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Entries in Meet Me in St. Louis (5)

Wednesday
Nov012017

Soundtracking: "Meet Me In St. Louis"

The 1944 Smackdown is coming, so Chris looks at that year's musical masterpiece...

They don’t get much more timeless than Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me In St. Louis. It’s a musical about the family unit, and fittingly almost all of the numbers take place in the home. Whether in party revelry or the everyday household ubiquity of the title song, music is as much a definitive tradition of the Smith family as anything else. Grandpa may screw up the words, and it may be past the youngest’s bedtime, but music is one of the things that bind them. It also helps when one of the daughters is Judy Garland, I suppose.

Though St. Louis has relatively few musical numbers (unless you count umpteen reprises of that title song), its percentage of classics is nearly as high as its joy levels. “The Trolley Song” is the kind of showstopper that wins by the charm of its performer and its carefree whimsy. The “chug chug chug” silliness is exactly the kind of giddy uplift you have when falling in love, especially when you are in a musical. No matter that it’s actually kind of a strange metaphor for Garland’s Esther to use about her crush. Of all the love songs in Judy Garland’s singular repertoire, it is the sweetest...

Click to read more ...

Wednesday
May252016

Judy by the Numbers: "The Trolley Song"

Anne Marie is tracking Judy Garland's career through musical numbers...

It's difficult to overstate the importance of Meet Me in St. Louis to the myth that is Judy Garland. The Wizard of Oz guaranteed Judy immortality at age 17, but the 1944 Freed musical would be the first Garland product to assemble the pieces of her myth beyond her larger-than-life talent. Though Meet Me in St. Louis is usually known as arguably the best "adult" performance by Judy Garland in an MGM musical, this time the alternately exciting and exhausting events offscreen would be as important to her image as her sparkling turn in Technicolor as Esther Smith.
 
The Movie:
 Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)
The Songwriters: Hugh Martin (lyrics), Ralph Blane (music)
The Players: Judy Garland, Mary Astor, Margaret O'Brien, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, directed by Vincente Minnelli

 

The Story: Long after the completion of Meet Me In St. Louis, Judy Garland would state that she never felt more beautiful than when she was on that film. Look closely during the number and you'll see why. Look past her inner glow and you'll notice some small cosmetic changes: her teeth are crooked and her nose isn't. Though MGM had capped Judy's teeth during The Wizard of Oz and put her through dozens of makeup and wardrobe changes in order to make Garland a more typical MGM girl, director Vincente Minnelli and makeup designer Dorothy Ponedel hit on the truth: Judy Garland wasn't a typical MGM girl. Ponedel and Minnelli's secrets were well-placed blush, an appreciation for color design, and the knowledge that Judy's imperfections were as winning as her talents.

Of course, Judy's inner glow could have been from the other big news in her life: she was in love with Vincente Minnelli. The 21-year-old was working on her first divorce (from musician David Rose), and found Minnelli's mind, and the way he made her feel she looked, absolutely glamorous. For many reasons - his sexuality, her increasing problems, their incredible daughter - this is Garland's most famous marriage. However, the relationship is also famous for the problems it created.

One problem Minnelli couldn't create but did witness onset was the beginning of Judy's difficulties. Though it was originally scheduled for 58 days, Meet Me In St. Louis didn't wrap for 70 days. This was blamed, in part, on Judy's tardiness. Exhausted from a mandatory war bonds tour and initially dissatisfied with playing another teenager, Judy snuck out of rehearsals, began showing up late, and outright skipped 13 days of shooting. At the time, it may have seemed like petulant childishness or diva-like drama. Unfortunately, it would become a pattern that would eventually kill her career. In some ways, Meet Me In St. Louis was Judy Garland's peak at MGM. From 1945 onward, she would never make the studio as much money - or be as carefree - as she had while singing on that trolley.

