Meet Me in St. Louis: The Us That Time Forgot

When I was a child, Meet Me in St. Louis was regular Christmastime viewing in our house, though as a kid I never quite knew why. The film of course travels through all four seasons, and each has the particular glow, and dusk, of that time of year. Each is an impression of four distinct tidings – the promise of love, of freedom, of fear, of hope. Yet, it’s the feeling of Christmas that overwhelms the whole picture. Many critics at the time preferred the comparatively uncomplicated Gene Kelly romps to Vincente Minnelli’s more introspective and conflicted films. This is precisely why Minnelli’s movies, Meet Me in St. Louis in particular, evoke more of the tensions and triumphs of their periods. Its most unique element is not its warm blanket of joy but that the blanket is needed to muddle through a changing world. Watching it now, the warmth almost aches, as the certainty sets in – we are the world they changed into.

In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther borrowed one of the film's period phrases to describe it as a “ginger-peachy show.” His article eloquently sums up how this houseful of girls (named the Smiths but based on the memoirs of Sally Benson) will put you in a free-wheeling, turn-of-the-century spirit. Yet, maybe he was too near the period of the film (1903-1904) and could more easily escape into it, but he never mentions the film’s outrightly ingenious melancholy, or how this defines Meet Me in St. Louis in retrospect not merely as an example of lightheartedness but also as a testament to the particular lightheartedness that went out of the world between then and now. It may be more a testament to me or to 2021 than to Crowther, but I cannot view the film’s happiness as peachy-inconsequential. It now feels like a cultural imperative, like if we could remember what it’s like to feel that happy, maybe we could recreate it.

For the Smith girls, including Esther (Judy Garland), Rose (Lucille Bremer), and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), there is nothing more important in the universe than dancing, getting a suitable boy, and staying “right here” in St. Louis. Everything else spins in their orbit, including their crackly grandpa (Harry Davenport at his most playfully wise), their starchy, quick-tongued maid (Marjorie Main), and two somewhat misplaced siblings, an upright son on the fringes of his sisters' schemes played by Henry H. Daniels Jr. and one more girl, Agnes (Joan Carroll), who is at the age when she’s liable to get lost in the shuffle between her eligible older sisters and more adorable little sis. She’s easily forgotten, yet she’s the first to sing the film’s title song, trudging up the stairs in oversized shoes with her bum showing through her wet bloomers as if to say, “I’m here, even if you don’t remember me.” It was Agnes' world too.

As she sings, other characters join in from separate rooms. If this is not the moment that movie musicals invented the concept of diegesis – putting the music in the movie’s reality – it is the moment it became meaningful. These compositions by Roger Edens are not about the plot of the film (Liza Minnelli summed them up as “songs about feelings”). From the biggest dance number to the smallest ballad, the people in the film sing and hear the same music that the audience does, for the purpose of sharing that feeling. This is as strong an invitation to enter the film’s candy-floss world as anyone could have dreamed up, on any old summer night on their white painted porch. Every song in the film recalls the old days – one, a stiff dance number to an amended version of “Skip to My Loo,” recalls a time that was old even in the present-day of the film. It’s the only song that feels out of place in Meet Me in St. Louis, yet even that could never be a criticism since it is out of place in their then-modern world.

At heart (its heart is big and technicolor-glossy, as few films had been before or have been since), Meet Me in St. Louis is a love story. But even though all the girls are looking for love in one way or another, the real love story is between a family and a city, and more – between a family capable of being happy and the provincial lifestyle that permits it. Everything else flows through the film's current of pastel dresses, playful murmurs, and lamplight, all instances of that happiness. The plot is not the true subject of the film, as it passes by unnoticed, drawn onto a canvas of crown molding and muslin. Everyone lives on the verge of smiling. Every street in their world is paved with trees.

