Saturday, April 26, 2014

Meet Me in St Louis


We have had to temporarily suspend production on my new reality television series, American Idyll. I am most upset. Such a simple misunderstanding. It all began when Normy, my darling husband, decided that as four girls were left in the competition, it might be lovely to have them do a song and dance evening inspired by Louisa May Alcott's classic, Little Women. I was entranced with the idea, of course, although I am much too youthful to play Marmee effectively. I had Ania, my dramaturg, set to work on rewriting some appropriate Harold Arlen and George Gershwin for our young stars to be. Of course, the title Little Women had to go as I wanted a much more sophisticated feeling, to go along with the absolutely stunning nineteenth century bodices and hoops that Bob Mackie was creating so we changed it to Little Ladies of the Evening.

We were in the midst of filming Beth's death scene, a truly dramatic moment (sung to the tune of 'Come Rain or Come Shine') when the studio was suddenly invaded by the Los Angeles County Child Protective Services unit. Apparently someone had called in a tip accusing us of exploiting the dear little things in some sort of indecent way. Before I knew what was happening, a bevy of heavyset social workers, looking something like the backfield of the Pittsburgh Steelers in bad drag, were asking all sorts of impertinent questions about whether any of our talented little charges had been interfered with and just what sort of film were we making. I was incredibly offended, but had the good sense to telephone my lawyers, Fajer and Hellmann, and have them arrive to take care of the interlopers. They eventually were persuaded to depart, but took the girls with them into temporary protective custody and it's a bit uncertain when they will be allowed back to finish their scenes. Their mothers are, of course, exceedingly upset, as they see their little ones' chances of stardom descending the drain in a flurry of court appearances.

Later in the evening, I received a call from the presiding judge, someone named Ito, who assured me that I would be completely vindicated and that I was entirely above suspicion. I just hope Madame Rose, my publicist, can take care of any bad press. I, myself, withdrew into the home theater to take solace in a musical entertainment where everything turns out well and social service goons do not intervene in family matters. My choice was the 1944 Judy Garland film, Meet Me in St. Louis which has recently been reissued in a deluxe DVD version.

Meet Me in St. Louis was based on stories written by author Sally Benson, originally for The New Yorker magazine, reminiscing about her growing up in a large bourgeois family in turn of the century St. Louis, Missouri, at the time of the 1903 World's fair. Sally was the youngest child of five, nicknamed Tootie (Margaret O'Brien in the film version) and her charming stories of that vanished world had captivated readers for several years. For the film, the focus was changed somewhat from Tootie to her older sister, Esther (Judy Garland), a teenager just beginning to enter the adult world. Her other sisters Rose (Lucille Bremer) and Agnes (Joan Carroll)and her brother Alonzo (Henry H. Daniels Jr.), while present, never really penetrate the points of view and close bond that Esther and Tootie share.

The children share the house, a huge Second Empire Victorian with Mansard roof (constructed from Ms. Benson's memories of her childhood home)with their parents (Mary Astor and Leon Ames), their maternal grandfather (Harry Davenport) and Katie, the maid (Marjorie Main). The plot, if it can be called that, is slight. The entire family is looking forward to the opening of the World's Fair the following spring, each in their own way. Esther dreams of her first crush, the boy next door (Tom Drake). Alonzo goes off to college. Rose flirts with an older man (Hugh Marlowe). Tootie gets into mischief. Their idyllic life is nearly undone when father accepts a promotion that would move them all to New York. After a change of heart, the family remains in their St. Louis existence and everything ends happily in a riot of Edwardian spring pastels.

This is not a film about anything. It's a Technicolor valentine to Americana which, when it appeared in the depths of World War II, helped remind the audience of all that was right and good about America and her people, striking much the same chord that Oklahoma! did in the New York theater. Director Vincente Minnelli, with his sure eye for color and character, allows his simple tale to unspool naturally, with a minimum of fuss, lovingly recreating the visuals of a vanished world of picture hats, shirtwaists, and sitting on the front porch. The film is divided in sections with a sepia toned photograph of the family home in each of the four seasons as the visual anchor and the house, as symbol of family, is the central metaphor.

This is a musical and the songs, by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, one of MGM's composing teams of the era, are delightful, with a number including 'The Boy Next Door', 'The Trolley Song' and 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' having become standards. Period songs such as the title number are also worked in. The musical numbers are simple affairs as befits this simple story, no chorus of hundreds leaping over the rooftops. They are a mixture of self aware diegetic songs and character pieces, advancing the story and adding to the texture of the piece.

Judy Garland was never lovelier than she is here in her long auburn wig. She effortlessly carries the movie and her joy in such numbers as 'The Trolley Song' (seamlessly filmed in a single take) is absolutely infectious. She has stalwart support from character actors Harry Davenport and Marjorie Main. Much more subtle work comes from Mary Astor and Leon Ames as the parents. They have to both be her rocks and her antagonists and they succeed at that delicate balance - their duet together being an emotional high point. Second billed Margaret O'Brien, as the mischievous little Tootie, is adorable, especially in a Halloween scene, but a little of her cherub cuteness goes a very long way. Her big emotional moment, when she recognizes what moving will mean, however, is very effective.

The new DVD release contains an introduction to the film by Liza Minnelli. There is also a music only track to allow you to karaoke your way through the score. A commentary track from Margaret O'Brien, producer Arthur Freed's daughter, composer Hugh Martin and screenwriter Irving Brechter provides some interesting insights and charming reminiscences. For a film sixty years old, the print looks great.

Meet Me In St. Louis is one of the best of the MGM musicals of the World War II era. It was made my consummate professionals at the top of their game and it's simple homespun philosophy continues to resonate.

Long distance phone call. Banjo playing. Trolley riding. Unavailable tuxedo. Flour in face. Furniture burning. Gas lamp dousing. Gratuitous June Lockhart. Full dance card. Snow people. Electric light excitement. 

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