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1944's Meet Me in St. Louis is one of the pillars of the old MGM. For the record, it's considered the first of the classic Arthur Freed era of Technicolor musicals. The film in which Judy Garland blossomed into a full-fledged star is a triumph, an example of what the ritziest studio could do even in the middle of a world war. A solid entertainment, its subject is nostalgia for a time removed 108 years from today; it therefore doesn't have a lot of musical firsts or innovations. Three or four top songs have kept it at the front rank of musicals, despite having no major choreographed dancing scenes.
Sally Benson's original story is Americana with a capitol "A": four seasons in the life of the Smith family of St. Louis, circa 1903. The socially-conscious Smith daughters Esther and Rose (Judy Garland and Lucille Bremer) worry about their love lives; Esther dreams about John Truett (Tom Drake), the handsome boy next door. Tomboy Tootie (Margaret O'Brien) is obsessed with pulpy violence and morbid games. Father (Leon Ames) is doing well in business; he happily announces to Mother (Leon Ames and Mary Astor) and the rest of the family that they'll soon be leaving their idyllic hometown for better opportunities in a bigger city.
Everyone writes about the glories of MGM's Arthur Freed musical unit in terms of its stellar talent and enviable record of hits. Freed appears to have been a shrewd player at court, currying the favor of studio boss L.B. Mayer while quietly corralling most of the country's best musical talent. MGM's bungalows swarmed with arrangers and adapters of great taste and discretion, beginning with the talented Roger Edens, Freed's unsung associate producer. Meet Me In St. Louis is directorially the work of Vincente Minnelli, a designer and art director with big ambitions. Minnelli had been responsible for surprise hits like the wonderful Cabin in the Sky. There's also been a lot said about Minnelli's romance with his star Garland.
I find Meet Me In St. Louis to be the better side of Louis Mayer's "family values" concept of entertainment, the Andy Hardy worldview that Mayer decided was good for both the country and for MGM's bottom line. In Mayer's view ordinary Americans were supposed to be lovable small town hicks, the kind who would keep buying tickets to MGM movies indefinitely. They weren't encouraged to think politically or join unions. The best thing for normal people was to stay in their place; upward mobility was reserved for the super-talented. If they were good enough, they would come to work at MGM under exclusive and ironclad contracts. That made the American family fit neatly into the Mayer-centric view of the universe.
The war made Mayer's vision obsolete, along with many another quaint convenience of American living. Families were split and husbands and sweethearts sent overseas. Yet this same social chaos brought forth a strong market for nostalgia. Many hit songs of the time express hope for an uncertain future through the dreams of the past. One of the most gripping of these halis from this movie, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". It seems a melodic holiday tune until one hears the lyrics. They touch upon separation and the hopes that loved ones will be reunited, and also express a sense of loss. The sentiment in the line Someday soon we all will be together seems to recognize the heartbreak of hundreds of thousands of listeners whose loved ones aren't coming back. In 1944 the Smith family of 1903 St. Louis was immediately recognized as a picture of an idealized America worth fighting for, the one on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. 1
That's why the actual business of the film -- teenage dates, parties, a foolish Halloween night -- is secondary to the overall theme of the film, the conservative but attractive idea that staying home and staying the same is a great ambition. The Smiths in the movie remain in St. Louis and presumably marry their childhood sweethearts and never move away. The real Smiths moved to New York where young Sally Benson (the real "Tootie" of the film) was inspired to write about her childhood. I wonder if that would have happened had she stayed in Missouri. Otherwise, there's not much more to the politics of the film than the usual Hollywood encouragement to identify with people better off than you are. A lot more Americans are essentially rootless now, and the dream of a single-family residence on a broad street of fine homes is grows less affordable every day. Even the "modest" neighborhoods of 1950s sitcoms are now the homes of millionaires.
The Smith girls are chided, and then forgiven, for defending their social status. Esther and Rose Smith openly scheme against a perceived rival for their boyfriends, one Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart). The poacher turns out to be a fine young lady who puts their cattiness to shame. Just as we're encouraged to think that the girls have learned their lesson, the movie then dooms a whole social underclass of boys at the dance to "inhuman" status, in the kind of casual discrimination that the writers had no trouble milking for laughs. Those were (and are?) the cultural values, after all. Have a good cry if you don't get the respect you deserve, but don't worry about ghettoizing those less socially anointed than thou.
The world of Meet Me In St. Louis is a 1944 dream of a life most Americans never had. Yet it is the sentimental definition of the American way of life that our troops were defending. America's official ideals were accepted by a much greater consensus of the country back then, which some people think was a good thing. Although it is an idealized fantasy, this is one of the key films my generation could have looked to, to understand our parents' generation.
