TCM Film Fest: Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)
The state-of-the art restoration of the TCL (nee Grauman’s) Chinese Theatre’s auditorium was the perfect location for the big ticket screenings at TCM’s Classic Festival this year. Some of the films presented included Double Indemnity, Blazing Saddles and A Hard Day’s Night, all looking big, beautiful and glorious. But one of the truly historic highlights was the screening of Meet Me in St. Louis, and the appearance of Margaret O’Brien, with a discussion led by Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss.
The diminutive O’Brien, 77 years old and still revealing a pep in her step and sporting a nose stud (!), came out before the film and waved enthusiastically to the crowd, shouting: “Hello, everybody, are you having a great time?”
She revealed her first name is actually Angela, and after her big moment in the film Journey for Margaret (1942) shot her to stardom, she changed her name to Margaret since quickly becoming synonymous with the role. As children will do, she named her dog Maggie, but allowed only one actor to call her that -Mickey Rooney.
O’Brien discussed the notoriously cheap Louis B Mayer, and his tall chair that was higher than the guests’ in order to give him that seeming advantage of “power.” It was also interesting to learn how the studios exercised a Machiavellian practice of using the stars’ lookalike stand-ins as a bargaining tool in salary negotiations. They would “give” the role under dispute to the stand-in until the star and studio came to an agreement. Then the role was snatched back, so the star could assume the part. According to O’Brien, her stand-in’s father (a gaffer on the set) had a nervous breakdown after this happened to his daughter, and during filming, almost “accidentally” dropped a lighting instrument on her. True or not, the audience loved her stories which helped create an almost celebratory energy as the lights dimmed and the credits rolled.
For the few film lovers who haven’t seen Meet Me In St. Louis – shame on you – drop everything and watch it now — Vincente Minelli’s nostalgic homage to a turn-of-the-20th-century family struggling with the prospect of moving from their beloved town of St. Louis to New York, it’s a year in the life of a long bygone era. Each season offers up a recognizable Victorian tableau drawn from our collective imaginations; they may not have ever existed this way, but that is the fantasy and dream that the Smith family, and we, pursue. And each season also allows for a musical set-piece that has become synonymous with the best of the MGM lavish productions. “The Boy Next Door,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “The Trolley Song,” are just three of the immortal tunes that came from this film. (Not to mention “Under the Bamboo Tree” (a classic routine with Judy Garland and O’Brien) and my personal favorite, “I Was Drunk Last Night,” all the more hilarious when performed by the “then” 7 year old).
Every year, the TCM Festival offers a theme. This year’s framing device was “Families in the Movies: The Ties That Bind.” While an easily adaptable framework for a myriad of films, sometimes it felt too forced. There’s no question that Meet Me In St. Louis is all about “family,” but the sub-heading – “dysfunction” definitely does not work. If a family could be more functional than the Smiths, I’d like to hear about it. They are not only a loving unit, but a democratic one. While the father (Leon Ames) announces they will be moving for his promotion, he spends the rest of the film stubbornly sticking to his guns, and instead of convincing the family, they convince him at the end – to stay.
The pivotal scenes of Autumn 1903 turn the story, just as the weather turns colder. Halloween gives the youngest sisters (O’Brien and fellow child actress Joan Carroll) the funniest and most enjoyable sequences. They are costumed as a “Horrible Ghost” and a “Terrible Drunken Ghost.” They talk about “killing” the neighbors by throwing flour in their faces when they answer the door. Again, this nostalgic rendering of the time honored Holiday reveals just how serious children of the early 1900s took the event – so different than today.
It’s on this night that Patriarch Alonzo announces his promotion and their necessary move to NYC. Everyone is heartbroken and leaves the dining room in tears until Alonzo starts to sing at the piano. The touching duet between husband and wife slowly brings everyone back into the room, where things are patched up without a word. It’s beautiful, and even for this screening which included mostly audience members who had seen the film multiple times, there was still scattered sniffling.
The themes of love, new romance, family dynamics, and sacrifice for each other are hit perfectly in every scene. The script is impeccable – no nonsense, yet with a bold and subversively potent sense of humor. The musical staging and art direction whip up a colorful, frothy treat for the eyes and ears, and satisfies more upon repeated viewings. With O’Brien’s personal appearance, this was truly an event for the ages. (Written with special thanks to Karen Sheeler).