1967, have a veneer of nostalgia surrounding them takes on more and more of the shimmering Technicolor glow of Meet Me in St. Louis the older I get.
The youthful quirks of my sisters stand out in my mind: One had her room plastered with posters of the Beatles; another was part of a neighborhood girl's singing group, modeling themselves on The Supremes; one sister was drawn to anything artistic; and the youngest seemed to be in constant telepathic communication with the family dog. My parents stand out in my mind as these two perfect problem-solvers. It seems there was nothing you could come to them with that they couldn't fix, whether it be the strap on a roller skate, or the certainty there was a monster hiding in the bedroom closet when the lights went out.
When we were that young, it felt like we were indeed a unit, looking out for one another, the feelings of love, concern, and companionship all melding together under the instinctual, unexamined union called family.
Any sense of accuracy in my memories of Christmases, picnics, and birthday parties, is forever lost in the alchemic process which turns that which can no longer be retrieved into that which we need it to be. Both of my parents have since passed away, my sisters no longer speak to one another, and the success of my current (isolated) relationship with each of my siblings is firmly rooted in my living several hundred miles away from all of them. 
The word "family" should appear in dictionaries right next to the word "imperfect" because that's what they are (even the Smith family left St. Louis for New York in real life). But growing older has shown me that familial love, equally imperfect, can be incredibly durable, flexible, forgiving, and remarkably impervious to time, distance, and the holding of grudges.

When I watch Meet Me in St Louis, I know I'm looking at a vision of family life that never existed anywhere, at any time, ever. But this movie, like a fairy tale or my own hazy, half-remembered, half-idealized, wish-fulfillment memories of my childhood and family; makes me believe, if only 113-minutes, perfection is possible. And that's what dreams are for.
"I can't believe it. Right here where we live. Right here in St. Louis."



BONUS MATERIAL
The one clear advantage to it taking me so long get around to seeing Meet Me in St. Louis is that it ultimately afforded me the unforgettable opportunity of seeing it for the first time in the presence of an audience at one of Los Angles' great restored movie houses. The Palace Theater in downtown Los Angeles was built in 1911.
Not only was it a thrill to see this classic on the big screen and experience the collective audience response (applause and huge laughs throughout, and not a dry eye in the house by fadeout) but getting to be inside this magnificent theater was a wholly unforgettable experience.

In 1989, Meet Me in St. Louis was (as is the trend these days) adapted for the Broadway stage. It was nominated for four Tony Awards and looks absolutely insufferable.


A photograph of the actual 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition 

Copyright © Ken Anderson

30 comments:

  1. Thanks Ken. I love this movie for all the wonderful reasons you so elegantly list. I always cry, of course, at the Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas number, especially thinking of the context when audiences would have been hearing it during WWII, apart from their loved ones and facing hardship and uncertainty. But for me, the moment that generates the biggest lump in my throat is the duet between Leon Ames and Mary Astor. He's just announced his transfer to New York, the entire family is upset,dessert is ruined, etc. The way Astor stasys composed and begins to play the piano captures everything we need to know about this living family. As Ames joins her, we watch all the other members of the family wander into the parlor, with a piece of cake, and they listen calmly and enjoy their dessert. Such a little moment, yet such a universal chord. When Astorand Ames touch at the end of the song, it is so sublime - they are absolutely believable as a married couple and the parents to these children. I turn on the waterworks every time I see it. Also, I love Henry Davenport; one of the great character actors of all time. Any movie he's in is fine with me! So glad I discovered your blog this year (thanks Poseidon!). Your thoughts on film and life have enriched my enjoyment of both. A happy, healthy and prosperous new year to you and yours.

    PS. Tom Drake was the cutest boy-next-door in movies EVER!

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    1. Hello Roberta
      Happy New Year! That moment you describe, the song and entire sequence of events surrounding Astor & Ames singing "You and I", is my partner "waterworks" moment, too. The details you describe are exactly what rescues it from being a trite moment of cheap sentimentality and turns it into a very touching example of familial bonding. And precisely for the reason you state: they are absolutely believable as a couple and family. Minnelli had a reputation for detail, and few sequences display this to better emotional effect.
      You're very sweet to say all those things about my blog, and I'm grateful too for all the very nice and knowledgeable folks who have stopped this way thanks to Poseidon's blog. He seems to attract the a particularly sharp bunch!
      It's been lovely sharing film memories with you in this and other posts. Thanks!
      And yes, was their ever cuter crush object than Tom Drake? And to think they once considered that amiable lump, Van Johnson!