When I first saw the film, I thought Margaret O'Brien was delightful. Her precocious morbidity no longer seems so funny, and the freshness of her scenes -- dealing with a scary neighbor, etc. -- goes away when one realizes that MGM's little 'Butch' Jenkins in the previous year's The Human Comedy goes through most of the same moves with a lot less effort. Now I probably identify more with the characters of the parents -- Leon Ames and Mary Astor.
A digression. When I first saw Meet Me In St. Louis, the idea of being interested in musicals was nowhere on my list of priorities. In the UCLA dorms in 1971, Randy Cook dragged me across town to the Encore, a small theater that stood where Raleigh studios have expanded today at the corner of Melrose and Van Ness, a few blocks from present-day Savant headquarters. The Encore showed studio prints straight from the studio vaults. That night I saw Meet Me In St. Louis and Singin' in the Rain, each for the first time, each in perfect original Technicolor prints. It was like never having seen movies in real color before, and although the Gene Kelly musical was funnier and more exciting, the Minnelli show had images that pulled my eyes out of their sockets. The Technicolor had rich blacks and seemingly no grain. In the stylized Technicolor world all hues were super-saturated. Faces didn't look real, but hyper-real. Every shot was a rich world of textures and color.
I was in a buzz. After that I'd go see any print of anything being shown in Technicolor. Not all of them looked good, but some were fabulous. The pictures I most remember striking me in the same emotional way -- just enraptured by the color image itself, were Damn Yankees, The Searchers, Vertigo, The Wonderful Country and a Paramount studio print of Danger: Diabolik that almost put my eyes out. But the first experience was at Meet Me In St. Louis. Oh, and I had my first Pink's Hot Dog the same night!
Adoring musical fans of Meet Me In St. Louis tend to be the Judy Garland faithful. Even though she's at her best here, there's a lot more to the movie than just her. I'm not always certain I even like Vincente Minnelli's ideas about design or taste, especially in his later CinemaScope films, but there's very little to complain about in this dazzling show. Ms. Garland has the biggest, most soulful-looking eyes of any American singer.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of Meet Me In St. Louis comes awfully close to replicating the original Technicolor experience of Vincente Minnelli's Americana classic. The key scene to watch is the 'Spring Morning' exit from the Smith house, with all the girls in fancy dresses, hats and parasols. I believe I remember each dress not being exactly white, but having a different delicate light hue. This new transfer almost gets there -- Mary Astor's dress still has a bit of the violet color. As opposed to older transfers, I saw no shots with registration issues; everything lines up. In this HD presentation it's possible to find one's self staring at the detail in the costumes, right down to individual threads.
Although the package back does not carry a full list, this Blu-ray carries over almost all of the extras from Warners' two-disc DVD set from seven years ago. The feature can be seen with or without a video introduction by Liza Minnelli. The original mono audio has been remastered in 5.0, and there's an entire separate music-only track that will immediately attract interest. With the added fidelity of Blu-ray audio, the songs sound more rich than ever. The audio commentary gathers the edited remarks of Judy Garland's biographer John Fricke, actress Margaret O'Brien, composer Hugh Martin, screenwriter Irving Brecher and Arthur Freed's daughter Barbara Freed-Saltzman.
One docu is The Dream Factory, an early '70s precursor to the That's Entertainment series. Promotional materials claim that the Dick Cavett- hosted show is a home video debut, but it was included on the earlier DVD of this title. The Making of an American Classic is an okay docu that appears to have been done for a 1990's laserdisc. The late Roddy McDowall narrates. Becoming Attractions: Judy Garland is a episode of an old TCM show that strung together a selection of themed trailers.
A 1930 musical short subject called Bubbles showcases a bunch of Hollywood kids singing and dancing in a horrible arrangement like something from What's the Matter With Helen? The incredibly cute Judy Garland is a tiny singing tot in one song, as one of the Gumm sisters. Shelley Fabares, Celeste Holm and a young Michael Blodgett are featured in a failed 1965 TV pilot for a Meet Me In St. Louis TV show. It starts with a horse-drawn carriage on the same back-lot street, and then zooms into the Smith house just like any other design-challenged 60s TV show. A deleted song (Boys and Girls Like You and Me) is illustrated with stills, and another early sound musical short subject uses the same swing arrangement for the song Skip to My Lou. Finally, there's a Lux radio version of the movie from 1946. An original trailer is present, but not the full Vincente Minnelli trailer gallery from the earlier DVD.
A separate CD disc contains a sampler of the top Martin-Blane songs from the show.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Meet Me in St. Louis Blu-ray rates:
1. The song's original lyrics were considered too depressing, and were altered: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last, Next year we may all be living in the past..." sounds almost hardboiled, cynical. Frank Sinatra reportedly had another line changed later on, but it remains in the movie and is somewhat chilling in the wartime context: "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." The idea of soldiers serving far away while their Garland-like ideal girlfiriends went lonely at home, is highly sentimental.
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T'was Ever Thus.