Minnelli and “Meet Me in St. Louis”

Today we tip a boater to Vincente Minnelli (1903-1986) with an appreciation for what is both our favorite Minnelli film as well as our favorite post-Wizard of Oz musical by MGM’s Freed Unit.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) was based on the nostalgic writings of Sally Benson, adapted by Irving Brecher and Fred Finkelhoffe. At the time Brecher was best known for writing the Marx Brothers pictures At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940) and the radio show The Life of Riley. Meet Me in St. Louis was much subtler, gentler than those projects, and their efforts won the writers an Oscar nom. Technicolor gorgeousness and attention to historical detail are among the film’s takeaways, but while it privileges texture, it would be a mistake to say it has no plot. For the family in the story the events are rather momentous. The main arc is that this moderately prosperous family is growing; at the climax they have grown so much that the momentum may actually launch them out of their mid-sized midwestern city just at its moment of greatest glory. Spoiler alert: the moral, as in The Wizard of Oz, is “There’s no place like home” (especially when at that moment it happens to be the center of the universe). Since we have spent the last 90 minutes falling in love with this Utopia Americana, we join the family in being torn about moving to New York, even though that’s absurd — even then, New York was as fabulous as any old World’s Fair, and not just temporarily, but 24/7/365. And that would have been true even without Coney Island, which was essentially a permanent, nearly literal World’s Fair.

Yet, it’s not the lights of the fairground that will be especially missed, it’s actually the opposite. It’s the idyllic, slow paced 19th century, with its gaslights, hand-pumped water, party-line telephones, ice boxes, tuxedoes for school dances, corsets, trolleys, and horse-drawn delivery wagons. These would soon be gone in St. Louis as well, but the metaphor is powerful enough that it reverberates today, though none of us were alive to experience 1903. When the film was made it was a mere four decades later (the contemporary equivalent for me is watching Dazed and Confused). Vincente Minnelli had actually been born in 1903 and was from the midwest; this time and place obviously meant a lot to him. So much change had gone down in the first half of the 20th century.

As if to reinforce the theme of simpler times, the story is structured around the four seasons, tying it to nature. Ritual comes strongly into it. My favorite part of the movie (and I think many will concur) is the Halloween scene, which captures the spirit of that magical night better than any similar scene in any movie, I think. The kids engage in the ancient practice of a bonfire, and pranks, and because it’s still 1903, their costumes are devised entirely from their own imaginations, as opposed to being lifted from some movie or television show. Later, in the winter scene, the kids build a family of snowmen, which seem to be some sort of avatars of the real family. The youngest child, Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) is the motive force in both scenes, which contain a surprising amount of dark passion and violence. But it’s truly an ensemble picture, with the rest of the family consisting of Leon Ames and Mary Astor as the parents; Harry Davenport (Dr. Mead from Gone with the Wind) as the grandfather; Marjorie Main as the gruff but loveable maid; and Judy Garland, Lucille Bremer, Joan Carroll, and Henry Daniels as older siblings. Minnelli and Garland were to marry the following year; that super-creature of show biz Liza Minnelli was the product.

The World’s Fair itself is only presented in a brief, teasing snatch at the end of the film. But as a consolation prize, there is plenty of vaudeville throughout the picture, including 19th century songs like “Little Brown Jug” and “I Was Drunk Last Night”; several Tin Pan Alley tunes from the depicted period including the title song, as well as Cole and Johnson’s “Under the Bamboo Tree” (1902 — regrettably this very white film’s only black moment, though you’d never know it), Harry Von Tilzer’s “Down at the Old Bull and Bush” (1903), and Joseph E. Howard’s “Goodbye My Lady Love” (1904); and several brand new tunes penned by Freed Unit songwriters including “The Trolly Song”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, “The Boy Next Door” and “You and I” (the first three of which became hits).

Meet Me in St. Louis was the second biggest grossing film of 1944 (after Going My Way), and MGM’s second biggest hit at the time after Gone with the Wind as well as the studio’s most successful film of the 1940s.

The maestro who made all this happen was third generation showfolk. He’d grown up crisscrossing the midwest with the Minnelli Brothers Tent Theatre, where his mother was leading lady and his father conducted the band. As a young man, he moved to Chicago, where he worked as a theatrical photographer’s assistant and as a department store window dresser before finding employment as a costume and set designer at Balaban and Katz theatres. Unlike the Smiths of St Louis, he let his ambition take him to New York around 1930 where he plied his trade at Radio City Music Hall and on Broadway, where he designed several editions of Earl Carroll’s Vanities and the Ziegfeld Follies and other shows. He moved up to the director’s chair for The Show is On (1937), Hooray for What! (1937-38), and Very Warm for May (1939-40). Next came Hollywood, where he staged musical numbers for Panama Hattie (1942), then directed Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Red Skelton’s I Dood It (1943), prior to Meet Me in St. Louis. Around this time he also staged numbers in Ziegfeld Follies (1945) and Til the Clouds Roll By (1946).

Today Minnelli is mostly known for his musicals, the later ones being Yolanda and the Thief (1945, also with Bremer), The Pirate (1948, also with Garland), An American in Paris (1951), The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon (1954), Kismet (1955), Gigi (1958), Bells are Ringing (1960), and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). But he also made his mark in other genres, with things like the Hollywood melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and its thematic follow-up Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), the original Father of the Bride comedies (1950-51), Lucy and Desi in The Long Long Trailer (1954), the Van Gogh bio-pic Lust for Life (1956), the Rat Pack flick Some Came Running (1958), The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963, which became the basis of a sitcom), and the Liz and Dick romance The Sandpiper (1965). His last film A Matter of Time (1976) was one of those sad swan songs, an AIP-Italian co-production starring his daughter Liza and Ingrid Bergman in one of her last roles. The film originally came in at three hours long, but was cut in half by his then son-in-law Jack Haley Jr to satisfy producers. The result was critically panned, called a “disjointed” movie that didn’t “hold together”. None of which was Minnelli’s fault. Raise your hand if you’d like to see the director’s cut! It’s probably impossible, but I still want it.