Monday, December 10, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) at UCLA

Yesterday afternoon I had a wonderful time seeing one of my favorite movies, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), on the big screen at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater.

The 35mm screening was part of UCLA's brief series Holidays in the Movies.

I had previously seen this favorite film on a big screen eight times, at a variety of revival theaters in the Greater Los Angeles area; as a matter of fact, my very first big-screen viewing of the film was at the now-gone UA Cinema Center-Westwood so it was a bit of a full circle seeing it in Westwood once more, just a handful of blocks away from the original location.

The screening was also something of a "palate cleanser," as the last time I saw it was a disappointingly fuzzy digital projection in the Chinese Theatre at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival. It was thus especially marvelous seeing it yesterday in a lovely 35mm print.

As many viewers will already know, this 113-minute film is set in 1903-1904, depicting a year in the lives of the Smith family of St. Louis. For me MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is rather like THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), a film so close to my heart that it's almost difficult to write about. Rather than a more traditional review, I'll share some random thoughts:

*One of the reasons I love this film is there is so much to look at in each and every frame, thanks to the beautiful work of director Vincente Minnelli, cinematographer George Folsey, the art and set decoration team, and costume designer Irene Sharaff. (Check out these fascinating photos of the sets!)

I sometimes think Folsey hasn't received enough recognition for his dazzling Technicolor work; just look at the shots of Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien during "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Exquisite. And what about the dissolve through the window as the camera moves from outside the Christmas Eve dance into the room?

*As fantastic as O'Brien is, I continue to believe that Joan Carroll was the movie's unsung "secret weapon." Every one of Carroll's line readings as Agnes is pitch perfect. And it's Carroll who gets to launch the initial singing of "Meet Me in St. Louis" at the start of the film, before O'Brien makes her memorable entrance riding on the ice wagon.

*For that matter, Lucille Bremer is quite perfect as the "old maid" Rose. But then, everyone in the cast is just right, including one-scene actors such as Hugh Marlowe as Col. Darly and Donald Curtis as Dr. Girard. I also really like Henry H. Daniels Jr. as Lon Jr.

*Like so much else about the film, the Hugh Martin-Ralph Blane score couldn't be any better.

*I was particularly struck this time around that the film's darker aspects -- Tootie's obsession with death, and the entire Tootie-Agnes Halloween sequence -- serve in an interesting way as a sort of "vinegar" to help keep the film from being too sweet or the characters too perfect. Which is rather funny considering the film's opening debate about vinegar vs. sugar in the ketchup!

*There are exactly five spots I always cry: The parents (Leon Ames and Mary Astor) singing "You and I" on Halloween; John Truett (Tom Drake) unexpectedly showing up at the dance; Esther (Garland) singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"; Mrs. Smith crying after Mr. Smith says they won't move; and Esther saying the movie's final line, "Right here in St. Louis." And yep, I cried in each and every spot yesterday, and then some.

*Thanks to my parents auditing a class MGM director-choreographer Charles Walters taught at USC, I once met one of the chorus girls who's in the party and trolley sequence! I still get a little thrill each time I spot her.

*At this writing there are at least three surviving cast members: Margaret O'Brien, June Lockhart, and Darryl Hickman. I've seen O'Brien and Hickman in person but to my memory have never seen June Lockhart.

Here are a handful of scans of stills from the film which are in my collection. Two of these scans also accompanied my obituary for Joan Carroll almost exactly two years ago:

For fans of the film, these two stills, apparently scenes cut from prior to the party sequence, have always fascinated me:

I wish footage would surface of these scenes, along with the cut Garland number "Boys and Girls Like You and Me."

I'd really like to particularly urge any readers who haven't yet seen this film to be sure to see it, and this is a particularly good time of year to do so. MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VHS, and there are also rental and purchase digital options.

Before the screening Mary Mallory and Karie Bible signed their terrific book HOLLYWOOD CELEBRATES THE HOLIDAYS: 1920-1970, which I reviewed in 2016.

They also did a lovely job introducing the movie. Karie asked for a show of hands if anyone hadn't seen the film before, and it was wonderful to see that this beautiful print would be the first viewing experience for some people in the audience.

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS has my very highest possible recommendation.


Blogger Vienna said...

Great review, Laura. It really is perfect in every way. So many memorable moments as you described.

12:17 AM  
Blogger Stefano said...

Thank you, Laura, for your heartfelt recollections and observations of this classic film. Now I'm a little verklempt! And even more in a holiday mood; I had planned to se MMISL on December 22nd at the Aero theatre, but am a little hesitant after your review as it will be screened in DCP.

I've also loved this film since childhood; it is one of the best Christmas movies, and it has THE best live-action Halloween sequence. The kids are gripped with excitement and fear which vividly captures the mood of October 31st.

I have a movie trivia question: during World War II Congress passed a law which forbade the cost of any new movie set from exceeding $5,000.00 (as a conservation measure). That glorious St. Louis street set cost $250,000.00, almost a quarter of the film's total budget. How did MGM get a waiver? The money was well spent as the film was a huge hit, and the well-maintained set itself was frequently used for close to 30 years, until it was bulldozed (gulp). Lucy and Desi had fun there in "The Long, Long Trailer", and it featured memorably in the Twilight Zone episode "Walking Distance", among many examples.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Seth said...

I finally saw this on TCM tonight (after putting it on my “10 Classics for 2017” list) and enjoyed it. I had other family who hadn’t seen it over for dinner, and we agreed that the Halloween sequence was quite “vinegar.” I too was stunned by that pan into the Christmas dance. Glad I finally saw it.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you, Vienna! It's a treasure.

Stefano, I'm so glad you enjoyed my post. If you see it at the Aero I'd be curious to know what you think. I don't think the huge screen at the Chinese could handle the digital print (I had the same problem with ON THE WATERFRONT there) but perhaps either the smaller screen or the digital print quality would be better at the Aero.

That's a great comment on the construction, I'd not heard that before. I love seeing both the exteriors and even the interiors of the Smith set show up in the other movies. In CYNTHIA (1947) I seem to recall Elizabeth Taylor lives in the Smith house yet looks out the window at it! :) There's a list of the films it appears in in the book MGM: HOLLYWOOD'S GREATEST BACKLOT.

Seth, I'm glad you caught up with it!! So many interesting and special things about this beautiful film. I hope it's a movie you'll enjoy returning to in the future.

Best wishes,

10:22 PM  

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