This one is one of my mother’s all-time favorites. So for the longest time, I hated it. It was on constantly at our house growing up, but I never actually sat down and watched it. Just hearing my mom wax poetically about it was enough to make me run screaming in the other direction. It wasn’t because it’s a musical. I love musicals. It wasn’t because it’s a classic film. I love classic films. In fact, one of my favorites growing up was the classic musical On the Town with Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller, and Betty Garrett. No, the fact that I hated this movie was because it was my chance to act rebellious.
Since then I’ve gotten over my contrarian nature (somewhat), and grown to like this film. It’s not Minnelli’s visual style (his camera antics are much more interesting in Cabin in the Sky). What strikes me most, a full 48-hours after viewing it this time, is that the theme seems to be focused on change and the ways a family wrestles with the constancy of change whether it be personal change, technological change, or the natural changes a family goes through as one generation gets older and cedes control to the next.
In the dinner table scene, we watch the entire family along with the maid conspire to have dinner an hour earlier than normal so the eldest daughter, Rose, can receive a long distance call from a suitor. We see how the father wants to keep intact his family’s traditional way of, not just sitting down to dinner, but of respecting the father’s place and authority. When he comes home from work, he expects to have a bath before dinner as he usually does. The girls tell him they’ve arranged to have dinner early, but he puts his foot down and insists that he’s going to have his traditional bath and whatever it is that is changing the times will just have to wait.
At dinner when the phone rings, interrupting their sacred ritual of dinner, he answers it, as is his custom, and makes no allowance that the call might not be for him. The family explains the long-distance call that he just hung up on was for his eldest from her suitor and he puts his foot down the way he’s accustomed to doing. The phone ringing during dinner was bad enough, but to allow someone who’s not the head of the household to answer it is just too much. But after seeing Rose’s obedience and her disappointment, he relents and allows her to answer the phone when it rings again. Here we see him allowing some change of his typical dinner to occur so they can allow Rose to adapt to the changes that technology can bring to a courtship.
Throughout this scene, we often view it from just beyond the father’s position at the table, so we can see how everyone at the table is trying to be supportive of Rose while staying in the father’s good graces. It’s great blocking that gives us a lot of information in one angle.
Another key scene is the Halloween scene when the youngest in the family, Tootie, and Agnes, get to play at making adult decisions about who in the neighborhood is really a demon in disguise and then take the burden of doing what needs to be done. Tootie volunteers to throw flour on the demon, Mr. Braukoff, which is terrifying to them because he may, you know, do whatever it is that demons do to children who are trying to cast them out. Tootie both shows that she is growing up, but not too much when later in the scene she runs home crying. It’s fascinating because today the parents would be out with the kids directing their actions, never allowing them to get into mischief, and thus not allowing them to find their own way. But in this film, which has weathered criticisms that it’s old-fashioned, outdated, etc., the parents allow the kids their space to do right and to do wrong. And, so do the neighbors.
Minnelli shows us much of the action in this scene from the height of the kids. So we’re seeing the goings-on, especially the flour dousing, from their point-of-view.
Looked at today, it seems unrealistic that these kids would be outside by themselves at night burning furniture in the yard, but those were different times and this movie gives us a glimpse of what life might have been like, for people of these means anyway.
Probably my favorite scene in this picture is when the teenaged daughter, Esther Smith (played by Judy Garland), has concocted a scenario to get the boy-next-door, John Truett, (played by Tom Drake) in a dimly lit romantic scenario. The way Minnelli moves the camera from room to room, showing off Garland in ever-changing illumination is pure movie magic. Here we see her acting, not like a child, but artistically creating the scene to woo him, or rather to get him to woo her. When she begins turning out the first lamp, it’s almost as if she’s showing him the ways to her heart. She then gives him the tool to turn off the lamps, walking him to each lamp and showing him how the different lamps turn off. It’s incredibly seductive and a beautiful for Minnelli to show us a romantic moment without offending the film’s turn of the century sensibilities.
Meet Me in St. Louis is a classic for a good reason, from these scenes, not to mention the infamous and beautiful trolley scene which has been written about almost everywhere else, we can see Minnelli’s mastery at using the camera’s placement and movements.