Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Vicente Minnelli | Meet Me in St. Louis

by Douglas Messerli

Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finlehoff (screenplay, based on the stories by Sally Benson), Vicente Minnelli (director) Meet Me in St. Louis / 1944

 As anyone who has seen the great Vicente Minnelli musical knows, Meet Me in St. Louis, based on Sally Benson’s beloved tales of the American belle epoch life in the Missouri river city, is a beautiful paean to American family life, as lively and enduring of a picture of Americana as any book or film before or after it. And even I, who love to point out different perspectives of cinema and literary texts, concur. For years I have loved this film for those very reasons.

     The last few times I have watched this chestnut of a film, however, something else—a darker under image—has begun to seep through its lovely Technicolor tableaus; like shadows on a mid-summer day, in which this film begins, the gentle nostalgic view of American city life, reveals more substance but also more troubling issues upon each viewing.

     The film is split into four seasons, beginning in the Summer of 1903 and ending in the Spring of 1904, with the opening of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair. Each season features a major celebration, most including music and dance.

    In the first summer of the Smith family, sisters Esther (Judy Garland) and Rose (Lucille Bremer) throw a party in honor of their brother, Lon, Jr. (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.), inviting friends and the “new” boy next door, John Truett (Tom Drake), with whom Esther is secretly in love. The party is exuberance personified, as the party-goers dance a kind of frontier square dance, “Skip to My Lou,” and Esther and her younger sister ‘Tootie’ (the talented child actor, Margaret O’Brien) dance the famed late 19th century cake-walk “Under the Bamboo Tree.” Both are joyous examples of the kind of entertainment young people of 1903 clearly enjoyed. But already here, in these early scenes, we sense something more sinister behind the merriment. The “Skip to My Lou” dance was born in the frontier necessity for a way for men and women to innocently meet by “stealing partners,” a man standing in the center while the others circled while clapping hands until they reached the line “I’ll get another one prettier than you,” at which point the dancer in the center choses a girl, who now must wait out her turn in the center of the group. It was a perfect ice-breaker and way to meet new friends; one might almost describe it as an early kind of speed-dating.

      The second song, although written by Blacks (the lyrics by J. Rosamund Johnson and his  renowned poet brother, James Weldon Johnson), was originally sung in a Black version of a Ministrel Show, A Trip to Coontown, all of which hints of stereotypical racial attitudes and St. Louis city housing covenants that would not be struck down until 1948.

     Throughout this first summer, moreover, the sisters are constantly plotting events, covered by small lies. The most innocent of these is Esther’s hiding of John Truett’s hat at the party, and her plea that he help her put out the lights since she is afraid of mice. Somewhat more serious is their plot to have dinner an hour earlier than usual so that Rose can have a long distance telephone conversation with her boyfriend away from the family. This entails the girl’s encouraging their maid Katie (Marjorie Main) to lie:

                               Esther: Oh, Katie, they were just little white lies.
                               Katie: A lie’s a lie. Dressin’ it in white don’t help it. And 
                                          just why was I lying this time?

The lie, it soon appears, has not been necessary, since everyone in the family except the father (Leon Ames) knows that Rose is expecting a call. When, after refusing the early meal, the father discovers that he is the only who has not been told, he is justifiably hurt: “When was I voted out of this family.”

     These are all small events, nearly painless incidents that occur perhaps in every family. But far darker images of life lie in the imagination of the youngest member of the Smith family, Tootie, who lives a private life of dying dolls that might be more at home in the Addams family. Joining the iceman on his rounds, Tootie notes of the doll in her arms:

                 Tootie: Poor Margeretha, I've never seen her look so pale.
                 Mr. Neely: The sun oughta do her some good.
                 Tootie: I suspect she won't live through the night, she has
                             four fatal diseases.
                 Mr. Neely: And it only takes one.
                 Tootie: But she's going to have a beautiful funeral,
                            in a cigar box my Papa gave me, all wrapped up in silver paper.
                 Mr. Neely: That's the way to go, if you have to go.
                 Tootie: Oh, she has to go.

     Throughout the film Tootie and her slightly older sister, Agnes, conjure up a world of horror and terrorism. One of the most disturbing family discussions occurs in the Fall sequence of the film as the girls, dressed up as ghouls Halloween, speak with Katie:

                  Agnes: Katie, where's my cat?
                  Katie: I don't know... a little while ago, she got in
                             my way and I kicked her  down the cellar steps. I could hear
                             her spine hitting on every step.
                 Agnes: 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.
                 Katie: Oh, won't that be terrible, now? There's your cat.

A few minutes later, the girls describe why they are going to “trick” (as in “trick or treat”) an elderly neighbor man:

                  Tootie: We'll fix him fine. It'll serve him right for poisoning 
                               cats... He buys meat and then he buys poison and 
                               then he puts them all together.
                  Agnes: And then he burns the cats at midnight in his furnace. 
                              You could smell the smoke...
                  Tootie: ...and Mr. Braukoff was beating his wife with a red 
                               hot poker... and Mr. Braukoff has empty whiskey 
                               bottles in his cellar.

     Tootie, not allowed to get near the Halloween bonfire because of her age, is the only one who will “fix” Mr. Braukoff by throwing flower into his face. For her the scene is one of true horror—she is a true believer in the myths about him that she and Agnes have recounted—while we perceive him as a rather sweet man with a friendly dog.

     Perhaps it is almost inevitable that these to fantasists later that night decide to throw a dummy on the tracks, almost causing the trolley to go. John Truett, who has witnessed the event, hides them in a nearby alley, but Tootie escapes, claiming John has tried to “kill” her. Indeed, she needs stitches. Esther, shocked by Tootie’s claim, runs next door, slugging and kicking the man she proclaims to love in revenge, a strange version of what one might describe as “domestic violence.”

