Sunday, December 24, 2017


I've just completed my semi-annual viewing of Vincente Minnelli's MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. I've lost count how many times I've seen this film over the years, but it's become something of a Christmas tradition for me, a film I can return to again and again with the same level of joy, admiration, and, frankly, wonder.

Here are ten reflections about this great film.

1. It was Judy Garland's biggest hit. Of course, today Judy is best known and most beloved for THE WIZARD OF OZ, but at the time of its release OZ was an under-performer. (While it did well at the box office, OZ cost a lot to make and distribute, and it didn't actually turn a profit until it was rereleased in the late forties.). MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, however, was a massive hit right out of the gate. It established that Judy Garland--freed from her childhood costar Mickey Rooney--was a box office powerhouse.

2. This was peak Judy Garland, Movie Star. As an icon, there's no greater Garland movie than OZ. As an actor, there's no greater Garland movie than A STAR IS BORN. But if you want Peak Judy, if you want Judy the Star, then there's no greater Garland film than MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. She's never looked more beautiful in a film--in every Technicolor frame Minnelli is telling us "Here is a movie star". She's also never been funnier in a film. Perhaps because of the pathos surrounding her tragic life, it's easy to forget that Judy was one of the funniest performers of her era. As the whip-smart boy-crazy Esther Smith in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, she's hilarious. And, of course, the music by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, overseen by Judy's trusted friend and arranger Roger Edens, is some of her best, letting her do yearning in "The Boy Next Door" and melancholy in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". The joyous "Trolley Song" sequence might be the most exuberant four minutes Judy Garland ever on film.

3. It was MGM's biggest hit to date. The studio had part ownership of GONE WITH THE WIND, but that film was first and foremost the work of independent producer David O. Selznik. It was in no real sense of the phrase an MGM production. MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, on the other hand, might well be considered the ultimate MGM production.

4. Its Christmas scenes are an outlier. Like a lot of people, I usually watch MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS at Christmastime, and the film has become something of a holiday classic due to the incredibly potent Winter section of the film that culminates in Judy singing "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" to Margaret O'Brien. The song would become a standard, forever linking the film to the holiday. The film itself, however, is told in sections, and the Winter section is simply one among four.

5. Somehow it's a perfect Christmas movie anyway. The thing about Christmas is, it's super fake. Fake trees in the living room, fake Santas at the mall, fake nativity scenes in the front yard. And the thing about MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is, it is a dreamscape, a sentimental vision. Many Christmas songs are steeped in nostalgia for a distant past, a past where treetops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow. MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is just such a vision of the past, a past where everyone is funny and happy and breaks into song when the spirit moves. A past where a child's greatest concern is that she might have to miss the St. Louis World's Fair if her family moves to New York. The whole thing is as fake, and wonderful, as a great Christmas tune.

6. It's a war film. What's not in the film is any mention of what was happening in 1944 when the production was underway. America was in World War II, and the war was going poorly for the Allies. The film, then, is escapist -- quite literally a way to escape the world and its worries. Yet its most famous scene, Judy's rendition of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" takes on added poignancy when one considers its context. The song is, more than anything else, a prayer that "from now on, all our troubles will be far away." When she comes to the verse "Through the years, we all will be together, if the fates allow" you can practically hear the moviegoers of 1944 wiping away tears. Today, the film remains a joyful celebration of life, but its key emotional scenes retain their bittersweet quality, even if the audience has forgotten their context.

7. The Halloween sequence is one of the strangest things MGM ever put onscreen. There's a stretch of, I don't know, twenty minutes or so, where the film gives over its plot to the Halloween machinations of the youngest daughters of the Smith family, Agnes and Tootie (Joan Carroll and Margaret O'Brien). I'm always shocked that these scenes were allowed to stay in the movie. Because they are weird, really weird. The sequence takes place entirely at night, with the girls donning costumes ("She's a horrible ghost and I'm a terrible drunken ghost") and telling ghoulish tall tales about the neighbors (one neighbor is said to have a "box of dead cats" that he "burns in his furnace at midnight" when he's not "beating his wife with a red hot poker"). The girls assemble with local kids in the streets and burn old furniture and throw baking flour in the face of the reputed wife-beater and cat-murderer (the jolly way the guy takes the face full of flour leads us to suspect that he's been the object of Halloween pranks for a long time). After this strange sequence, the film gets even darker when Tootie turns up bloodied and crying and says that Esther's would-be boyfriend John Truett (Tom Drake) attacked her ("He tried to kill me!"). After a scene where Esther storms over and beats the crap out of John Truett (Judy is wonderfully ferocious), we learn that Tootie simply fell down. She's just a little fibber, and the whole thing is laughed off. What is bizarre, though, is that for something like five minutes of this movie the audience thinks that the romantic lead, the titular boy of Judy's ballad "The Boy Next Door" is something like a murderous child molester.

