SDMB Musicals: Meet Me in St. Louis

Please excuse the possible, uh, magic realism of my posting style today; my brain is abob in a swell of fever, held afloat by little more than sheer will and Dayquil.

*Meet Me in St. Louis *is surely the Great American Musical. Set lovingly and nostalgically in the very heart of a “normal”—i.e., middle class and turbulent-but-happy—family, it simultaneously celebrates the quaint conventions of a bygone era and contrasts them, slyly but unfavorably, with the modern society of 1944.

It’s astonishingly plotless for a big studio entertainment. The film maintains the traditional three-act framework a mainstream audience would, but moves blithely through the various interweaving stories of each member of the Smith family of St. Louis, Missouri, in the year leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair.

I’ll skip over this part, which would normally be a capsule of the plot, on the understanding that we’ve all seen the movie, or are at least planning on seeing it. Instead I’ll jot some thoughts regarding some of the things about Meet Me in St. Louis* that, after probably a couple dozen viewings, I feel are worth noting and considering.*

[li]I’ve heard the movie derided because it “celebrates” an antediluvian society wherein men hold all the power, including over day to day decisions made in every household, and women can claim control over even the smallest aspect of their lives only through subterfuge and manipulation. I disagree. I think it’s more likely that an audience in 1944—the era of Rosie the Riveter—would see these sly little spotlights on such quaint sexual politics as a gentle reminder of how far we’d come (baby). The film doesn’t celebrate them so much as present them without any explicit comment, leaving that up to the contemporary audience.[/li][li]The movie has a surprisingly modern view of child psychology. Tootie’s obsession with death and the macabre is never presented as something that’s wrong with her. More importantly, no one in her family seems to give it much weight. She’s portrayed in such a way that we see her obsessions as natural milestones along the journey of a little girl learning about the planet she’s only recently been deposited on; she’s processing such vast, universal imponderables as life and death with the curious and playful—though utterly serious—mind of a real child.[/li][li]Note Minnelli’s use of picture frames. I haven’t decided what this means, if it means anything other than a careful attention to compositional details. But watch how often a character’s face is framed by actual frames in the background. And watch how frequently the geometric structures of the frames, doors, and windows are taken into account within the composition. Perhaps this is meant to give a physical presence to the central theme of the Home as a place of safety and familial intimacy. Perhaps not . . . (Minnelli’s use of color harmonies is also careful enough to be significant, but I haven’t given it much analytic thought either.)[/li][li]Despite the comfortable, loving atmosphere of the Smith family, they undergo a real crisis: nothing less than the loss of that home, and removal from the paradisiacal St. Louis to the cold, frightening-sounding New York. Not only is this a crisis of the family’s very identity—St. Louis is the center of their universe—but it results in something of a paradigm shift for the father, who’s flabbergasted to learn that his family is made up of individual people who actually have their own thoughts and opinions.[/li][li]Judy Garland had very little confidence in her looks; the studio abused her horribly in its attempts to “beautify” her. What a bunch of idiots. If she had been more conventionally—i.e., blandly—beautiful, she would not have been such a perfect center for such a perfect film: she’s a real girl, in a real family, in a real house, in a real place. But she was ever the consummate performer: watch, and rewatch, the Trolley Song segment: she is constantly present, in every molecule of her body, and every thought and feeling plays clearly and beautifully across her face. I’ve never been a “fan of Judy,” like a lot of gay men who are obsessed with her. I have my divas, but she’s never been one of them. Nevertheless, her performance in* Meet Me in St. Louis *is among the greatest performances of Hollywood’s “golden age.” Especially in the Trolley Song.[/li][/ul]
. . . . .
There’s more that I can add, but my Dayquil’s ebbing . . . I’ll bring up more points as the discussion continues.

Thanks for a helpful OP, lissener! I haven’t watched it yet (was sitting on the movie ahead of it in my Netflix queue, which I’ll return tomorrow) – so look forward to watching it this weekend with your questions in mind.

I received it today, haven’t watched it yet, but have watched some clips on YouTube.
DAMN THIS THING IS GAY!:smiley: I know Judy’s a big gay icon and was the sacrificial superstar (reference to Britney in South Park) of her day, etc., but after Les Mis and Ragtime and Whistle Down the Wind or even going back to Cabaret or Man of La Mancha, it’s hard to get into a musical this dated and “musical-ly”.)

