a commentary by Tony McRae

Here are some relevant dates:
1903-1904: setting for the movie
1904: St. Louis World's Fair (Louisiana Exposition)
1944: "Meet Me in St. Louis" released
1944: D-Day Normandy invasion

When Vincent Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis premiered in 1944 the Allies were preparing to invade Europe, the Japanese were on the run in the Pacific, and the people at home were  anxiously looking forward to the day when their sons and daughters, spouses and loved ones would be coming home.  For three years women had been holding down the home front by working in aircraft factories, on assembly lines, and just about every workplace that had previously been the domain of men.  So it was not surprising that Meet Me in St. Louis resonated deeply with the folks back home, not because it was escapist fare and not even because women were the picture's central characters and ran the show (more about that later), but rather it affirmed family cohesiveness--something in short supply during the war.  It subtly told audiences that with the war's end big changes would soon be coming and we Americans could handle change.  We were an adaptable lot.

The movie opens in the summer of 1903.  Electric lighting was less than 25 years old, the Wright Bros. were making their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, automobiles, the telephone and the motion picture were novelties. The Louisiana Exposition would prepare the world for a  technological revolution that will change people's lives.

We see first a candybox-like still of a Victorian house on an old-fashioned street, a horse-drawn supply wagon off to the left of the picture.  This sepia-colored image soon turns to color and dissolves into a live shot as the wagon continues on its way from screen left to screen right, followed and overtaken by a red motor carriage which toots its horn as it passes the wagon.  In a matter of seconds Minnelli introduces one of the film's central dichotomies:  the old giving way to the new, technology replacing old fashioned ways.  This motif will reappear throughout the film and will prove a major source of tension within the Smith household.  The increased mobility that the automobile embodies foreshadows Mr. Smith's decision to move the family from St. Louis to New York.  1903 is not only a time of change for the country and the world but a time of unease for tight-knit families.  

The intrusion of technology into the Smith family's daily lives at first brings more discord than benefit.  The maid Katie's (Marjorie Main) remark ("Personally I wouldn't marry a man who proposed to me over an invention.") reflects the era's suspicions about all those new-fangled innovations that  threaten to change what for many is a comfortable way of life.  In one of the movie's central scenes, Rose's (Lucille Bremer) long-distance telephone call from Warren Sheffield while the family is at dinner, interrupts what is obviously a sacred ritual--the evening meal.  The ringing of the phone annoys Mr. Smith (he's the only one who's not been told of the impending call) while everyone else is excited.  Once Rose does get to talk to Warren she shouts so loudly into the mouthpiece that her mother goes to the window and closes it so the neighbors can't hear.  The scene is meticulously composed throughout so that we see the groupings of the women (who know what's going on) and the men (who usually don't have a clue).  The outcome of Rose's call is ambivalent.  Warren doesn't propose but the family has overcome a hurdle of sorts:  it has survived a small crises and by rallying around Rose is able to come together and demonstrate its essential cohesiveness.  

The motif of technological progress shows itself throughout the film and will culminate in the St. Louis World's Fair.  Minnelli's use of light both in the filming process and as a motif is highly complex.  In the indoor scenes, most within the Smith house, there is a feeling of comfort and security, reinforcing the unity of the family.  In the dinner scene just mentioned, we see the golden aura cast by the light coming through the windows throughout Rose's long-distance call, a call after all that has the potential to break up the family, that is, if Warren Sheffield were actually to propose and be accepted.  (See picture above.)  

After a party instigated by Rose so that John Truett (the boy next door) will take an interest in her sister, Esther (Judy Garland) hides John's hat to keep him  after the others depart.  She asks him to help her turn out the lights since she's afraid of mice.  This is not a simple hitting a switch routine; the  lights in the Smith household are powered by gas, and though the task is time consuming, Esther makes certain it is anything but dull.  Minnelli films this sequence in one long shot lasting just short of two and a half minutes, the camera embracing the couple despite John Truett's inability to pick up on Esther's flirtation.  Here again the old ways of gas lighting and carriages and homemade ketchup underline the values held dear by the Smiths:  family home life, respect for one another, and a certain delicacy that seem threatened by outside change.  

Women in control.  In 1944 with the men off to war, the home front was run by women, just like the Smith household.  Mr. Smith (Leon Ames) is the family's titular head, and at first we may believe that his decisions are final, but in fact it is the women who run things.  As for the other men in the film, grandpa (Harry Davenport) is a dear old man, Lon Smith (Henry H. Daniels Jr.) has little screen time, John Truitt (Tom Drake) is a love interest period; the other men are minor indeed.  Throughout the story men threaten stability.  To wit, Mr. Smith announces that he's been promoted and intends to move the entire family to New York ("I've got the future to think about. A future for all of us."); Lon Jr. is going "east" to school; John Truett will take Esther away.  Only grandpa--the older generation--holds to the values the women embody.  While the women eventually acquiesce to Mr. Smith's wishes, they subtly convey to him that family is more important than money.  

The scene where Mr. Smith announces his intention to move everyone to New York reflects this division in the Smith family.  Mr. Smith occupies the frame by himself, the three women, Mrs. Smith (Mary Astor) and Esther and Rose are grouped together, the two girls staunchly standing on either side of their seated mother.  Grandpa, the two younger sisters and Katie are on the other side of the table, and are not involved in the decision.

Mr. Smith is a product of his age.  He has a chance to move ahead in his law firm, to better his family's situation.  Rose retorts, "Rich people have houses. People like us live in flats, hundreds of flats in one building."  Tootie has her own take, "I'd rather be poor if we could only stay here. I'd rather go with the orphalins at the orphalins home."  While Mr. Smith loves his family he sees their happiness linked to his ability to make more money.  His  eventual reversal not to uproot his family results not from the arguments against the move but rather from Tootie's (Margaret O'Brien) destruction of her snow people, the substitutes for her once happy family.  Mr. Smith's epiphany is shot just like that--a sudden revelation that family is more important than job.  He has just walked through the house now with walls bare and barrels crates ready for moving.  Tootie has just destroyed her snow people and he has dropped into an armchair to have a quite smoke.  He strikes a match, hesitates, gripped by some force, some feeling he doesn't quite understand.  Just as the match starts to burn his finger, it comes to him.  He extinguished the match, gets up and calls his wife.  He has changed his mind.  Disaster is avoided.  This brief scene is nearly devoid of color, the match the only visible source of light, but in reality there is a small lamp in the room, which he quickly turns to full strength.  I'd like to think the glow that illumes Mr. Smith's left side is the mellow and comforting light that seems always to have permeated the Smith's house until his decision to move, and now is rekindled.

Of course the heart of Meet Me in St. Louis is its music, arguably the first Hollywood musical to integrate music and song with story.  In the first few minutes of the film young Agnes Smith (Joan Carroll) begins singing the title song as she walks through the house and up the stairs, encountering her grandfather who takes up the tune.  We are immediately aware that music plays a significant part in the Smith household, binding the family together through minor and major crises.  Esther's singing of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" propels Tootie to destroy her snow people, which in turn causes Mr. Smith to reverse his decision to leave St. Louis; Mr. and Mrs. Smith's duet "You and I" brings the family back to the living room after they'd stormed out as a protest to their moving to New York.  Meet Me in St. Louis continually underlines with music the implicit message that family is the constant source of strength, especially in times of change.  Progress need not take place only in New York and Chicago and the east, but also in smaller towns and cities such as St. Louis.  Families need not give up their core values which can sustain them throughout any upheaval.  This ideal of family unity would help those returning from war, and will stand the country in good stead in the future.

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