Tuesday
Dec022014

Tweets o' the Week: Prada Reunion, Ill Juli, Flu Season

I have no idea if y'all like this now weeklyish roundup but I do so I'ma Keep On Keepin On. One fun thing that doesn't lend itself to highlighting elsewhere is reply conversations. So if you're interested in 'Bad Movies We Love' you should check out all the fun suggestions for favorite turkeys when I asked over Thanksgiving. I haven't seen several of the ones cited so I must get on that.

Anywhere here we go...

Tweets That Amused/Enlightened This Week, Non-Celebrity Division
Just for fun and with a smidge of Instagram...

 

LOL. "Starlog". Who is old enough to remember that magazine? Nathaniel asks while raising his hand sheepishly.

Best Broadway Trivia Ever

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Thursday
Oct312013

Movies that go bump in the night

Happy Halloween, everybody! It’s Tim, here to celebrate the high holy night of horror movies, when even the most squeamish can steel themselves up to watch a scary movie, and scary movie lovers stock up all our best and blackest to watch in marathons of unendurable dread.

But let’s not go prattling about every random horror film that comes to mind (which is, I’m a little sorry to admit, the way that I assembled my movie playlist for the night). Instead, I’d like to ask everybody to pitch in their suggestions for a question always on my mind this time of year:

What movies best capture the spirit of Halloween?

That question already has a lot of wiggle room baked into it – do we mean Halloween as a night of ghosts and witches, Halloween as a night of trick-or-treating and costumes, Halloween as a night of crisp autumn air and fallen leaves? I don’t know, and that’s why I want to throw it out to all of you. But before I do that, I want to offer three suggestions of the movies that best capture what enters my head when I hear the word “Halloween”. (And I’m not including John Carpenter’s Film Experience-endorsed slasher film Halloween. There’s such a thing as too damn easy).

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Absolutely not a joke. The third of the seasonally-arranged film’s four chapters takes place in its entirety on Halloween night, and there’s not a film out there that better evokes a the feeling of dressing up and hunting for candy on a cool fall night. Not many directors in Hollywood history ever had a better grasp of what to do with color than Vincente Minnelli, and in this sequence, he and cinematographer George Folsey gorgeously capture the variations of browns and yellows that dominate the landscape during a Midwestern October (in fact, Carpenter and his DP, Dean Cundey, looked to this film as the inspiration when making Halloween). The warm nighttime lighting is just spooky enough to evoke the feeling of being a child who secretly wants to be scared, and it all couldn’t be more pleasantly nostalgic. Bonus: one of only two films that’s both a terrific Halloween movie and a terrific Christmas movies (the other, of course, is The Nightmare Before Christmas).

Kill, Baby… Kill! (1966)
Because, first, I’d be falling behind in my mission if I didn’t use an article about horror films as an excuse to talk about Mario Bava and the wide world of visually florid, narratively bonkers Italian horror cinema. And second, because my Halloween always needs a stop-over in foggy cemeteries and decaying, haunted Mitteleuropean villages, and some of the absolute best ever put to celluloid can be found in this story of a ghostly little girl making life awful for an isolated Carpathian town has some of the best. The normal rules of Italian horror apply: if you’re hunting for mood and blissed-out color cinematography, this will do you up right, and if you need a tight piece of storytelling… but hey, look at that cinematography! Still, there’s probably no place that approach is more objectively defensible than in a ghost story, where the uncanny and inexplicable is part of the fun. Nor do many movies about ghosts understand so well the primal, bedtime story impact that a good Gothic set can have when it’s been lit to be this creepy.

Sleepy Hollow (1999)
I can remember as vividly now as the day after it happened, the first time I saw Tim Burton’s last completely successful movie and thinking to myself, “That’s it! That’s autumn!” Not bad for a film shot entirely on a soundstage, without a whisper of natural lighting, for which we can credit both Rick Heinrichs’ just-exaggerated fairy tale woods, and Emmanuel Lubezki’s absolutely gorgeous lighting palette, beautifully evoking the yellow haze of light filtered through dying leaves (Heinrich won an Oscar, Lubezki was nominated. Frankly, the visuals would be enough to secure the movie a spot on my annual Halloween-time viewing schedule even if it wasn’t a pretty great ghost story, or didn’t have its own Halloween scene with quintessentially Burtonesque jack-o’-lanterns flickering in the background. There’s an atmospheric creepiness to the film that has everything to do with setting and place, not with plot (which, given the things the plot does, is for the best), and few things have ever colonized my feelings about walking in the woods quite so effectively.