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  2. You've pretty much listed all the reasons why this movie is so good, but I'd add a mention for the costume and set design. It's heavenly, everything is so colorful yet never over the top. I watch Meet Me in St. Louis once a year, usually around the time I'm putting up my Xmas decorations. It's a little peculiar how it's got such a holiday stamp on it, even though only a tiny part of the movie takes place during Xmas (or even winter). I always tear up by Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, particularly because of the father's reaction, how it dawns on him what he's about to do by uprooting his family. And I never get over how disturbing Margaret O'Brien is in the role! I have to chalk it up in part to the role of Tootie, that children must've had more vivid imaginations in 1904... This year I'll get to see MMISL on the big screen on Valentine's Day, and I can't wait for it!

    Happy New Year, and as always, thank you for your posts. I always get a little giddy when I see a new one has gone up!

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    1. Hi Sandra
      It IS funny how this has become such a quintessential Christmas movie over the years. It's very hard to beat the whole "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" sequence (so moving as you point out...even when I'm not actively watching the film, I can't help but get all misty eyed by the play of events. By the time Tootie loses it, so have I), but few movies evoke a more charming childhood vision of Halloween, as well.

      By the way, a friend who has read Sally Benson's book says Tootie is even worse! Had a male child been given Tooties lines, I think the character would have been downright unsettling, but sweet-faced Margaret O'Brien makes Tootie's fantasies feel like the harmless efforts of the "baby" in the family to assert her individuality.
      How wonderful you get to see Meet Me..." on the big screen on Valentines day, yet! I love it! I know you will have a marvelous time. In the company of others,I think you'll get a big kick discovering what some of the film's biggest laughs are (when I saw it I was caught off guard by what a huge, prolonged laugh this throwaway line of Garland's got: "Well, Rose, even if I didn't have a date with John Truett...which I have...).

      Happy New Year, Sandra! You couldn't have given me a sweeter compliment than to tell me you get a little giddy on seeing a post is up. Thank you.

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  3. Dear Ken: Thanks for such a lovely and thoughtful post. (And on New Year's Eve, yet!).

    The thing I enjoyed most about your post was your willingness to share your own family memories. As someone who "knows" you only as a reader of your blog, I realize I have no right to share in your personal memories, but it's such a gift when you do share. It helps illustrate how certain movies can strike a very deep emotional chord and even in some ways play a healing role in your life.

    I, too, love "Meet Me in St. Louis" and other movies and television shows that depict the importance of bonds of family. Part of my love for them is due, I think, to the "nostalgia effect" that you refer to, above. But part of it is also due to the fact that being part of a family, even with the misundertandings and pain that sometimes brings, is deeply important to me, especially as I grow older. I was blessed to come from a family that generally was loving and supportive (my family was a haven from the bullying I went through in school, for example). But things weren't always happy. My younger brother died unexpectedly when he was 15 and I was 17. (Miraculously, that event actually brought the rest of our family closer together.) And there was genuine tension at times between my parents and me and other family members, too.

    It's complicated--even though I know family life isn't always joyful and sunny, I am attracted to films and TV shows that still take a generally positive view of families. ("The Donna Reed Show" is a real favorite for me--idealized, yes, but even within the limitations of the sitcom format there are hints at times of greater life complexities.)

    "St. Louis" also is special to me because I was born and raised in the Midwest (not St. Louis but Iowa) and although I happily settled in Washington, DC, about 15 years ago, there still is a part of me that is drawn to the slower pace and greater simplicity of life in the middle part of the country. Again, I admit the nostalgia effect plays a role here, too--if I really loved the Midwest so much, I wouldn't have left!

    Maybe in the end, movies like "St. Louis" and other nostalgia pieces act kind of like fairy tales for me. I know they are not real, but there is something satisfying (and perhaps necessary?) for me in imagining that they are real. (I differ from you in really loving "Hello, Dolly!" and "The Music Man"--I saw both movies for the first time at a very young age and have loved them ever since. I'm sure life before World War I was not really as it is depicted in those movies--but I wish it could have been!)

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    1. Hi David
      Thanks so much for actually appreciating the autobiographical bits that sneak into my posts upon occasion. I started the blog as a kind of film diary of movies that have meant something to me, so it's not really possible to talk film and think we are leaving ourselves out of the equation.
      (When I hear people talking about movies as something to pass the time or a disconnected experience, my mind always goes to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada: "Oh, OK...you think this has nothing to do with YOU?")