I promise I’ll say something more substantive next time by which time I’ll have watched the movie.

One bit of trivia about the song, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” that Garland sings in the film: (I have cut and paste from Wikipedia, because I am too lazy to put in my own words.)

Not denying it’s a great musical, lissener, but “THE” greatest American musical? Sorry, but in my mind, it’s far behind SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN or AMERICAN IN PARIS.

What, not High Society? :wink:

Those are good nominees but I’d throw The Music Man or The Wizard of Oz in the discussion. The Greatest American Musical would make a good thread, if it hasn’t already been done.

If it has been, it wasn’t recently – why don’t you start it? (Am I the only West Side Story fan?)

Well, he actually said it’s the “great American musical,” not the “greatest American musical.” I took this in the sense of “the great American novel,” which I think doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the greatest novel ever written by an American, but that it’s the one that best represents the heart of the nation.

While Meet Me in St. Louis is not my favorite musical or the one I like the best, I think he may have an argument there.

There’s no dancing. You can’t have a great musical, American or otherwise, without dancing.

Just chiming in here to let you know that you’re -not- the only WSS fan; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it and still love it. :slight_smile:

I agree. There’s a strong case to be made that the magnificent MMiSL is the Great American musical, in that it’s the musical that has the most to say about our unique American culture, history, and values. I probably like Singin’ better, but it’s more a commentary on the Hollywood dream factory and the role we play as spectators in the cinematic medium. Wizard follows a similar trajectory, while The Music Man runs almost exclusively on the sheer kinetic energy of the fantastic Robert Preston. That’s a perfect example of a movie that indulges in quaint small-town cutesiness but has very little incisive to say about America (that Wilson didn’t already cover in the original stage production). Plus, it’s lazily and uninterestingly directed.

Maybe I should amend things (not to hijack the topic) to say that MMiSL is the Great American Movie Musical. I still think the Great American Musical is Oklahoma!, but the movie version isn’t what it could or should be.

Thanks lissener for a terrific OP. I have never been much of a fan of musicals that don’t include dancing, but this film is an extraordinary exception (and yes, I remember the cakewalk ;)). There’s certainly a lot more to be said (which I’ll try to address later), but you have brought up some excellent topics worth exploring. I’ll be back…

The Greatest American Musical discussion is continued thither. (Am I the only one who fondly remembers Eric Blore? “Whither thou goest, sir, thither I.”)

I have not seen the movie, but I just wanted to chime in with a reminiscence.

In Forest Park, the crown jewel of the St. Louis parks system, sits The Muny, the nation’s oldest and largest outdoor theatre. If you are a St. Louisan worthy of the name, you must spend a grotesquely hot summer night taking in a show at The Muny. There is no excuse, as a large swath of the seats are free. The Muny hosts the best touring shows that come through town.

Several years ago, I saw a production of Meet Me in St. Louis there. At one point, a character, speaking about the upcoming World’s Fair, beams something like “St. Louis is really going to take off now!”

The crowd laughed.

Many of us were taken out of that moment becasuse St. Louis so brilliantly failed to take off after 1904 or any other year. 1904 may well have been the high point of St. Louis history. At the time, St. Louis was one of the four or five largest cities in the US and hosted the World’s Fair, the Olympics, and the Republican National Convention. Since then, a steady decline of population and significance has taken a toll. Sure, things have been looking up over the past decade or so: the population is inching up, and downtown seems to be stirring. But even those of us, like me, who love the city beyond all reason know it will never be 1904 again.

Hmm. Maybe I’ll pass on the movie.


Right. This was exactly the sense in which I meant it. Sorry I wasn’t more specific; I blame the cold medicine. Today will be even more fun: I have a whole bottle of Robitussin! Woot!

I’ve actually watched this movie a bunch of times recently. I have it recorded on the DVR, and my 4-year-old asks to see it (we don’t watch it all at once, but if you add up all the 15-minute segments I’ve seen lately, I’ve probably seen the whole thing 5 times in the last 6 months or so!)