      Of course, once she discovers the truth, she returns with apologies that end in a kiss. But the shadows of events remain. There is a dark world in this paradisiacal St. Louis that no one, except perhaps for Tootie, is really talking about.

     Further darkness descends soon after, as the father announces his plan to move his family to New York. Just as the family has not consulted him about Rose’s plans, he has not talked about the consequences of such a move with anyone, and the rest of the family is horrified by the impending transition in their lives, Tootie, once again, expressing it most bluntly:

                   'Tootie': It'll take me at least a week to dig up all my dolls 
                                 in the cemetery.

     Although they ultimately accommodate themselves to their new fate, by the Winter sequence new worries and fears have beset them. Rose has no a date to the annual Christmas dance and must go with her brother Lon. At the last moment before the dance, John Truett arrives to tell Esther that his tuxedo is still at the cleaners. Their Grandfather (Harry Davenport) dapperly becomes John’s replacement. He is a man who, throughout the film, wears many hats, and has a large hat collection. But the truth remains: the family is escorting one another to the ball, seemingly isolated from the community they love.

     This time, like their two younger sisters, it is Rose and Esther who have plotted to “fix” their foe, the New Yorker Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart), who has stolen away Rose’s boyfriend Warren Shelffield (Robert Sully); they have filled out her dance card with the most ugly and obnoxious males in attendance. When Lucille, however, turns out to be an utterly sweet woman who suggests that Rose pair off with Warren, and she with Lon, Esther is forced, under the vigilant eye of her grandfather, to take over the dance partners they had assigned to Lucille. The long sequence of dancers with these monsters is certainly comical, but also painful to watch as we recall that this is her last night in St. Louis. Through the miracle of movies, John Truett shows ups for the last dance, as tears rush to Esther’s (and our) eyes.

     The two talk of marriage, he even willing to give up his college education. But both know it is the wrong decision and despair of ever seeing each other again. Upon returning home, Esther finds Tootie still awake, and to comfort her sings one of the most sad-hearted Christmas song ever created, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The haunting ballad, written by Hugh Martin, was originally even bleaker than it is in the movie, Garland arguing for changes for fear if she sang it people might think she was a monster. Today, it is one Garland’s most profoundly sung songs, assured to bring tears to everyone’s eyes. And the scene after, in which Tootie runs out into the snow to destroy her beloved snow people so that “no one else can have them,” truly dramatizes the darker world the Smiths are now inhabiting. As Esther rushes out to retrieve her young sister, the father is forced to reevaluate how his plans are effecting his family, and determines to remain in their beloved St. Louis. Christmas morning has arrived, and the family seems once again blessed, Warren Sheffield even rushing in the middle of their celebration to announce that he and Rose are going to be married, as if it were a challenge instead of a proposal.

     But the very last scene of the film reveals other shadows that we have sensed all along. This is a story of a world already lost. In a short time the two elder daughters will be married and have left home. But even more importantly, the whole world it has pictured will have died. From the very beginning of the film, Minnelli and his writers have subtly interwoven themes of decay and death into the very structure of the work. Obviously, Tootie has been obsessed with the subject, but even the young Esther has reminded her suitor, by her choice of perfume, of his grandmother. At another point, her grandfather describes her as "the very image" of her dead grandmother. Esther, in turn, describes her older sister as becoming “an old maid.” Underlying the joyful festivities of family life is the very quickness of the seasons. By the time Spring arrives all the women family members move outside the home dressed in white; only the mother has a touch of lavender in her apparel. The men are dressed in beige and gray. The lovely colors of that first Summer scene have seemingly been washed away. One might almost describe them as already being ghosts, far more ghoulish, in a sense, that the young Agnes and Tootie dressed for Halloween.

      The family is on its way to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the World’s Fair, a wondrous event that  also, eventually, is lit up in white. As the family gathers after a day of enjoying the experience of the whole world having come to small town America, they are filled with joy and love. But the scene, in contrast to almost all others, is played out, at first in the dark. As Dave Kehr recently wrote in an astute review of the new DVD version of this classic film in The New York Times:

                                  Minnelli begins with a sun-filled, back-lot exterior
                                  —the Smith house, standing at the crest of its own 
                                  little hill—but concludes with a darkened, soundstage 
                                  interior, dressed to represent the fair's opening night. 
                                  The progress is not one of growth and expansion, 
                                  but of the increasing darkness and confinement.

     Two small events occur that perhaps express yet deeper shadows creeping over their lives. As they move toward the restaurant where they plan to have dinner, they each move in different directions, until the father calls them together to lead them off. They have become lost in their own hometown. A moment later, after the fairgound buildings become awash in light, Tootie asks the crucial question: “They won’t ever tear it down, will they?” The grandfather blusteringly answers: “Well they better not!” The film’s weak ending, echoing Judy’s Garland’s phrase “There’s no place like home” from The Wizard of Oz, cannot possibly erase the doubts the two events have created. In reality, only two of the St. Louis World’s Fair 1,500 buildings actually survived: the St. Louis Museum of Art and a building now on the campus of Washington University, Brookings Hall. The others, made of plaster of Paris and other cheap materials, were only meant to last a year or two. The same year’s summer Olympic Games would forever change the size and look of the city; St. Louis was no longer a small hometown.

    The era, of course, did quickly pass. Ten years later any younger male of this story would probably have been drafted into World War I. Those who returned came back to a different universe.

    As for Tootie? Sally Benson, upon whom she was based, never got visit the St. Louis World’s Fair, her father having moved the family to New York City.

    Despite its glories, it was perhaps a society too based on myths, small lies, and impermanent values to last.

Los Angeles, Christmas Day, 2011
Reprinted from American Cultural Treasures (January 2012)

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