      That nostalgia effect you speak of has a great deal to do with a retro film blog like this, because you're dealing with movies which have stayed with people (for one reason or another) long after the initial hype and critical reaction have ceased to matter.

      I appreciate your sharing your family memories. And indeed, I feel very flattered/honored that this blog and comment section has felt like an environment safe and welcoming enough to relate your personal life. Of course, you're right. You all have forged a kid of community for yourselves outside of anything I've done or intended. People love the comment sections here so much because you all DO share so much of yourselves with your thoughts.

      It's difficult to imagine anyone watching MMISL without their minds going to their own families. But I think the best films (and TV shows) don't foster in us an unrealistic expectation of what families should be. At their best they help us see past the real-life imperfections of family life that often blind us to the genuine emotion that's so easy to ignore or lose sight of.
      As per Hello Dolly & The Music Man, I think its a matter of tone and context (I absolutely adore "The Matchmaker" but Hello, Dolly!...well!).
      One of these days I think I need to write about what it's like to be African-American and a fan of classic film and television (the idealized vs the realistic). It's a perspective I've yet to see explored to my satisfaction online.
      Thanks very much for your compliments and for your engagingly personal take on this favored film, David. Happy New Year to you!

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    2. Dear Ken: Hi! I would love to see you write more about what it's like to be African-American and a fan of classic film and television. You've touched already in some of your posts (such as "Sparkle" and "For Love of Ivy") on how the characters and situations in the films intersect with events/memories in your own life. I think the films/TV shows that really stay with us in some way connect with who we are and our experiences. The character of Donna Stone on "The Donna Reed Show," for example, reminds me in some ways of my own (late) mother: lovely, understanding, but not sickly sweet and with a little bit of an edge at times. And as for "Music Man"--as someone who grew up in Iowa among stubborn Midwesterners, I can relate!

      On the other hand, I usually can't get into shows such as "Downton Abbey" because there's no connection, no "in" for me. I realize that were I living in that time and place, not only would I not be one of the wealthy estate dwellers, I probably couldn't even get a job as one of the servants! More likely, I would be working in a horrible, cold office and dwelling in a tenement apartment. :)

      Thanks again, Ken--your blog not only makes me think about what I love but also why I love it!

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    3. Hi David
      Thanks. I've written an outline of thoughts and ideas so far, but it's something I definitely see doing sometime in the future. When I talk about films set in the 50s or early 1900's with African-American film buffs like myself, we always "get" that one part of us is invited to participate in the dreamy fantasy in which we aspeople are usually erased or depicted in degrading ways; simultaneously we're encouraged to forget how un-simple and gentle those times were for people of color. We get it.
      But I've had the experience of bringing up my experience in a in film class or at some nostalgia fest and many white people react as if I am in danger of sullying their treasured memories.
      Women friends have expressed a similar response when they bring up the fact that they often took issue with the way shows like "Leave it to Beaver" etc always reinforced the perspective that made it seem like the worst thing you could be was a girl.

      I think what this has fostered in me is a multi-faceted approach to old movies: I can appreciate certain emotional/human aspects while disliking certain sociological ones.
      It has always fascinated me that there is always a presumed singular perspective to the arts (white,male, heterosexual,patriarchal)- yet the dialog about how that vision hits the rest of us is often of little interest.
      Curiously enough, for me, as a black male, a show as "distant" as Downton Abbey is one big reason why I can enjoy it. Were someone to try to romanticize American slavery and servitude like this (Gone With the Wind) I couldn't abide it. The cultural distance of Downton allows me to enjoy it without subjective subtext.
      I return the compliment, David- your insightful comment stirred thoughts for me, too!

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    1. Hi Gregory
      Happy New Year! You have such a way with words in describing the virtues of this film (pop-up Valentine and referring to Minnelli's work as "painterly"), the latter I think being precisely the reason this film has such a musical flow to it.
      Wonderful that you got to see The Secret Garden as a youngster! I saw it only recently and enjoyed it a great deal.
      I find so many old MGM musicals nearly impossible to sit through, finding the hackneyed plots and mid-level acting in so many a dear price to pay for the genius of the dance numbers, so Meet Me In St Louis has always stood out as such a remarkable exception.
      Although the Lucille Bremer/Astaire dance number "This Heart of Mine" from The Ziegfeld Follies is a longtime favorite (Minnelli, again), I've never seen Yolanda and the Thief, so thanks for the clip to the musical number, I'm looking forward to checking it out.
      Memories are nice, but isn't it great we have films and these little moments of brilliance to kick-start our emotions!
      You're very kind with your compliments, and I'm happy to hear this film is a favorite of yours, too!

