Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

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Part of a festive series of Christmas-themed reviews at Taking The Short View

While an American classic, it might not be quite accurate to call Meet Me In St Louis a “Christmas film”; but since the film’s final scenes are set during the Yuletide, and as the musical’s soundtrack includes “Have yourself a merry little Christmas”, it’s more than close enough.

Given its classic status (it’s ranked 10th in the American Film Institute’s list of all-time Greatest Movie Musicals) you’d think this film would be something quite astounding indeed. But to say that this has the narrative substance of candy floss is to unfairly denigrate the heft of spun sugar. There really is astonishingly little to this film: one “boy next door” romance aside, the only incident is the declaration by the oblivious work-obsessed patriarch that the Smith family are moving from St Louis to New York – badly received by the rest of his clan.

And, err … That’s it. Truly. Otherwise this is a series of picture postcard vignettes in sumptuously rose-tinted Technicolor, a sort of nostalgic wish-fulfilment for Americans down the ages which sees the perfect family living in a perfect, huge house in the perfect Missouri suburbs with perfect friends and neighbours.

The vignettes mostly feature various family and social events through six months in 1903: gay parties, balls and galas where they can be found over-dressed in their absolute finest and most colourful attire, singing and dancing their evenings away. There’s little that can’t be resolved by a heartfelt song around the family piano, making it the golden olden days as they never actually ever existed.

If you can stand the languid pace and the absolute absence of any real plot development, then all this is quite beguiling in its way. It certainly set up a middle class idyll that defined the American public’s hopes and aspirations for generations to come and which even laid down the objectives for the entire Eisenhower administration of the 1950s. It’s a complete fantasy – the American Suburban Dream – as only the the world’s premier dream factory in Hollywood could possibly produce.

The staging is certainly very classy – excellent sets, beautifully decorated, and everyone looking totally fabulous. In particular, star Judy Garland has surely never looked or been better than she is here: she’s every inch the movie star, luminous and jumping off the screen whenever she’s on. It’s clear from the very start that the camera and moreover the director Vincente Minelli are totally besotted with her: and as a result, we can’t fail to be likewise. If you ever wanted to know why she’s still such a beloved star of cinema, this is the film to see.

Something less obvious to modern audiences is that this is one of the first musicals in which the songs weren’t just dropped in as literal ‘show stoppers’ – song and dance showpiece interludes during which the rest of the film went on pause – but instead are an integral part of the film’s story and character development. The final song – a sadder, more melancholy version of “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” than we’re familiar with today – is the catalyst for the film’s climax, and the soundtrack also features the Oscar-nominated “Trolley Song” that everyone knows, even if they don’t know they know it.

Still, these are all rather thin highlights to stretch over the 105-minute running time, and modern audiences are likely to fidget and doze off or more likely turn off in favour of something with far more frenzied cutting. It’s a relic of yesteryear, a nostalgic anachronism of a non-existent past even when it was released in 1944. But if overly-sweet insubstantial confectionery is to your taste, then this is among the finest example of its ephemeral kind.

[The film is now available on Blu-ray in the UK which has been released since this piece was originally posted. Even so, the cheap DVD reviewed here – available for about £5 – is surprisingly good, with a lovely high-quality picture restoration and a good set of extras including a ‘making of’ feature, an audio commentary, and an introduction by Liza Minelli, daughter of the film’s director and Judy Garland – who looks every inch like her mother!]

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