Anyway, I agree with lissener that this is a strong contender for the “great American musical.” It’s portrayal of home, family, and “small town” American is touching without being overly sentimental (the marvelous, fiesty portrayal of Tootie by Margaret O’Brien almost single-handedly prevents that). It’s also amazingly realistic in its portrayal of family life. One of the things I’ve always liked about it is that it’s of course a period piece, and while I think it does a great job of reflecting the mores of that time, it also is amazingly relatable even by a modern audience.

Probably the thing that gives it it’s “Americana” flavor more than anything is it’s use of the city of St. Louis as a symbol of our collective values: home, family, friends, and progress, too. You don’t have to go to New York…it’s all right here, in our hometown! And yet, there is a shade of a feeling of insecurity about being from what we now call “flyover” country…the girls show it when they write off June Lockhart’s character as a “East Coast snob” and try to ruin her evening by filling her dance card up with geeks. A grand comeuppance, too, when we find out that’s she is a sweet, gracious, friendly girl, and Esther is has the dance card turned back on her! Which in itself is a commentary on our collective good hearts, here in America, where money, class, a “good name” or whatever are supposed to always play second fiddle to a person’s true character. Although as Bayard points out, St. Louis isn’t what it once was (just like a lot of other small, midwestern cities), it’s representative of “middle America” as a whole. They may not be flashy or glamorous, but the important things can be found there.

Excellent points. Kind of a reverse snobbery: “We’re better than New Yorkers because at least we’re not snobs,” only to have it turn around and bite them in the ass. A wonderful learning moment, without being overly didactic anything.

Not to mention the fact that St. Louis used to have two major league baseball teams. (Well, one of them was the Browns but they were in the American League so that at least officially made them major league.)

Anyway, St. Louis was still an important city when the movie came out in 1944. It’s population and economic decline didn’t really begin until the 1950s.

Watched this over the weekend, but have been caught in computer hell since last Friday. (Still don’t have internet at home.)

Let me respond to a couple of earlier points, first:

Do we want to call this a musical? Or, let me not be coy – I don’t think I want to call it a musical. Yes, there are several lovely, classic songs – but there’s no dancing, other than a bit at, first, the party at the Smith house and then at the Christmas ball – and all of that was just social dancing. I’ve never made any secret of my fondness for dance – my fondness for dance is, in fact, the point of my fondness for the movie musical. Singing you can get on any radio, iPod, or CD player – but to see a recording of dance, you need a visual medium. I hear music every day – I see dance only a couple of times a month, if that. (Other than when SYTYCD or DWTS are “in season,” of course). For me, dance is what makes the musical a unique form of entertainment – telling stories through song happens in operas and operettas as well.

No dance, no musical.

MMiSL not a musical, QED. In fact – I own it on VHS (though not DVD), and I thought long and hard about whether to put it in with the other musicals or not. I decided “not,” IIRC.

I’ve been thinking a lot about calling the child psychology “modern.” There are actually three different time frames to juggle here – the one of the period being portrayed, the one when the movie was made, and today. At the period being portrayed, “psychology” had not yet permeated the popular worldview. If I recall my “history of childhood” timeline correctly, at the turn of the century we were still pretty much operating on a Victorian model in which children were just small adults, not yet a separate kind of creature. Thus, in the 1904 model, the matter-of-factness in which Tootie was portrayed would be correct, because we weren’t all Freudians yet. In 1944 – I’m not sure, frankly. The separation of teenagers into a distinct subculture doesn’t really happen till after the war – but children were seen as sui generis, I think.

Today – is today what you meant by “modern”? – actually I think Tootie’s preoccupations would be seen as troubling, if not pathological. The scene on Christmas Eve when she goes out and starts destroying the snowfamily? Yikes, get that child to a shrink. Ditto for the lying about Whatshisface, Esther’s boy-next-door beau, having attacked her on Halloween.

I think I’d be more apt to describe the acceptance of Tootie as premodern.

I love, love, love the grandpa. I wish I had had a grandpa like that. (FTR: I’m not dissing my own grandparents, but my maternal gps died before I was born, and my paternal gps lived 500 miles away and died when I was 5 or 6, so I never really knew them.)
Damn, there was something else I wanted to say but I can’t remember what it was. Oh well.