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  5. Happy New Year, Ken! Loved this review of a movie very dear to my heart. You might be interested to watch a version that was broadcast live in 1959 as part of the General Electric Theater with an excellent cast (arguably as stellar as the original 1944 film), including Jane Powell as Agnes and -- get this -- Patty Duke as Tootie! It doesn't have the visual polish of the original but it has its virtues -- including the boy next door: Tab Hunter. ;)

    It's in 8 parts and starts here:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVdRW_9GeDo&list=PLIB18CNiAgFXG8inlOkL08Uq_5pf5O11m

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    1. (That's Jane Powell as Esther, of course!)

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    2. Happy New Year, Peter!
      What a find! I read about this production when doing some online research, but it never occurred to me that the footage was still in existence, let alone on YouTube. And a pre-"Miracle-Worker" Patty Duke, to boot! And that's some boy next door.

      I'm glad to hear this film is a favorite, and I'm looking forward to checking the 1959 version out. Thanks a heap for the New Year present!

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  7. So interesting to read everyone's loving comments about this classic film... which I know I should like. It is a little bit like Roz Russell's Rose. Lots to appreciate, for sure. But finally, it's not really for me.

    For Christmas, I have long preferred a film like The Day of the Locust, or The Honeymoon Killers, or Who Killed Teddy Bear? Something sure to be the antidote to Hallmark. Vincente Minnelli was perhaps a little too painterly on this one, at least for my taste. I know the decor of this period was heavy, but nearly every frame of this movie seems crowded.

    Still, I'm awfully glad we have Garland's three classic songs from this film. We would be so much poorer without them. Her talent was simply greater than anyone else's.

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    1. Hi George
      I like your holiday movie choices...all of them quite stellar!
      To be honest, I really used to gravitate to serious/dark films during the holidays too. Not out of morbidity or anything, but as you allude to, a sort of counter programming for all the holiday schmaltz. But that was when I was young. I’m still amazed by how i gravitate to the sentimental as I grow older. I can grow misty listening to a disco song, these days.

      But I'm glad you shared your resistance to this movie and don't feel at all "pressured" to like a film beloved by so many. I promise, no one here will make you feel like a Grinch. Not with your appreciation of Garland's vocal gifts.

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  8. Ken,

    You have what is possibly the best film blog on the web. I've discovered quite a few worthy obscurities thanks to you! This one of course isn't obscure, and I'm so glad you love it as much as I do. As you say, it's all pretty much perfect. The first time I watched it, the trolley number blew me away, so much so that I made a habit of returning to that scene and watching it quite often, whenever I needed a little cinematic pick-me-up. Just wonderful. And the chemistry between Judy Garland and Tom Drake melts me every time I watch this film. It's in my top three musicals of all time. Number Two is TOP HAT (1935), and Number One (as well as my favorite film, period) is the also-perfect EASTER PARADE (1948), another Garland classic, with Fred Astaire and Anne Miller to boot. (I'd love to see you do a review for that one sometime...hint hint...)

    As George mentioned some dark Xmas choices, my faves in that department are CASH ON DEMAND (1961) and the immortal WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO? (1972), which I'd highly recommend to fans of Brit thrillers and hag horror. :-)

    Happy New Year to you and yours!

    Jeffrey Nelson

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    1. (I must add that CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968) and MARY POPPINS (1964) are both tied for third place along with MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.)

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    2. Hi Jeffrey
      Your compliment was so nice I did a double take to make sure it wasn't written by a relative! Thank you so much. It's fun to imagine my offbeat taste in movies sometimes steers a person to a film they might not otherwise be aware of.
      Your affection for "Meet me in St Louis" is clear, as is your appreciation of movie musicals in general. All your favorites are favorites of mine (although I confess to having a problem with Ann Miller whenever she stops dancing).
      I only recently saw "Who Slew Auntie Roo?" and I've never heard of "Cash on Demand" - I looked it up, it sounds great!

      I think taking a poll of people's favorite "dark" films to watch during the holidays would be eye-opening. I have to thank George for bringing up the topic.