8. About that boy. God, I hate John Truett. What a dullard. What a boring, boring, boring man. Esther Smith is gonna be in for a long haul married to this blank slate.

9. Judy almost didn't do the film. At first, the star actually turned down MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (the first project she ever turned down at MGM, in fact). She wanted to make her mark as a mature leading lady, and she thought the part of Esther was too close in nature to the kind of thing she'd been doing with Mickey Rooney. Plus, she suspected that little Margaret O'Brien, as the hilariously demonic little Tootie, would steal the movie. Judy was partly right. O'Brien was indeed a sensation in the film and even won a special Oscar for the part. But director Vincente Minelli took care of his star, so that the film became a showy debut for Margret O'Brien AND the perfect showcase for Judy Garland.

10. Minnelli and Garland fell in love during the making of the film. The marriage of the great star and her great director has always been an object of fascination. Minnelli was gay, but then again so was Garland's beloved late father, and while it may be Freudian shorthand to suggest that Judy fell in love with Vincente because she was looking for a father figure, it's also almost certainly true. What better father figure could there be than the kind and soft spoken director who guided her to her biggest (and most glamorous) hit? What exactly Minnelli saw in Garland has always been more of a mystery, though, because Minnelli was as much a closed book as Garland was an open one. What we know for sure is that for the next few years, the couple was in the business of being a couple. They worked together on THE CLOCK, ZIEGFIELD FOLLIES, TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, and THE PIRATE. None of these projects could duplicate their success on MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, though the THE CLOCK is a moving romance with an excellent performance by Judy, while the uneven THE PIRATE has become something of a cult classic. Aside from Liza Minnelli, though, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS remains the pair's greatest accomplishment. It is beautiful and buoyant, a hymn to human emotion. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Against The Greatest Whatevers of All Time

We need to cycle the cliche "one of the greatest ___ of all time" out of our language. Of all time is a long time. It's a long ass time. It's forever. It is literally forever.

I am guilty of this myself. I'm just a sinner who's seen the light. For instance, in the past I have referred to the odd film as "one the greatest movies of all time" as if the movies themselves were ancient pillars of culture rather than an art form that came along at basically the same time as the toaster oven. (I've seen certain comic book flicks referred to as "one of the greatest superhero movies of all time" which makes the point even more strongly, since, historically speaking, the superhero movie is still teething.)

Like all cliches, the greatest whatever of all time cliche is just a dumbing down of language, an empty superlative in place of an actual opinion. This kind of inflation of language serves different functions. For one thing, it imbues the speaker with a sense of superiority. After all, if I declare some novel one of the greatest novels of all time, then I am claiming for myself the authority not just to declare a novel good or great, but to declare its virtues to be eternal.

This appeal to the eternal is revealing. Our language so often reveals us to ourselves. For instance, I've rarely seen the "all time" cliche bandied about in praise of the works of art that have an actual legitimate claim to antiquity. Homer's ODYSSEY has as good a claim to the mantle of "the greatest work of literature of all time" as anything (if we shrink the eternity implicit in the phrase "of all time" to mean the few thousand years of human life on earth), but we rarely see it referenced that way. Instead, the "greatest of all time" mantle is usually trotted out for rock bands and quarterbacks. And the relative newness of rock bands and football players is, I think, a key to the cliche's appeal. A lot of people love THE ODYSSEY but even its most fervent fans probably don't feel that the epic poem is evocative of their youth. The kind of people most likely to declare The Beatles the greatest band of all time are the kind of people most likely to feel an personal emotional connection to The Beatles. Ditto Joe Montana (or your quarterback of choice).

The inclination to declare something a part of the canon is an inclination to declare your own feelings part of the process by which we decide the canon. I love the Beatles, too. Will their music really hold the same beloved status in another thousand years? I doubt it. I really do. I suspect music, language, and culture will change so immeasurably that the Beatles will be a historical fragment of a bygone society. It's entirely likely that the feelings roused in me by a great Beatles song will no longer rouse feelings in people a thousand years from now. (The opposite is true. There's no reason to think ancient people would have liked the Beatles anymore than old people did in 1965.) Which is another way of saying that our feelings aren't eternal. It's more than possible that the things I've loved will fade in their impact over time.

Perhaps this is why the things that have lasted the longest (in both duration and impact) are the very works of art that claimed actual divine authorship. John Lennon once said that people tried to make a religion out of the Beatles, and he was right. People are still trying.

We say "nothing lasts forever" but we don't really believe it. We're constantly grasping after the eternal. And these things we declare eternal--books, songs, movies, sports figures--are fragments of an ever scattering past, fragments of our own dissipating lives.