Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Movie Review: Meet Me in St. Louis

Directed by Vincente Minnelli. 1944.

If you want a classic proof of Roger Ebert's dictum that a movie isn't about what it's about, but rather how it's about it, you could find no better than Meet Me in St Louis, since Minnelli's tuneful Technicolor feature for Judy Garland could scarcely be less about what's happening on screen than the sense of life which animates the picture. That sense, cultivated by every detail of the movie, far outweighs the sum of its otherwise humble parts.

We don't particularly care, for example, with which cardboard neighbor each of the Smith girls ultimately pairs. Yes, Garland as the second oldest daughter in the family is charming and spunky, but there's no dramatic weight behind her adolescent pining. Likewise we don't particularly care whether the Smiths will need to relocate to New York City to accommodate their father's promotion because there is no substantial dramatic tension between alternatives. This is not the stuff of drama and we care less about them as characters than about their world, that is, home and way of life.

Meet Me in St. Louis makes this point not by plot but by sense, and the sense is that home is a good, beautiful place. This feeling is no afterthought or incident, either, but fostered by cinematography, music, sets, and setting.

Of visuals, the vibrant, vivifying Technicolor pops the colors of the scenes far beyond realism so that even the most bland details, even dirt roads and background lamps, seem to jump from their commonplace corners into the spotlight. This is not simply persuasion by beauty, though, but a play on the memory: how much of our recollection, especially of home, is of bright colors jumping forth. Who doesn't remember a green carpet, orange couch, or red lamp somewhere at home? This is the vividness of memory in the exaggerated tones, and it tells us that St. Louis is home.

The sets too amplify that intimate sense of homely charm: the window sill, the kitchen, the dining room table, the front porch, and so on. These are not grand locations, but beautiful ones nonetheless. The notable exception is the rollicking ride for the famous Trolley Song, in which the love-struck Esther swoons about her charming neighbor to the exquisitely-hatted ladies riding the trolley across town. Perked with bright colors and animated by the gentle cantor of the trolley around which the camera wings, it's a perfectly giddy scene.

The music is tuneful and pleasant, nostalgic even, and appropriate if not remarkable. Appropriate to what, you may ask. Well, the tunes are simple because they are the tunes of home. We don't have soaring virtuosity and overblown orchestration, but innocent simplicity. These are tunes for singing in the living room, not the concert hall, and as such there is an authenticity to the to the music and even modest lyrics like,
Meet me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me at the fair.
Don't tell me the lights are shining, anyplace but there.
We will dance the hootchie-kootchie, I will be your tootsie-wootsie,
If you will meet me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me at the fair.
Not poetry perhaps, but there is good in the simplicity of music for singing not with great skill about tragic ends and philosophical designs, but about home and family and uncomplicated love. It's music and sentiment they would have called gay, that is, full of light merriment and unmixed joy. The sight of Esther (Judy Garland) and her little sister Tootie singing Under the Bamboo Tree for the family in the living room isn't fraught with portent, but it means a lot as an affirmation of life, love, home, and family. My favorite detail in the movie comes when Esther mouths one of the lines to Tootie. I'm not sure if Garland actually was mouthing the line to Margaret O'Brien to help her, but I like to think that it's a song the girls sing for the family all the time and Tootie just can't get the words straight. It's a cozy intimate scene which contributes more to the purpose of the film than any of the plot.

That plot, though, is just an excuse to threaten the end of all this domestic glee by whisking the family off to New York City. The decision to stay in St. Louis could have been better prepared and dramatized by creating some necessity or desire for everyone to move so that they had a difficult choice between staying and leaving. We care that they remain not because of what they think but only insofar as staying preserves their way of life, of which we approve, and validates our affection for their home. I'm also not sure what to make of the fact that no one in the family seems consoled by the fact that they will indeed all still be together in New York. That dramatic and logical gap notwithstanding, life is not just big events, but thousands of little details. It means something to love those too and the movie's affection for them is vivid enough to persuade apart from the thin characters and plot.

The weight of the finale comes satisfactorily nonetheless, though, through the brilliant touch of setting the story at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair: what is a more joyful approval of life just the way it is than a festival? Too, the starry conclusion at the fair seems to make true the impossible fact that everyone's home is the center of the world. Meet Me in St. Louis is too sweet and honest to chastise for that fancy, just as we can only indulge and be warmed by little Tootie who in earnest innocence asks, "Wasn't I lucky to be born in my favorite city?"

"Yes, indeed." we ought to say. It is no small thing to love one's home, and it's not a love that ought be broken or educated out of us, but cherished.

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