Throughout the film, the girls’ definition of “sorrow” seems trivial (enough to make you envious), such as when Esther fails to make the boy next door (Tom Drake) notice her or when Rose, despite her old-world allure, even then, can’t convince Warren Sheffield (he’s from New York, she says with bragging rights) to pop the question. They pinch their cheeks to make them look rosy; to us, they don’t need to. The father, Alonzo (Leon Ames) is simultaneously shut out from the nuances of their spinning lives and in control of them. The mother, Anna (Mary Astor), at one point sums up to him in a single sentence what the audience just experienced as Tootie’s entire Halloween-time ordeal, in which she proved her bravery against the horrifying chaos of the windswept universe and went out into the swirling night like a little imp to cause good people mischief. “She fell and cut her lip, she’s fine” – that’s all the dad gets to know (or wants to).

He is the axis of their existence (he “gets” to work every day to support them, the grandpa reminds them, with a wink). Yet, he can’t control anything. Even his desire to have dinner is thwarted by the film’s opening scheme – a six-part plan to manipulate the elements of eight people’s lives to get them all out of the dining room by the time Warren calls from New York on the stalky phone that brought the nation garbling into the future, at times audibly. When Dad drops the bomb on the family – a job offer in New York means they’ll be moving at the start of the year – he can’t understand why it makes everyone unhappy.

Astor perfectly sums up the position of the wife of a good man whose ambition is destined to make their family miserable. Her eyes are naturally downturned – had Huston tried to use her as an actual romantic lead in The Maltese Falcon, rather than a foil for our idea of one, she’d have never worked. In Meet Me in St. Louis, just four years later, she has perfected the art of self-imposition. A scene where she plays and sings at the piano without the highfalutin star quality of her daughters, as her husband joins in, sums up the Mom's life (and the often misplaced allure of the actress's natural tendency to seem "up to something") in one instant. The Sound of Music spent nearly three hours trying to have a moment like that.

Why is it a matter of life and death that they not go to New York? They will miss their friends, their near-misses with local lovers, the upcoming World’s Fair, and their classy manor house (the film makes it clear that upper class in Missouri will become middle class in New York). But it’s not any of that. It is the sheer fact that they are all so deliriously, unwaveringly happy that going anywhere else seems like torture. “Wasn’t I lucky to be born in my favorite city?” Tootie whistles to the ice wagon man in her opening scene, her knees bobbing with the horse’s steps. Everything they know and love is here, now. Their happiness depends on not journeying into the future, to the city, to the life ahead, but continuing to make ketchup and bully boys and build warmhearted snow people in a chilly world. They may not even know why they have to stay in St. Louis like their lives depend on it, but they know it. "Don't tell me the lights are shining any place but there," the title song goes – when they could never be anywhere else, this is a happy promise. By act three, it's become a lament.

O’Brien’s casting is one of the many keys to the film’s success. She’s heart-meltingly innocent and mischievously old-fashioned at the same time. She is capable of happy delirium, relating her icky Autumntime fantasy of her scheme to bury her dead dolls, and of intense, even spiritual sorrow, when she weeps like a tiny statue frozen forever in a face of crying. Judy Garland plays the sister you would dream of having, if you were Tootie – she becomes the standard of grace and beauty in her whole universe. When they dance together (“I was drUNK. Last night. Dear mothER”), they tell the audience one vital thing, even as they make our eyes crinkle – they are growing up into the same world. They are the small and big versions of the same joy. Moving away wouldn’t drive them apart (at first), but it would break the cycle of happiness.

When work on the film began, Garland said all her lines in a slap-happy way. If she didn't wink at the camera, she played her scenes as though she did. This was likely a result of her being cautious about the part, afraid of taking the role of “another young girl” with The Wizard of Oz fresh on everyone’s mind (“I want to grow up,” she said, according to her daughter). She may have wanted to take her character above the role, even to the audience’s level of awareness. Minnelli had to level with her, to tell her that it can’t be like that. He said, “You have to believe this. Everything that you do has got to be the most important thing that has ever happened to you in your life.” This is the single moment that saved Meet Me in St. Louis. It was also the moment that Garland fell in love with Minnelli (according to Liza).