      My partner and I watched "Mary Poppins" this Christmas, and "Chitty Chitty..." owns a special place in our hearts for the Chuchi Face number alone.

      Thanks, Jeffrey for your very kind compliment and for sharing your fun list of favorite musicals! Gad you found us here and that you took the time to comment. Happy New Year!

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  9. Hi Ken,

    Lovely write up on a film that I think is beautifully made and entertaining but one that I don’t adore. There are many parts of it that I think are tremendous but something has always held me back from completely loving it.

    I can’t even put my finger on exactly what it is. I love Judy in it and she looks great, although whoever dressed her in that tasseled bedspread dress needed a stern talking to. Mary Astor & Leon Ames have a nice vibe that really feels as if they are long time marrieds. I agree that the dynamic between all the characters has the feeling of family and those stalwarts Harry Davenport and Marjorie Main are inimitable as always but still the film isn’t one I stop and watch whenever I run across it like I do with the Ava Gardner “Show Boat” or the Judy/Lana/Hedy “Ziegfeld Girl”. I will stop dead and watch The Trolley Song or Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas but when they end I move on.

    Part of it IS Margaret O’Brien’s Tootie. I can see why she was such a hit at the time but I can also see why her appeal was limited to a few years. A little of her goes a long way for me, I’ve always preferred Joan Carroll’s equally spiky but less precious Agnes. Her quote you mention about Rose being so stuck up because she’s horrified that they put the dummy on the tracks may be my favorite piece of the film.

    I do love the ghoulish little Halloween sequence and the holiday dance is a dream, as is Judy in that red dress, I just can’t embrace the whole.

    One thing I’ve always wondered is why the dishy Henry H. Daniels Jr. who plays Lon never had much of a career. He was certainly as attractive as Tom Drake who played John Truitt and had quite a long career as a supporting actor and he was more charismatic. I was sad to see he died young as well.

    It’s a lovely postcard of a film, maybe someday all the tumblers will click in and I’ll fall for it more than I have.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Although I'm so dotty about this movie that I'm not as successful as I often am in being able to see the opposing point of view about a favorite film, what you say brings up an interesting aspect of film fandom.
      When a widely-liked film fails to speak to us, I think we all try as best as we can to divine what exactly it is that doesn't connect with us.

      For example: I have no feeling at all for the Star Trek of Star Wars movies, but I'm actually kind of proud of that. But when it comes to having no affinity for a widely-liked film like "The Philadelphia Story" or "Lawrence of Arabia", I think it's natural to wonder if someday "all the tumblers will click" and you'll see what others see.

      In the end, I think it all comes down to personal tastes, and it turns out to be rather illuminating to hear opposing sentiments about a popular film.
      You seem able to appreciate some aspects of "MMISL" while being able to articulate where the film falls short for you very well.
      (I laughed at the tassled bedspread comment. I just recently read that dress shows up in "Hello, Dolly!" on an extra who just happened to be Rutanya Alda - Carol Ann of "Mommie Dearest".)
      I'm glad you mentioned Joan Carroll, because she is awfully good and so overlooked. Likewise Henry H Daniels Jr.
      Thanks for another great comment, Joel!

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  10. Happy new year, Ken...what delightful movie to start your 2016 edition of Le Cinema Dreams! This is Vincente Minnelli at his very best...his passion for detail in costume, production design and composition results in the richest use of Technicolor in any film I have ever seen. And Garland never appeared more gorgeous and glamorous in any other movie...her hair and makeup enhance her natural beauty. Aside from The Man That Got Away and Over the Rainbow, The Boy Next Door is my favorite Garland onscreen musical number. Minnelli obviously worshipped Judy.

    The simplicity of the musical numbers, used to move the story forward, is ingenious. I love starting the film with Harry Davenport (Dr, Meade from Gone with the Wind!) singing and dancing to the title tune. This was before MGM musicals got a little TOO imaginative and top-heavy.

    Also crazy about everyone else in the cast, especially Margaret O'Brien, Marjorie Main, Mary Astor (suddenly matronly just three years after playing that femme fatale in Maltese Falcon) Lucille bremer and the hunky Tom Drake (did I hear that he was openly gay in the 1940s? I hope so).

