Meet Me in St Louis
A little girl named Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), crying and angry, breaks domestic rank and runs outside to the front yard. There, she sets to destroying her beloved snowpeople – symbol of everything that is stable and reassuring in her familial existence – with a vigour and a venom that is extremely disquieting. Who would ever have thought that Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” could have such a devastating effect on a child’s delicate psyche – or, indeed, on ours?
Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St Louis is one of the most unusual and highly charged musicals in Hollywood’s history. As many critics have noted, it blends the two genres at which Minnelli was most adept – musical and melodrama – and even, in its most unnerving moments (such as a sequence devoted to Halloween terrors), edges toward being a horror movie.
In Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes (1992), Minnelli’s ecstatic musical is one of the bright-and-rosy memories of a nostalgic childhood bathed by the Hollywood screen. And no wonder: the blushing, barely containable energy of Garland, the magnificently choreographed scenes of harmonious family interaction, the evocation of long-lost, innocent Americana – are all seductively captivating.
Yet there is a darkness in Minnelli’s canvas, and it is located directly in the performance of that sublime little hysteric, Margaret O’Brien. Just see if you can remain calm when Tootie cries and screams and hacks apart those happy old snow creatures who have come to symbolise, for her, everything that is achingly wrong with this American family.
Meet Me in St Louis is a film that, then as now, offers itself up to be read in starkly contrasting ways: either as a perfectly innocent and naive celebration of traditional family values, or else a brooding meditation on everything that tears the home unit apart from within. Put another way: is it a comforting, safety-valve entertainment that admits to just enough that is problematic in order to smooth out and reinforce the status quo, or is it – almost despite itself – a subversive gesture at the heart of the Hollywood system, a howl of unrepressed rage?
Yes, I am talking about the same film in which Garland moons and croons “The Boy Next Door” and – in a showstopping highlight, in fact a true summit of cinema – sways with a pack of colourful passengers as she belts out “The Trolley Song” (“Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings …” ). Minnelli’s project is quietly, unostentatiously ambitious: not merely to tell the story of a lovably average family – and the challenges it stoically faces – but to also sketch the history of a bold new, 20th century society defined by events such as the World’s Fair. Modernity arrives by trolley car, whether we want it to or not … (on this level, it makes for a great double bill with Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons ).
Minnelli’s artistic sensibility – whether he was gay is either an open question or an open secret, depending on which Hollywood history you consult – responded well to female yearning and male anxiety, and it is an excess of both that makes this musical unfailingly melodramatic. Patriarchy comes in the cuddly, grumpy form of Leon Ames, valiantly trying to assert his authority in the face of an overwhelmingly female household. The parade of boyfriends for the girls have, likewise, to be prodded, manipulated and informed of their rightful, mating destiny.
In terms of the aesthetic challenges of the musical genre, Minnelli and his collaborators went a long way here towards integrating singing and dancing into a whimsical, fairy-tale flow of incidents and scene changes. Songs begin as throwaway phrases, spoken or hummed out in the street or at the door; they suddenly die away as a plot intrigue kicks in.
Let’s step back into “The Trolley Song” for another moment. It shows us that Judy Garland was a master at acting distracted or, rather, concentrated: she’s in the midst of a group scene, and she’s part of the communal rhythm of its action, but simultaneously her character is elsewhere, inside herself, listening and thinking hard about what precise gesture to best produce in the coming seconds. (Johannes Binotto has made an illuminating audiovisual study of Garland and such in-between, intensely focused “intervals” of her performance in Cukor’s A Star is Born .) As Esther here on the trolley car, Garland embodies many emotional states; but none are so captivating as when she stops singing for 15 seconds and inventively pantomimes, as if spontaneously, the lines sung by the chorus.
But, besides the magnificent star performance, beneath the elegant display of filmic style and the civilised, comic veneer of manners, it is truly only Tootie who can express emotions that are savage and untamed – as her exotica duet with Judy, “Under the Bamboo Tree”, jovially indicates.