This decision made the film's world self-contained, which makes it real. It doesn't let the aggressive cleverness of the films of the 1940s intrude on it, where a musical, romance, or comedy often seemed destined to include at least one character who “knew the score.” Minnelli knew that he had to make the audience believe in Esther Smith, not just in Judy Garland, if he had a chance of making them feel what she feels. The “Trolley Song” is not played on Main Street USA at Walt Disney World three times (sometimes four) every single day of the year because Garland winked to the audience at how frivolous it all was. It has remained in the hearts of those who miss the simpler times because of its legitimate romantic pull – it’s a tiny version of the entire journey of loving, losing, and finding someone in the end, after you think you know you missed them. Esther believes in it and the audience believes that she does because Minnelli told Garland that she either had to or let the entire era would slip through their gloves. Had she not listened to him, they wouldn’t have been able to pull off the most extravagant or subtle romantic scene. Because she did, their whole world could take place on that quaint trolley ride, and it would mean just as much.

When Tootie is inconsolably sad that they will be moving after the Christmas season, Garland debuts the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as an anthem not only to the season’s joys but to the way that its joys bring out the year’s greatest sorrows in the form of hope. Frank Sinatra would later change the song’s lyrics in an attempt to make it jollier; that is the version that now plays on every radio station during the Christmas season. But had the song’s writers, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, done so originally, it never would have moved audiences of soldiers to tears at the Hollywood Canteen. It also would have been utterly meaningless in Meet Me in St. Louis.

The rewritten lines, “From now on, our troubles will be miles away” or “Here we are as in olden days,” make it seem like everything is or “should” be happy right now, simply because it’s Christmas. The original lyrics, “Next year, all our troubles will be miles away” and “Once again, as in olden days,” describe a far more complex feeling. Christmas doesn’t make everything better. It makes it necessary to believe that things will get better, which in the hearts of people torn by a big move or by the loss of their loved ones to a world in a state of war, means nothing more extravagant than making it "like it used to be."

In response to the song, Tootie rushes out into the cold, unflinchingly destroying the snow people in the way that she might wish to destroy her parents, or the idea of parents that is making her leave (“I’d rather kill them if we can’t take them!”). Children are often considered the people of tomorrow, but in Meet Me in St. Louis, they lack the ambition to even conceive of tomorrow. They exist totally in the present, which every day makes them more reluctantly dependent on the past for their beliefs. Any movement is a move away from their state of total happiness. Her father has a choice that few in history have ever had, to choose to keep his family in its state of innocence and ward off that big-beautiful tomorrow, if just for another year.

Yet, the film ends with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, later called the World’s Fair, which may mark the absolute end of the particular human race that could make those decisions. It debuted the automobile, the airplane, the wireless telephone. It proved the global implications of electric lights, where before they were just household conveniences, right next to the gas ones. Some even claim it popularized the hamburger. No matter what the Smiths (or Bensons) did that year, tomorrow was always ready on their doorstep. In only ten years, they would be using those big, beautiful inventions to fight the most destructive war in human history.

For this reason, even at its happiest, even because it is happy, Meet Me in St. Louis often feels devastatingly sad. Each happy moment seems like the last time anyone will feel that, the last time we will be capable of even trying to. This is why a film that features every season of the year feels so much like Christmas. It transfers these fateful lines to the entire state of humanity, just before a great war in the film’s reality and in the midst of one in the audience’s, a war not just for territories and treaties but for the possibility that things will ever be like they used to be again:

Someday soon,
We all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then,
We'll have to muddle through, somehow …
So have yourself
A merry little Christmas now

No matter how much Sinatra hoped to heal the sentiment by erasing it (“Hang a shining star upon the highest bough ...”), he could never reach the Tooties (and grown-up Tooties) who knew what it really meant.

When I watched the film this year to kick off the Christmas season, I realized that for the first time in my life, I wished things could be “like they used to be.” For someone always focused on forward, forced to slow down in a shutdown world, and to bury family members at the end of a lonely year, I saw the film transform into a eulogy, not just to a world but to a state of mind. Meet Me in St. Louis converts the turn-of-the-century United States into every instance of that feeling – it makes longing a universal part of the human journey. Maybe someday, we’ll be back in manor houses, worried about nothing but how quickly we’ll find love, and certain that we will. Somehow, we may be able to brave a windy world, as Tootie did, and feel like its master by conquering our idea of it, and see the people we thought we lost, waiting for us in the soft porchlight when we finally make it home. Until then, we’ll have to watch Meet Me in St. Louis. And be merry, for at least one more year.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

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