Meet Me in St. Louis
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Picture Corp.; color, 35mm; running time: 113 minutes. Released 1944. Filmed in MGM studios. Cost: $1,700,000.
Producer: Arthur Freed; screenplay: Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe, from the novel by Sally Benson; photography: George J. Folsey; editor: Albert Akst; art directors: Cedric Gibbons, Lemuel Ayers, and Jack Martin Smith; music director: George Stoll; music numbers: Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin; costume designer: Irene Sharaff; choreography: Charles Walters.
Cast: Judy Garland (Esther Smith); Margaret O'Brien (Tootie Smith); Lucille Bremer (Rose Smith); Mary Astor (Mrs. Anna Smith); Leon Ames (Mr. Alonzo Smith); Tom Drake (John Truett); Harry Davenport (Grandpa Potter); Marjorie Main (Katie); Henry H. Daniels, Jr. (Lon Smith, Jr.); Joan Carroll (Agnes Smith); Robert Sully (Warren Sheffield); Chill Wills (Mr. Neely); Hugh Marlowe (Colonel Darly).
Award: Oscar to Margaret O'Brien for Outstanding Child Actress, 1944.
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As with many of the finest Hollywood films, the richness of Meet Me in St. Louis derives from the interaction of a number of sources and determinants, some of them complex in themselves, producing a filmic text to which no single, "coherent" reading can do justice. A few of these determinants include:
The dominant ideological project. Bordwell and Thompson give a clear account of this aspect in Film Art (unfortunately, they give the impression that there is nothing more to the film). They stress the film's release date (1944), a time when "families were often forced apart. In context Meet Me in St. Louis appeared as a nostalgic look back at America in 1903. It suggested an ideal of family unity for the future." The superficial level of familial celebration is the most easily perceived, and Bordwell and Thompson are doubtless correct in assuming that it was responsible for the film's contemporary popularity. Today, it is obvious that it is disrupted by numerous other factors.
Ideological contradiction. Through American art and culture the concepts "home" and "family," are central to ideological tension and conflict, perceived at once as the repositories of security and happiness where "good" values are preserved and as prisons in which energy is repressed, human beings trapped and frustrated. Beneath its level of affirmation, this tension is dramatized in Meet Me in St. Louis more thoroughly than in almost any other American film. To give one example only: the "happy ending" can be achieved only through the symbolic castration of the father (the "snow-people" scene), his capitulation expressing itself in the line, "We'll stay here till we rot."
Genre. The film basically crosses two genres, the musical (often regarded in terms of "celebration of vitality") and the small town domestic comedy (traditionally concerned with the containment of energy). Instead of concealing the potential tension here, the film consistently exploits it, making it its central principle. Even more remarkable is the eruption of a third (totally incompatible) genre: the famous Halloween sequence is built unambiguously on the iconography of the horror film and can now be seen to be the antecedent of the "demon child" movies of the 1970s (The Exorcist, The Omen, Halloween).
Stars. The film draws particularly on the personalities/star images of two performers: Judy Garland, with her combination of energy, neuroticism and precariously-suppressed hysteria, and Margaret O'Brien, who became famous overnight in her first film, Journey for Margaret, especially for her scene of prolonged hysterical breakdown.
Director. There was a time when Minnelli's musicals were critically downgraded in favour of those by Donen and Kelly: the latter certainly correspond more unproblematically to the simple "celebration of vitality" formula. Minnelli's musicals—full, like melodramas, of tension, excess, dislocation—produce continuous uneasiness. Virtually every number in Meet Me in St. Louis (including the famous "Trolley Song") ends not in the ultimate release of exuberance but in frustration. "Release" in Minnelli, in fact, usually takes the form of the explosion of hysteria (see, for example, the frenetic car-rides of The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town, the fairground climax of Some Came Running, the "goldfish" scene of Courtship of Eddie's Father, the "Mack the Black" fantasy of The Pirate). Both the major sequences of Meet Me in St. Louis centred on Margaret O'Brien (Halloween and the smashing of the snow people) have this function; both are also concerned with the symbolic destruction of parent-figures. Even the apparent affirmation of the end of the film is severely undercut—by its anti-climactic nature, by Tootie's dream of apocalyptic destruction, by John's casual remark that he "liked it better when it was just a swamp."
Meet Me in St. Louis, then, must be read not as a simple celebration of family life but as the point of intersection of some of the major ideological tensions in American culture. For a detailed account, the reader is referred to Andrew Britton's "Smith, or the Ambiguities" in The Australian Journal of Screen Theory, one of the most comprehensive and intelligent readings of a Hollywood film so far attempted.