Meet Me in St. Louis
(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.