    Yayy, Ken, your blog is a boulevard of fabulous, immortal cinema dreams! I love reading everyone's commentary. too!!
    -Chris

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    1. I so agree with you in extolling the virtues of this film over some of the dazzling but somewhat bloated MGM musicals of later years. I like spectacle as much as the next guy, but there's something about this film that just hits all the right chords.
      and as you mention, it's nice this is one of those musicals where the plot is propelled forward by the plot, not halted in its tracks.

      Garland is outstanding of course, but it's funny, I tend never to associate THIS Mary Astor with Bogart's. They're like two different people!
      I'd never read anything about Tom Drake, I kinda hope what you've heard is right. Especially given the length of his career.
      Thanks for adding your thoughts on MMISL to the others collected here, and a bonus thank you for the very complimentary comments!

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  11. Argyle, here, and I'm actually a third generation Alonzo (middle name.) It took me several viewings over the years before I got to where I really dug this movie. I think I was always enamored (mainly sight-unseen in the 70's and 80's) of the other big MGM musicals. I was living for the COLOR and the GLAMOUR and the RAZZ-MA-TAZZ. When I saw “That’s Entertainment” that was perfect - all the good parts strung together without all the exposition, etc. So when I finally had the chance to see some of them start-to-finish, I was usually all hyped-up but secretly sort of disappointed or confused. (I have to say, for me, “Singing in the Rain” was never disappointing, but for something like “The Bandwagon” or “Seven Brides...” or “Kiss Me Kate” I have to be in the right setting, really commit myself, and have my appreciation hat on. I also usually have to be alone because I have learned that some incredibly intelligent, sensitive people cannot deal with musicals of this sort. And part of me understands.) That said, I absolutely revere Arthur Freed, Roger Edens, Ann Miller, all of those people. But I would really need to be in an actual theater, projecting film, to entice me to watch “Gigi” or “American in Paris” again, start-to-finish.

    So when I saw MMISL the first few times I was kind of confused. Of course, Judy Garland’s presence and songs are mesmerizing immediately. Magic is not strong enough a word. She is so living and contemporary even in crazy candy-stripes; it’s mystical and inexplicable. But I didn’t understand why it wasn’t glamourous or urban or tongue-in-cheek. I was confused by the sincerity. I so wanted to like it; I told people I liked it. Secretly, I was not moved. I’m kind of always suspicious of episodic films, things hung on vignettes. But I stuck with it and eventually something happened to me - I don’t know what. I began to appreciate subtlety? I ended up living in the Midwest and walked along streets with houses like that? I experienced heavy snow? The magical powers of a sparkly snood? I don’t know but something happened and I grew to love MMISL.

    Now, if I happen to be wrapping presents or crafting something Christmas related and this movie comes on, I have to look around myself and think, how could I be so lucky? All kinds of horrible things could be (usually are) going on and this film can make me stop and be thankful. I don’t care what dumb things people say about Vincent Minnelli and Judy Garland - he understood her and dedicated himself to her, at least for a time, because he recognized what a unique power she had. I salute whoever for them both. They get a pass.

    In specific, and please pardon my memory lapses - I didn’t see it this season, one of the scenes that sticks with me is the dance. Where the scheming and assumptions of Judy and her sister are confounded by circumstances and it turns out that the new neighbor girl is actually gentle and charming, not awful. And it amazes me every time that June Lockhart (not a personal favorite) is able to gracefully embody that character. And just the way the grandfather takes the situation apart, gently exposing Judy, but is also her savior. And the scene manages to be funny, sort of scary, and charming all at once and you understand all the cross-currents. I’m full of admiration for the skill of the writing, direction, acting and design of that sequence.

    So now when “The Harvey Girls” or “Easter Parade” or something else comes on again for the __teenth time, I try to remember to put on my appreciation hat and buckle down. I never know when the sublime will pay a visit. Thank you, Ken, for your singular essays. Happy 2016!

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    1. Hi Argyle
      Really loved your comments because I share with you an inability to sometimes be as receptive to musicals as i might. I love the term "appreciation hat" because i really do think one often has to be in the right frame of mind to allow oneself to surrender to the special kind of "magic" that is the movie musical.
      My biggest problem is that i tend to marvel and enjoy the musical numbers of so many films, but I lose it when it comes the the of then silly films themselves. And 50s musicals got sooo self-serious and/or garish.
      i get grumpy just thinking of "an American in Paris"

      MMISL was an easy sell for me, but you articulate your problems with the film very precisely and with a great deal of insight.insight. Your description of the final dance is spot-on and just the kind of thing one might bring up in a film class to get students to appreciate the depth within what appears to be a simple scene II'm no big June Lockhart fan, but she is so charming in her brief scene).
      Whatever is delicate about Minnelli's treatment of his material here is precisely why I succumb; and it's lack in so many classic MGM musicals from that era is keenly felt by me.
      But I have many films that would benefit from watching with an "appreciation hat" on (Summer Stock comes to mind). Who knows what I might discover?

