Friday, April 26, 2013

Classic Film Review: Meet Me In St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien and Mary Astor

Meet Me in St. Louis -- one of those big, bold musicals from MGM that, to this day, remain a classic example of how to incorporate song and dance when weaving together a story.

The picture itself is a slice of life -- one year in the life, to be exact, of the Smith family (the last name chosen, presumably, to imply normalcy. This is your everyday, average, relatable family).

For the Smith clan, music is a part of everyday life. When someone breaks into song, they are actually doing it -- and everyone either gathers around to listen or joins in with their own lyrics. Unlike some musicals, where the songs are simply an expression of emotion that doesn't necessarily mean the characters are actually singing within the context of the narrative, the Smith's in Meet Me in St. Louis are similar to the von Trapps in The Sound of Music -- all aspects of life, whether good or bad, are worth singing about. And isn't life just grand?

The opening number, named after the film's title, starts with the sounds of a little girl humming as she walks upstairs in preparation for her afternoon bath. When she eventually breaks into song, her Grandpa chims in, before the song carries out the front window and continues with Judy Garland pulling up to the house in horse and buggy.

Set in 1903, the narrative follows the highs and lows of the Smith family -- from falling in love, to dangerous Halloween stunts to Christmas miracles. The simplicity of the story is ultimately made extraordinary by its catchy musical numbers. And, really, can anyone else sing like the legendary Judy Garland?

As Esther Smith, second eldest daughter to Alonzo (Leon Ames) and Anna (Mary Astor), Garland is a revelation. Not only does her voice carry the emotional weight necessary for the role, but her natural interactions with her co-stars make you forget you are watching a big star and not just some regular girl from down the street. And that's a high compliment.

Whether she's longingly singing about her (at first) unrequited love for John Truett (Tom Drake) in "The Boy Next Door" or simply horsing around with her sisters Rose (Lucille Bremer) and little Tootie (the always adorable Margaret O'Brien), Garland infuses each scene with her contagious energy and charisma. You can't create that kind of natural talent and Garland has it in spades.

Margaret O'Brien (left) and Judy Garland
Meet Me in St. Louis is the rare female-centric musical where the boys are secondary and take a backseat to sisterly bonds and rebellious feminine spirit. In Hollywood, where male characters tend to be more well written than females (a problem we still see to this day), it's refreshing to see John, the main romantic lead, come off as an underdeveloped drip in comparison to Esther and the other lady Smiths. And even though Esther pines over John (although we are never quite sure what she sees in him), she makes him really work for her affection, even taking a bite out of his arm in anger at one point.

The songs are all upbeat and catchy -- specifically "The Trolley Song" -- and director Vincente Minnelli expertly lenses all the beautiful costumes and choreography. It's one of the most strikingly vivid films you are likely to see.

However, much of the pleasure viewers will derive from Meet Me in St. Louis is its charming central family. One scene, early on, subtly provides insight into their familial closeness when the entire Smith clan tries to calmly eat dinner even though they know full-well that Rose is expecting a long-distance phone call from a male admirer who may or may not propose to her (and on the newest advancement in technology, to boot!). Their excited and nervous energy around the dinner table -- and their honest-to-goodness happiness when the young suitor finally phones Rose -- illustrates that bond with very little fuss.

It's this attention to the little details where Minnelli excels. It's all about the small moments in life and Minnelli takes great care to illustrate the love that binds the Smith's together. Regardless of what is happening in the great world outside their borders, their relationships, built on solid foundation, is what keeps them going everyday.

As Tootie remarks, "Wasn't I lucky to be born in my favourite city?"

That kind of innocence and the pleasure the Smith's take in their safe little existence provides this rousing musical with a beating heart at its core.