Director Vincente Minnelli’s most acclaimed musical, Meet Me in St. Louis, is a fresh breath of stale air. Even though the first few minutes of this tart ode to nostalgia linger for the most part on undiluted period details, such as ice trucks and home-bottled ketchup, underneath lies a snub-nosed portrait of a family in crisis.
Based off a string of remembrances by author Sally Benson, and centering around the 1903 pre-world’s fair excitement in the titular city, the film is an unforced and light entertainment that also casually tackles the occasional universal issue: mutating sex roles within the American family, the oft-crippling nature of tradition and reminiscence, and the temporary nature of home in a world of mechanized transportation (on Kensington street, horse carts are perpetually dealing with motorized vehicles and trolleys), and all of this is accentuated by the fact that America was in the thick of taking on both the Eastern and Western worlds.
The upper-middle class Smith family is facing a crisis of their own: Just as St. Louis is about to stage its grand coming out party on the world stage, Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames), the henpecked patriarch of the family, announces that his job requires that they relocate to New York City. Unfortunately, his two eldest daughters, Esther (Judy Garland) and Rose (Lucille Bremer), are just beginning to make serious gains in their husband hunt.
Though it wasn’t the first musical to deal with any of the elements of industrial progress or familial discord, Meet Me in St. Louis was one of the most successful. Much of the credit goes to Minnelli, whose gracefully gliding camerawork is at its absolute best here (the scene in which Esther leads her love interest, Tom Drake’s John Truitt, through the canyon-esque rooms of her house as she turns the gaslights down is an erotic wonder). But the film’s true coup is in the seamlessly integrated musical numbers by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, which, by virtue of their relatively spare use (only six or seven full-blown tunes, to most musical epics’ dime-and-nickel), accentuate plot points in a unique and surprising manner.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Alonzo informs the family about their impending move, and after everyone runs to their respective rooms to sob, his wife, Anna (Mary Astor), calmly steps into the parlor to play the love ballad “You and I” on the piano. Though the lyrics of the song refer to the strength of their romantic relationship, they also become a clarion call, reminding the Smiths (who return from their grieving to listen in respect to their mother’s song) of the need for family bonds. Likewise, the standard “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” actually reveals itself to be a bitterly ironic lament for the unreliability of everything, even the holiday spirit. Because of its modern take on the seductive but naïve binds of nostalgia, Meet Me in St. Louis remains one of the most vital of musical films.
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