      Oh, and that sparkly snood you mentioned always caught my eye. Just the kind of detail which means little but adds so much.
      Thanks, Argyle - But perhaps fort this comment I'll say Thanks, Alonzo!

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  12. What a pleasure it was to see MMISL through your eyes. After I read your review, I wrote a letter to the St. Louis Walk of Fame committee to re-nominate Sally Benson the book's author. For some reason, she has been nominated but never achieved this honor. I quoted your first two paragraphs (with proper citation) Here's a bit:
    I wish to nomination Sally Benson, the author of the book, "Meet Me in St. Louis," which inspired the Vincent Minnelli movie of the same name.

    #1. She was born and raised in St. Louis. Unlike Sarah "Tootie" Smith, the youngest child in the family, she did leave St. Louis and move to New York City. (BTW, Sally was a nickname for Sarah in the olden days.)

    #2. Her stories about St. Louis, first published in the New Yorker magazine, the book (which included four additional stories) and the award-winning movie of the same name, continue to be the most delightful representation of St. Louis known to man.

    Of "Meet Me in St. Louis," popular movie blogger, Ken Anderson wrote on 12/31/15,(insert the first two paragraphs here.)


    As you know, Ms. Benson went on to be a well-respected screen-writer. Her other screen work includes Shadow of a Doubt (1943) for Alfred Hitchcock, Come to the Stable (1949), Summer Magic (1963), Viva Las Vegas (1964) and The Singing Nun (1966). Her screenplay for Anna and the King of Siam (1946) was nominated for an Academy Award.

    In looking over the list of current Walk of Fame inductees, very few of them scream, “St. Louis!” (Virginia Mayo?) Even the well-known Charles A. Lindbergh only lived in the St. Louis area for about two years: 1925-1927! On the other hand, Ms. Benson was born in St. Louis, grew up in St. Louis, wrote lovingly about St. Louis, and never forgot her St. Louis roots. "Meet Me in St. Louis" immortalized the fabulous City of St. Louis as nothing else ever has. I think you and your committee should again seriously consider adding Ms. Benson to the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

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    1. Hello Robert
      I thank you for your flattering application of my words, and commend you on following through with something I think really needs to be rectified. When researching this I read about how Benson wasn't on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Honestly, I would have thought she'd have a street named after her or something.
      Everything you cite confirms the soundness of the nomination and if in some small way my enthusiasm for this film is useful in your crusade, all I can say is that I'm more than flattered to be a part of it.

      It's like in Hollywood, every now and then it comes to be known that somebody like KC and the Sunshine Band have a star on the Walk of Fame, but Robert De Niro doesn't (which is actually the case). A real head-scratcher.
      If your letter should be met with success, i hope you stop by and give us all an update...Sally Benson IS St. Louis to a West-Coaster like me.
      Thanks for making me a part of a worthwhile campaign!

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  13. HI Ken,

    Wonderful to read your "take"--as well as your readers' comments--on this one-of-a-kind movie. I share your surprise that Judy Garland was not even nominated for an Oscar. And even more, that the movie itself was not even nominated...not even nominated...for Best Picture. What more could the Academy have wanted that this gem of a movie didn't give them?!!

    I appreciated your comments about how funny a movie it is, unlike so many other movies of its ilk. I remember after seeing it for the first time that I had even less patience for the silly plots of so many post "St. Louis" musicals. Happily, with dvds, we can now skip the plots of the more lumbering musicals and go right to their usually charming musical numbers.

    All the best, Allen

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    1. Hi Allen
      Yes...I can't recall what films gave "Meet Me in St. Louis" so much Oscar competition that year, but it's a shame how often real excellence (devoid of pretentiousness like An American In Paris) is overlooked when it comes to musicals and comedies.
      And you're so right about the DVD age. I have a great fondness for the musical numbers in a great many MGM films, no so much for the tiresome Boy-meets-girl plotlines. being able to fast-forward through the more "lumbering" parts of these films has been a treat.
      Thanks, Allen, for sharing your appreciation of this film with us and for again stopping by!

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