Esther Smith (Judy Garland) pines for the lad next door early in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Esther portrays love — and, by extension, Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 masterpiece — with silky ease lent by Garland’s exquisite warble. “I’d like it to be unusual and amazing,” she explains. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Have a merry little Christmas for yourself
“Meet Me in St. Louis” is set amid the heydey of Gilded Age affluence, with the seasons racing mercilessly onward. Its pictures are as much flashes of memory as they are explosions of colour and sound. The rich, swoon-worthy palette — Grandpa’s fez’s scarlet blush, the soft-focus pink of roses and child cheeks — is offset by a darker, more sinister streak. From Tootie warning a carriage driver that her doll had four fatal diseases to Rose, Lon, and Esther singing “Skip to My Lou” as part of a rollicking, cheerful square dance in the front hall, Minnelli expertly balances the film’s opposing emotions. It’s a vibrant and sophisticated picture, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Anne Thompson, like myself, named “Meet Me in St. Louis” as the ninth finest picture ever made, as well as the best musical. The Smiths bottle ketchup, cool down in the swimming hole, and wait for marriage proposals in late summer 1903, with the film’s music perfectly matching the story’s progression. “The Trolley Song,” with its zinging heartstrings exploding with hazy infatuation as the number reaches its finale, exemplifies Garland’s driving charm. “To the end of the line!” she croons, “with his hand holding mine!” Dimmer portents, on the other hand, are already vying for room with hope’s baubles.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith sing of stability in the face of “dark and fair weather” as summer turns to autumn. Lon is on his way to Princeton, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith sing of stability in the face of “dark and fair weather.” Indeed, maybe more than any previous Hollywood musical, Minnelli’s vision — created during WWII — makes room for life’s problems and dips into the minor key. Tootie and Agnes eagerly join the other children on the street on Halloween, throwing shards of abandoned furniture into a raging bonfire. With a scream in the middle of the night, the family flees, fearful that not all of the promises will be kept. There’s more bad news on the way. They’re supposed to leave St. Louis for New York on January 1st, following Father into exile. Mother’s lone outburst of rage is directed at him: “You’re being extremely cool about the way you pack us off, lock, stock, and barrel,” she exclaims. Maybe it’s because of this delicate balance of sadness amid the glitz that the film’s climactic Christmas is so moving, far more so than the reams and reams of holiday cinema that avoid the more nuanced facts of family life. Happiness, as seen in Esther and Grandpa’s swirling waltz at the Christmas ball, is a shifting target in and of itself.
Esther’s reaction is bittersweet even when the lad next door ultimately proposes. She wants him to keep it a secret for the night, as if their silence had a protecting effect on them. She doesn’t have to choose between romantic and familial love, between her future and her past, if she doesn’t reveal, at least not yet. As a result, Garland’s renowned song registers as a very specific type of loss, still heated with regret. Esther joins Tootie at the windowsill, her silvery hood glinting in the moonlight, and refuses to ignore the truth of their plight. The song is filled of conditional tense, despite its slight hope that the coming year will bring an end to their problems. Returning to it every year, Garland’s song, like Minnelli’s film, is a revitalising rush of invention — a reminder that, like the Smiths, I’ll muddle through whatever I’ve experienced in the previous year. The World’s Fair lies on the opposite side of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” its brilliant lighting spilling light where once was shadow. “There has never been anything like that in the entire world,” Mother says. And she is correct.
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