The major problem with the film musical, as a form, is that there is never a hint of naturalism in it. Think of a science fiction or horror film. Yes, they may have outlandish plots and scary monsters, but the best of them will sneak the situation or monster up on the viewer so as to make the viewer comfortable with the notion of them, if not comfortable with the situation they present. But, in musicals, one has to expect the absurdity that people will break not only into son, but often song and dance, and often with background music that is diegetically not part of the reality. This is not to say people do not sing in their lives, on occasion. We all have; but it’s the rest of the situational expectation that makes most musicals cringe-worthy. And the most guilty of these sins are the classic Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s, things started to change a bit, with West Side Story, and then with the avant-garde musicals of the hippy era, and by the turn of the century the musicals of Baz Luhrmann propelled musicals into, if not greatness, a certain level of artistic respectability not seen before. Of course, this does not mean there were not genre great musicals, like Oklahoma or The Sound Of Music (a film I love, but which is nowhere near great), or the more recent Rent, but the quality of the best musicals had all to do with the quality of the songs. When you have a Rodgers and Hammerstein on your side, your task becomes much easier. When you don’t, you are left with formless and slap-dashed mediocrities like MGM’s 1944 Technicolor extravaganza, Meet Me In St. Louis.
Now, it’s not a bad film; after all, it does star Judy Garland as Esther, and, at least in the Western World of last century, was there a greater all around entertainer? She could act brilliantly in comedies and drama, she could sing like no one else, and dance like Ginger Rogers, although better. She could monologue and, well….what couldn’t she do? Ok, she couldn’t write a better screenplay. But, then again, that’s a creative art, not a performing art. As for the film? It’s a tale with no real plot. Yes, there is the story of the St. Louis-based Smith clan, who are awaiting the coming of the 1904 World’s Fair, and this was adapted from the soap operatic short stories, called 5135 Kensington, of Sally Benson, one of the notorious New Yorker style short story writers from the mid-20th Century, but it’s not much of a story, penned by screenwriters Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe. The father is a law partner who is going to uproot the family to New York until he, naturally, decides against it, due to his family objections. The whole arc and denouement of the film is so predictable that it really works against the whole film. The characters are cardboard cutouts- from the maid through the daughters, son, and parents, right on through to the grandfather and lesser roles.
There are inane songs- a sin for a musical, and these are never really balanced out by the only two real classics: The Trolley Song and Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. There are the usual frivolities that Garland films of the era trafficked in, as a showcase just to see her act and hear her sing; so on this level, of course, there are things to recommend the film for; but on a whole, the acting is rather forgettable, the cinematography by George Folsey is rather listless and dull- despite the wartime use of Technicolor, which helped secure him an Oscar nod, and the songs, as mentioned, are just not on the level of the best of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, nor Cole Porter. The team of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane were, by comparison, near amateurs. Even worse is that none of the other actors were even passable singers; not even young Margaret O’Brien. Even worse is how overrated the claims of her acting abilities have been by critics over the years. There simply was nothing special in her role as the youngest daughter of the Smith clan. Despite winning a special Oscar for that role as Tootie, with six and a half decades’ distance, one has to scratch one’s head, as better comic and dramatic performances had been given by several cast members of Hal Roach’s Little Rascals a decade or more earlier, and some of the child actors in more realistic dramas from the 1930s. The film was the first big hit for director Vincente Minnelli, but, as he had a relatively lightweight career in the business, it was, in retrospect, as with O’Brien’s acting, nothing special.
The two disk DVD, put out by Warner Brothers, has an outstanding transfer- virtually perfect, and this is noteworthy since many later Technicolor films have not been transferred to DVD nearly as successfully. That said, the Technicolor process, itself, has always been a troublesome one, since, compared to today’s films, the actors often look more mannekin-like than realistically human in their coloration. The film is seen in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The extra features offered are truly outstanding, and almost make up for the mediocre and overrated film itself. The first disk has the film, and an ok commentary by Garland biographer John Fricke. He is reading from notes, but it’s a better than average commentary because of the depth of his knowledge on Garland, as well as interpolating recorded comments from O’Brien and other collaborators. There’s also a Minnelli trailer gallery. Disk Two has some great extras: the pilot for a bad 1966 television version of the show, starring Shelley Fabares, a making of feature, narrated by Roddy McDowall, a Dick Cavett hosted documentary called Hollywood: The Dream Factory, a Becoming Attractions featurette on Garland, a radio broadcast of the musical, a stills gallery, and an early short film with Garland and her sisters, as well as a film on the songwriters.
Overall, while Meet Me In St. Louis is a typical example of what Hollywood was churning out in that era (although with a much bigger budget, and in Technicolor), that simply does not say much, and certainly does not make the film something worth recommending, in and of itself. Dull, listless, and hopelessly stilted, about the only real arguments one could have about such a film is whether or not the characters were so unenjoyable due to the way they were written, the lifeless acting (save for Garland, who, naturally, dominates the screen), or both. It’s also a good example of reputation trumping reality, as well as being a very long film- an hour and 53 minutes- of its genre, especially due to its generally listless soundtrack. The film also makes the annoying error of, in the opening sequence, set in the mid-summer of 1903, stating that there are only seven months to go until the fair, even though, it is in spring of 1904. But, again, this is a minor flaw. One can live with those if all the rest that is wrong with this film worked. Alack, it does not. But, at least there is still Judy Garland- those eyes, that voice, that emotion.
It is not in the great works of cinema that one discovers what it means to witness a superstar, for, often, in those films, even an average talent can shine. No, it’s in mediocre films like Meet Me In St. Louis where the greatest talents take a film over, and make it memorable. If so, then one can only attribute the glowing critical success of this filmic mediocrity to the supernova that was Judy Garland. Yes, her star may have died in this world, but onscreen, it always is. Lucky Vincente Minnelli. Luckier you.