Regular blog contributor Helen Tope previews Meet Me in St Louis showing in our cinema from Friday 20 to Saturday 28 December.
It’s 1903, and St Louis, Missouri, is just one year away from hosting the World’s Fair, and most definitely a town on the rise.
Against this backdrop, we meet the Smith family. Born and raised in St Louis, the family enjoy a generous lifestyle, afforded by Mr Smith’s role as junior partner in his law firm. There are four girls in the family – Rose, Esther, Agnes and Tootie. Rose (played by Lucille Bremer) is the beauty, having already secured the interest of one Warren Sheffield. Having negotiated the difficulties of a long-distance relationship, things are going well, and we join the Smiths as Rose is expecting Warren to ring her with the intent of asking a very serious question.
It of course, all goes wrong, as Mrs Smith’s plan for everyone to eat early and clear out of the way for Rose, goes pear-shaped. Humiliatingly, she ends up having to take the call in front of her entire family. Warren begins to chicken out, and Rose is too stubborn to give him a nudge in the right direction.
The romantic entanglements aren’t just confined to the eldest – Esther (played by Judy Garland) is in love with the boy next door, John Truitt (Tom Drake). Esther, too shy to articulate her feelings, finally has the chance to meet John, when he attends a party at their house. Slyly asking John for help to extinguish the lights after the guests have left (she has to tell him where the switches are), there is definitely chemistry between the two. John, not overly confident himself, tells Esther she wears the same perfume as his grandmother. It’s not an auspicious start.
As their relationship grows, Esther dreams of what might be. This all comes to a crashing halt, when her father comes home and announces that he has been offered an opportunity to work in New York. More money, more chances for progression – it is everything he has been working towards. The only catch is that he, and his family, would have to move there for good.
Released in 1944, Meet Me in St Louis remains one of MGM’s biggest hits. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, and blessed with a soundtrack packed with hits including Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and The Boy Next Door, the film takes us from one great song to another, and for a musical, that’s half the job done.
However, Minnelli is not content to rest on the songs alone, and throws us every trick he’s got. Turning the colour way up, turn-of-the-century St Louis becomes a vibrant, bustling city anyone would be sorry to leave. In this film, Garland has never looked better; Minnelli lavishes a care on Garland’s close-ups that would, under another director, be reserved for Lucille Bremer. Bathed in a soft, unctuous glow, this is Judy as romantic lead. Only five years after The Wizard of Oz, this marks an important shift in Garland’s career. Esther Smith is on the cusp of adulthood, but very much intent on getting what (and who) she wants.
This is a film where the young people take the lead, and Meet Me in St Louis pulsates with the idea of opportunity – the road taken, that phone call answered. Garland, under Minnelli’s direction, gives a performance that bursts with energy. There is a sense of freedom in Garland’s performance that we don’t see again until A Star is Born in 1954. Minnelli places us in the director’s chair – he want us to see Judy the way he does. Garland here is unguarded, vulnerable and a joy to watch. Channelling the unwieldy parts of her personality, she becomes simply magnetic. The Trolley Song, where Esther finally gives herself permission to voice her feelings, becomes an exhilarating ride. Expectation, fear and doubt all come together in one thrilling moment.
With a voice as versatile as Garland’s, the temptation would be to cram in as many songs as possible. But this musical instead finely balances the music within the narrative. Nothing ever feels forced. By the time we come to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Minnelli has us right where he wants us. With boxes packed, and the family just days from their move to New York, the emotional stakes couldn’t be higher. As Garland sings of memory and loss, this would be a career-defining moment for any other artist. Recorded in a single take, the ease with which Garland handles the song is a reminder that, for her, this is just another day at the office.
Of course, the film doesn’t only belong to Judy. Playing the youngest Smith, Margaret O’Brien was awarded a Special Oscar for her performance as Tootie. As the Smith’s year moves into Halloween, we see Tootie and Agnes join the neighbourhood kids for some trick-or-treating. Grabbing a bag of flour (the aim is to lob a handful at anyone who answers their door), they head out in full costume. Shot at a low angle, Minnelli shows us a surprisingly boisterous celebration from the children’s point of view. When a childish prank goes wrong, Tootie is carted home with injuries to her face. She tells Esther that John Truitt is the culprit. Esther heads next door, and attacks John, branding him a bully. It isn’t until she returns home that Tootie finally admits that she was not the victim of assault.
Based on a series of short stories by Sally Benson, the author’s own experiences feature heavily. A family of girls, full of quirk and personality, is nothing new: it’s safe to say that Louisa May Alcott did get there first. But while Little Women highlights the struggle to become autonomous, the Smith girls – just a few generations later – are reaping those benefits. Rose and Esther are both going to college; Agnes and Tootie are most definitely seen and heard. What is fascinating about Meet Me in St Louis is that marriage and education are not an either / or scenario – there is room for both in the Smith’s world. Admittedly their status does help; no-one is having to cut off their hair to raise money. Minnelli’s vision of the Bensons, while it is a privileged viewpoint (and Minnelli never lets us forget that), their world looks, and feels, recognisably modern.
Meet Me in St Louis is often sold as a pure hit of nostalgia, but on a closer look, the Smiths are just as fallible as the rest of us. Rose’s pride nearly gets in the way of true love, and Mr Smith makes a momentous decision without consulting even his wife. For every scene of familial harmony, there is enough realness in St Louis to silence even the most hard-bitten cynic.
The question of whether to move where the money is, or stay smaller, and ultimately happier, is a question still being asked today. The American Dream is to accumulate – Meet Me in St Louis instead makes a convincing argument for going against the grain. More is not always more. As the film ends on a characteristically optimistic note, the take-away is that possibility does not always lie elsewhere. Opportunity, however you define it, can be closer than you think.