Skip to main content

Good heavens, we've completely forgotten it's Christmas!

Meet Me in St. Louis 
(1944)

(SPOILERS) Seasonal fare, in as much as it covers all four of them. Meet Me in St. Louis isn’t the kind of musical designed to win the attention of those, such as myself, already reticent of the genre. Scant of plot, it very loosely follows the dramas – if you can call them that – of the Smith family over the year leading to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair. I dare say I may have seen the movie before, as a nipper; certainly, many of the songs are familiar, which always helps when a musical otherwise fails to transport one. And then, there are the fringe peculiarities. Can one say mudflood?

Vincent Minnelli’s third feature in a thirty-year career, one where the musicals became most indelible, was based on Sally Benson’s 1942 novel of the same name (itself arising from a series of her New Yorker pieces). The trials of the affluent aren’t really the stuff of greatness, but audiences lapped Meet Me in St. Louis up in its year of release (it came in second only to the also-very-“nice” Going My Way), and it undoubtedly remains something of a favourite. And a Christmas favourite at that.

The Smiths were based on Benson’s own family, and she provided advice to Minnelli, who was exacting in getting her world right. Aonzo (Leon Ames) and Anna (Mary Astor) have four daughters: Rose (Lucille Bremer), Esther (Judy Garland), Agnes (Joan Carroll), and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien). Obviously, the lion’s share of the plot and numbers are devoted to Esther, but there’s a surprising amount of kids’ malarkey revolving around then all-the-rage child star O’Brien. At least as significant a character, minus the romantic entanglements and heartache and replaced with a lot of yelling, she’s a monstrous riot-running infant given to extreme preciousness and an apparently infinite leash. 

Esther is keen on boy-next-door John Truett (Tom Drake), their hit-and-miss flirtation/ courtship culminating in a Christmas Eve ball where she’s accompanied by grandad (Harry Davenport). And then, of course, sings Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas to the uber-brat. The message for whom seems to be that, if you play up, you’re sure to get your own way (her tantrum causes dad to reconsider the planned move to New York, since St Louis is obviously the business).

Tootie: He tried to kill me, and when I screamed, he ran away.

It’s all very (Techni-) colourful of course, boasting the sort of period look you’ll only find in musicals (be it Mary Poppins or Hello, Dolly!) And credit where it’s due, Garland is in tremendous voice. The most striking part for me, though, is what Richard Schickel referred to as its “dreamy, occasionally surreal, darkness”.

Much of this is at the behest of, or involving, nightmare child Tootie, who goes around delivering weird drunk impressions and uttering ’orrible asseverations, as if reliving past traumas from a child’s-eye view (“She was murdered in a den of thieves, and I died of a broken heart. I’ve never even been buried because everyone’s scared to come near me”; “And I’m taking all my dolls, even the dead ones. I’m taking everything”; “… and Mr Braukoff was beating his wife with a red-hot poker…”; even her singing is freaky: “I was drunk last night, dear Mother, I was drunk the night before. But if you forgive me, Mother, I’ll never get drunk no more” (Sister Agnes isn’t much better: “I’ll stab you to death in your sleep, then I’ll tie your body to two wild horses until you’re pulled apart” Sheeeeesh!)

Johnny Tevis: The banshee will haunt you forever.

There’s also the false accusation against John (“He tried to kill me”), instantly believed even though it’s a bare-faced lie, and only remedied after John has received punitive measures. There’s the highly sinister Halloween episode, whereby the assembled youngsters gather round a bonfire in grotesque masks, as if attending some ghoulish witches’ sabbath as they send Tootie on her mission to “kill” Mr Braukoff (throw flour in his face). It would seem right at home in Kill List or Midsommar. Later, Tootie goes on a snowman destruction derby, as if smashing to pieces further spectres of the past.

Most curious of all is the final scene, taking place when Spring has sprung and everyone is gathered at the World’s Fair (the same year’s disastrous Olympics, also in St Louis, is conspicuously unmentioned). The smattering of World’s Fairs occurring during this time are – well, from the 1790s onwards – of course, very suspicious. Astonishingly crafted buildings shooting up for but a brief time, only to be summarily pulled back down again, showcases for an amazing run of inventions that would soon dry up. Were these expos legit, or were they a façade, a means of presenting a history that needed papering over and re-contextualising, while at the same time removing the worst – as in, most glaring – articles pointing to the ugly truth?

At the Fair, the brat – who else – comes running up to the assembled family and announces breathlessly, “Papa, we saw the Galveston Flood. Big waves came up and flooded the whole city, and when the water went back, it was all muddy and horrible and there were dead bodies”. Very much in keeping with the child’s grim bent, of course, but as Michelle Gibson notes, its positioning at this point in the picture is too uncanny to be ascribed to coincidence, or shrugging it off by reasoning “So what? The Galveston flood was only a couple of years earlier”. The salient point is, why here? At this cumulative stage? It’s essentially a declaration to anyone familiar with mudflood and the idea that these expos were merely reintroducing tech (and buildings) of an earlier, decimated or reset civilisation.

Anna: There’s never been anything like it in the whole world ever.
Tootie: Grandpa, they’ll never tear it down, will they?
Grandpa: Well, they better not.
Esther: I can’t believe it. Right here. Where we live. Right here in St Louis.

Naturally, there’s the official reinforcing narrative accompanying this. Yet it only serves to underline the strangeness. Esther says to John, echoing a deleted scene in which they visited the fairgrounds under construction “I liked it better when it was a swamp and just the two of us”. Grandad, meanwhile, waxes lyrical in benefit-of-hindsight fashion, about how “They better not” tear it all down.

So is the nostalgia fest that is Meet Me in St. Louis actually a clarion call to a lost civilisation. And is having a merry little Christmas, because it may be your last (per the original lyric), a reference to the majority of the population being obliterated by such a grubby flood (whether or not they even celebrated Christmas)? Don’t worry, we’ll mudfloodle through somehow. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.





Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.