What about the rest of you?

What's your favorite Halloween movie? Let us know in comments!

Sunday
Mar132011

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

To honor the passing of the great songwriter Hugh Martin Friday at 96 years of age, a repost of a review of one of my 100 favorite movies, a member of my personal canon. (If you joined us after 2008 you can pretend it's a new essay!) Imagine giving the world such perfectly crafted enduring gifts as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "The Trolley Song". R.I.P. Mr. Martin.

Meet Me in St. Louis "The Blossoming of Judy Garland"


Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli; Written by Irving Brecher and Fred F Finklehoffe from the novel "5135 Kensington" by Sally Benson; Starring Judy Garland, Mary Astor, Leon Ames, Margaret O'Brien, Lucille Bremer, Harry Davenport, June Lockhart, Tom Drake and Marjorie Main; Production & Distributor Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM); Released 11/28/1944

It's Summer 1903 in Missouri and the Smith family are buzzing about the World's Fair coming to their town the following spring. Teenage daughters Rose (Lucille Bremer) and Esther (Judy Garland) are dreaming about proposals from handsome men, the eldest son Lonnie (Henry H Daniels Jr) is off to college and the father Lon (Leon Ames), a junior partner at a law firm, is about to tell the family that they're all relocating to New York Ci -- oh, but let's stop there. For any plot summary of Meet Me in St. Louis does the movie a great disservice. This classic musical isn't plot driven at all so much as a series of three seasonal vignettes of family life: Summer, Autumn and Winter with the following Spring in 1904 serving as a coda. Almost all of what might be called "plot" in Meet Me In St. Louis is imagined. That is to say, that the story drivers are all in the future. One day the family will move to New York. One day Rose, Lonnie, and Esther will be married. One day St. Louis will catch the attention of the nation. In essence the movie is a lovingly rendered still life of a family (and town) on the brink of great changes rather than an animated portrait of the changes themselves.

St. Louis begins smartly in the kitchen, the heart of any home. Mrs. Anna Smith (Mary Astor) and her maid and cook Katie (Marjorie Main) are preparing ketchup. Katie thinks it's too sweet, Anna thinks her husband will like it that way. Various members of the cast scoot through the kitchen sharing their opinions, too. They can't seem to agree on the flavor: too sweet? too sour? too spicy? too watery? Vincente Minnelli the real gourmet cook in the director's chair doesn't have the same problem. He gets everything right.

If the director was nervous about handling his first big budget color feature with a bonafide superstar in the lead role, you'd never know it from the results. Minnelli had only directed two black and white pictures (Cabin in the Sky, see previous article, and I Dood It both in 1943) prior to this big break but Meet Me In St Louis moves with such easy confidence, gently in and out of song and book scenes, you'd think he had nothing at all to prove.

Take the terrific economy and pacing --the movie is at once both leisurely and jam packed with comic, musical and dramatic beats -- of the final two scenes that conclude the first and longest act in the movie (Summer 1903). First there's a lengthy party sequence at the Smith home wherein Esther comically tries to seduce "The Boy Next Door" John Pruett (Tom Drake). She's endearingly amateur at seduction though Judy Garland is of course anything but amateurish when it comes to ingratiating herself to the viewer. John accompanies her through her house as she turns off the lights. It's ostensibly her duty but she's makes a huge drawn out production of it -- she's only doing it to set the mood for their first kiss. The amusement of the scene is that Esther doesn't realize she's succeeding and misreads John's nerves and equally adolescent flirting. When he finally hightails it out of her house without the kiss she's been longing for she flips the lights back on, at once. It's a great deflating punchline. The follow up scene, the classic Trolley sequence, repeats the punchline.

