TFS the Season: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Meet Me in St. Louis, released in 1944 and starring Judy Garland, is the Rosetta Stone for its director, Vincente Minnelli; a film of fluid, cascading motions and flourishing feelings, and to hell with anything else. If the film’s structure, marching from season to season with memorable instances of comedy, drama, and romance within each part of the year, doesn’t immediately pull you in by the head and the heart, then it just wasn’t meant to be. Minnelli probably would’ve never cared that Meet Me in St. Louis has risen as a Christmas classic, because as it stands, very little of it actually takes place during that holiday, with moments of spring and Halloween offering their own connective tissue towards character dynamics. Its stature as a Holiday movie, then, can be found in the struggles and joys of family, and how their burden is only an illusion of familiarity. It warms the heart, shatters it, and then warms it up again, all through a ‘journey through the years’ effortlessness that’s intoxicating. Like any other Christmas or Holiday classic, it resonates via the examination of special moments—first love, jealousies, nostalgia, and other problems of the household variety.
But the Christmas section, featuring Garland’s melancholic crooning of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, allows for a culmination of family alongside the inherent generosity of the holiday itself. The film isn’t simply structured around the seasons for the sake of image, but for the emotional components that each season entails. Judy Garland’s Esther, leading Tom Drake’s John Truett through her home, requiring company to turn off the lights, provides an innocent sexual tension that is beyond reproach. Especially because a majority of it doesn’t come from setting or season but from Minnelli’s long-take grandeur and the predetermined, fateful movements of the performers. Mostly, Meet Me in St. Louis is a holiday classic for its sheer delight.
Garland is in her prime, rampaging through the frame with such delicacy and control over the smallest motions of the physical body. The whole extended Smith family is similarly adept within Minnelli’s tight, feverishly choreographed blocking, functioning as a complete, sustainable unit even as many aspects fall into the dysfunctional. The entirety of the film builds off of the performances, and how their physical selves flawlessly connect with verbal exchanges and more traditional dialogue scenes. When the characters aren’t singing or dancing—and there’s a lovely amount of it—Minnelli never lets go of his grip or the boundless rigidity necessary to make it all look effortless.
Like Singin’ in the Rain or, to compare it with another Minnelli, The Band Wagon, its immense formal accomplishments in the realm of dance and mise en scène doesn’t negate the continuous entertainment of each and every scene, and how the moments begin to pile on and on with no end in sight. It’s relatively short for a musical, clocking in at 113 minutes, but Minnelli creates an everlasting sense of time. There could be an unearthed twenty-hour cut and I wouldn’t bat an eye. His graceful eye for the functions of the human body marry wonderfully to the operatic, romantic sizzle of his stories. Meet Me in St. Louis is ultimately a study and celebration of the body, exploding against a riotous, vibrant Technicolor canvas.
That Christmas is the climax, a holiday and cause for celebration in and of itself, suggests Minnelli’s tendency to combine romanticized material with equally swooning leads, props, and sets, blocking them to move in a way that reminds the world that god already existed in the form of Judy Garland. The whole film is one gigantic peanut-butter and jelly sandwich—song, dance, romance, family, color—all wrapped in one a shiny bow. Cuddle up and settle in, because even if Meet Me in St. Louis has a Halloween section that’ll disturb your wits, it’s uncompromisingly sweet and radical, sweeping you off your feet before you have a chance to breathe. Family, like any other societal structure, has its issues, but it’s worth fighting for and basking in.