Meet Me in
St. Louis (1944)
Although there are recurring themes and sentiments running through the film, Meet Me in St. Louis is essentially composed of a series of largely independent vignettes. Unfortunately, the motifs dominant in almost all of these sequences are sentimentality, love for one's hometown, and adorableness. Even the director's attempts at humor are infused with such mawkishness that they are more likely to leave a sickeningly sweet taste in the viewer's mouth than make him laugh.
Suffice it to say, the resolutions the director creates for each of the crises he hoists upon the viewer are not only maudlin and sentimental, but both forced and predictable. I doubt if any moviegoer will be in any doubt about whether or not the father will take his family away from St. Louis, Rose and Esther will win the men of their dreams, or everyone will eventually realize that they were right all along to love their hometown as much as they do.
In fact, such flaws so overwhelm the movie's virtues that Meet Me in St. Louis is never really satisfying. Not only does the whole of the film ooze a saccharine nostalgia, but it is so melodramatic and sentimental that much of the emotional resonance it could have had is considerably diminished. Instead of being affected by the lives and simple troubles of the members of the Smith family, the viewer is likely to feel that the overblown manner in which these are presented gives them a falsity which distances him from the movie's characters.
While I will concede that actual children do throw tantrums and real teenaged girls have been known to react to news they do not like with all the histrionics of those of Minnelli's film, the unctuous approach the director takes when depicting such things is likely to make the viewer feel their pettiness rather than their touching simplicity. Esther's weepy sorrow upon learning that her date for a dance will not be able to take her because his tuxedo is not ready, for example, is presented in such a syrupy manner that it seems forced and manipulative. In another sequence, in which the family's two youngest daughters go out to play pranks on Halloween, the director's efforts to imbue their frankly mean-spirited assault on a neighbor with cuteness are, instead, likely to make any moviegoer who wonders how attacking a person in his home could ever be anything other than cruel see the falseness and superficiality of the sentiments Minnelli is trying to evoke. Rather than engaging the viewer with his characters, the director's cloying excesses tend to alienate him from them.
Unfortunately, the cast members are never able to lift their characters out of the ocean of treacle in which they have been submerged. Most of the characters are not only utterly forgettable, but more embodiments of adorableness than living individuals. The children are so precious they are revolting, and the teenaged girls are so charmingly fretting that they are irritating. Even the men, although they are not the focus of the film's narrative, are such personifications of masculine decency that the viewer is likely to wretch if he is forced to watch them for more than a few minutes.
While it is deeply flawed, occasionally boring, and never realized with any particular aesthetic sensitivity, Meet Me in St. Louis is, I must admit, often pleasant to watch. The members of the cast, although never brilliant, do, with the odd exception, bring a real vivacity to the film, and the skillful cinematography, lavish sets, and elaborate costumes all contribute to its appeal. The endless frilly dresses and gaudy Victorian bric-a-brac which clutter virtually every scene may reflect tastes that today appear more than a little tacky, but they do give the movie a flamboyant charm that keeps the viewer's interest throughout.
Meet Me in St. Louis is further enlivened by the numerous songs with which it is filled. While these are largely forgettable, most are nicely, even beautifully performed. The dances which frequently accompany the musical numbers are likewise uninspired, but, again, they are competently realized and almost always very colorful. While I was not, for the most part, enthralled by the film's music, I must say that "The Trolley Song" is genuinely enjoyable. Even though it is hardly the greatest song to have been performed in film, it is so joyously brought to life by Judy Garland that it is a real pleasure to hear.
I will concede that I am largely immune to the charms of sentimentality and homespun cuteness, and the viewer who is more appreciative than am I of schmaltzy nostalgia, adorable children, and maudlin teenagers may find much in the film that I simply am unable to enjoy. For such a person, Meet Me in St. Louis is likely to be worth watching. For those who are not admirers of such things, the movie is probably best avoided.
Review by Keith Allen
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