Buzz, buzz, buzz went the buzzer
Plop, plop, plop went the wheels
Stop, stop, stop went my heartstrings

As he started to leave, I took hold of his sleeve with my hand
And as if it were planned... he stayed on with me
And it was grand just to stand with his hand holding mine
To the end of the line.
Esther is obviously singing/dreaming about John but hasn't noticed his arrival beside her for the last chorus. On her last joyous note she turns to finds the object of her affections staring her in the face. It totally throws her. Oops! Once again she's more comfortable in the dream than in the reality. It's the perfect performance note to hit for this girl who is not quite yet a woman.

 

Speaking of which...

Judy Garland was 22 years old when St. Louis hit theaters. She was already a screen sensation with multiple Mickey Rooney hits and The Wizard of Oz behind her. According to reports she was hesitant to take this role, another teenage character, since she had wanted to move into more grown up roles. Esther Smith turned out to be just what she was after all along. The answer was right in front of her. (There's no place like home and all that).

Esther Smith proved the perfect bridge role for one of the greatest stars of all time, taking Garland from teenager to woman both onscreen and off. By the third act (Winter 1903) Esther and John are in the thrall of requited love and faced with rather adult choices about their futures. By the time Esther is singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to her young sister Tootie (Margaret O'Brien), Judy Garland is a grown woman in full bloom and the camera treats her accordingly. By the time the film was released, Garland and Minnelli were in love and living together. It all came together gloriously. Arguably Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) is the emblematic peak of Garland's film career between her 'star is born' role in The Wizard of Oz (1939) to, well, A Star is Born (1954) itself.

But all this talk of Judy's blossoming (she was never lovelier onscreen), changing seasons, loving families and screen romances also does a disservice to the spicy flavors within this musical. While it is a sweet nostalgic slice of Americana, it never descends into mere treacly pablum. The Fall 1903 segment adds enough sour to the soup, focusing on the sometimes gruesome antics and morbid imaginations of Esther's young sisters Agnes (Joan Carroll) and particularly Tootie played by child star Margaret O'Brien who received a juvenile Academy Award for her performance --just like her co-star had in The Wizard of Oz. And the delicate balance of flavors continues all through The Winter 1903 segment when Rose and Esther behave badly at a local dance. One particular bit has Esther putting on her first corset. Rather than play up the beauty of her figure, Minnelli and Garland opt to spike the scene with laughs and physical comedy.

 

I feel elegant but I can't breathe.

Furthermore, the sweetness of Esther and John's romance is tempered with their very un movie-like (if barely acknowledged) realization that they're moving too quickly. The movie never settles for just one flavor. In short, it's delicious. Or, to quote Esther herself, "heavenly... simply heavenly".


For all of the undoubtedly careful mix of moods and delicate character arcs that Minnelli stirs into his career-making hit, the most impressive thing might well be how effortless his achievement plays. With the semi resurgence of the film musical in the Aughts, much has been written about modern audiences hesistation to suspend their disbelief when characters burst into song. Modern musicals still feel a bit tentative, like they're scared to do at all what musicals are best at doing. Today's filmmakers would do well to study Meet Me In St. Louis which fills its central family's life with music: they hum, they sing phrases of songs even when no production number is on the way, they play piano; Music feels as natural here as it's ever felt in a movie. The space between musical performance and acting of the non-singing variety is blissfully blurred. In the Trolley Song sequence already discussed Judy spends the first verse of the song fretting. She's not singing at all, letting the crowd handle the number as she makes her way through the crowded car. By the time she's spotted her would be man running toward the car (He hadn't forgotten her invitation after all!) the sudden lift in her spirits is expressed quite naturally by her joining in... Everyone else is singing, why shouldn't she? There's another wonderful moment late in the film which I think best expresses Minnelli's graceful direction through performance, plot and song. Mr and Mrs Smith have had a row over the family's impending move to New York and their children have already exited the scene in anger. The mother and father begin to make peace at the piano. And as the father's voice lifts, the sisters are all gently coaxed back into frame, with unspoken forgiveness on their minds. It's a beautiful grace note in an altogether heavenly movie. A