Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Specialty Box Office: 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck' Primes HBO Pump, Russell Crowe's 'Water Diviner' Is Spotty Specialty Box Office: 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck' Primes HBO Pump, Russell Crowe's 'Water Diviner' Is Spotty Friday Box Office: 'Adaline' Bumps 'Furious' for a Day; 'Kurt Cobain' Big in 3 Theaters Friday Box Office: 'Adaline' Bumps 'Furious' for a Day; 'Kurt Cobain' Big in 3 Theaters Remembering Film Critic Richard Corliss (1944-2015) Remembering Film Critic Richard Corliss (1944-2015) Cannes: Denis Villeneuve Says Drug War Film 'Sicario' Is "Very Dark" and "Quite Violent" Cannes: Denis Villeneuve Says Drug War Film 'Sicario' Is "Very Dark" and "Quite Violent" How Do You Solve a Problem Like Erika? Universal Hires Husband to Write 'Fifty Shades Darker' How Do You Solve a Problem Like Erika? Universal Hires Husband to Write 'Fifty Shades Darker' 'Age of Ultron' Director Joss Whedon on Self-Doubt and Why It's His 'Rio Bravo' 'Age of Ultron' Director Joss Whedon on Self-Doubt and Why It's His 'Rio Bravo' Watch: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette and Amy Schumer Hilariously Slam Hollywood Sexism (NSFW) Watch: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette and Amy Schumer Hilariously Slam Hollywood Sexism (NSFW) CinemaCon: How Tom Cruise Stole the Paramount Show CinemaCon: How Tom Cruise Stole the Paramount Show Meet the Director of 'Tangerines,' the 2015 Dark Horse Oscar Nominee You Missed (Exclusive Video) Meet the Director of 'Tangerines,' the 2015 Dark Horse Oscar Nominee You Missed (Exclusive Video) LA Film Fest Unveils Horror Slate, More World Premieres, Zoe Cassavetes Film LA Film Fest Unveils Horror Slate, More World Premieres, Zoe Cassavetes Film Cannes: Directors' Fortnight Lines Up Vet Auteurs and American Indies Cannes: Directors' Fortnight Lines Up Vet Auteurs and American Indies Joe Wright's 'Pan' Gets Fall Release Date: Good News or Bad News? Joe Wright's 'Pan' Gets Fall Release Date: Good News or Bad News? Seeing Ryan Gosling's 'Lost River' Through Composer Johnny Jewel's Eyes (STREAM SOUNDTRACK) Seeing Ryan Gosling's 'Lost River' Through Composer Johnny Jewel's Eyes (STREAM SOUNDTRACK) 3 Women Genre Directors Get SF Film Society Fellowships 3 Women Genre Directors Get SF Film Society Fellowships Here's Why Jon Stewart Quit 'The Daily Show' Here's Why Jon Stewart Quit 'The Daily Show' Watch: From Tarantino to Cronenberg, Great Directors Talk the Art and Anxiety of Filmmaking Watch: From Tarantino to Cronenberg, Great Directors Talk the Art and Anxiety of Filmmaking Specialty Box Office: 'True Story' and 'Child 44' Flop as 'Ex Machina' Lures Audiences Specialty Box Office: 'True Story' and 'Child 44' Flop as 'Ex Machina' Lures Audiences 10 Films Booed at Cannes That Every Cinephile Should See 10 Films Booed at Cannes That Every Cinephile Should See 5 Things You Didn't Know About Lars von Trier, Who's Going Back to Work 5 Things You Didn't Know About Lars von Trier, Who's Going Back to Work 7 Things to Learn from 'Mad Men' Creator Matthew Weiner About Compelling Storytelling (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO) 7 Things to Learn from 'Mad Men' Creator Matthew Weiner About Compelling Storytelling (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO)

Now and Then: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! December 24, 2012 at 2:51PM

Early in "Meet Me in St. Louis," Esther Smith (Judy Garland) pines for the boy next door. Lent silky grace by Garland's perfect warble, Esther describes love — and, by extension, Vincente Minnelli's 1944 classic. "I want it to be something strange and wonderful," she says. "Something I'll always remember."
0
Judy Garland in "Meet Me in St. Louis"
Judy Garland in "Meet Me in St. Louis"

Early in "Meet Me in St. Louis," Esther Smith (Judy Garland) pines for the boy next door. Lent silky grace by Garland's perfect warble, Esther describes love — and, by extension, Vincente Minnelli's 1944 classic. "I want it to be something strange and wonderful," she says. "Something I'll always remember." (See our poll of the best movie musicals here.)

Set in the high times of Gilded Age prosperity, the seasons marching relentlessly forward, "Meet Me in St. Louis" is just that. Its images are stabs of memory as much as they are blooms of color or bursts of song. The rich, swooning palette — the scarlet flush of Grandpa's fez, the soft-focus pink of roses and young cheeks — mixes with a darker, more macabre streak. Minnelli balances the film's dueling emotions effortlessly, from Tootie telling a carriage driver that her doll suffers from four fatal diseases, to Rose, Lon, and Esther singing "Skip to My Lou" as part of a rousing, joyous square dance in the front hall. It is a complex and lively picture, and I'm not alone in my praise. This year, like me, Anne Thompson ranked "Meet Me in St. Louis" as the ninth-best film ever made, and the best musical.

In the late summer of 1903, the Smiths bottle ketchup, cool down in the swimming hole, and await marriage proposals, the film's music matching the progress of the story perfectly. Garland's propulsive charm is on full display in "The Trolley Song," its zinging heartstrings exploding with woozy infatuation as the number reaches its climax. "With his hand holding mine," she croons, "To the end of the line!" Already, though, dimmer portents compete for space with hope's baubles. Lon is heading to Princeton, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, as summer becomes autumn, sing of steadiness in the face of "dark and fair weather."

Indeed, perhaps more than any other Hollywood musical, Minnelli's vision — produced in the depths of wartime — reserves space for life's struggles, its forays into the minor key. On Halloween, Tootie and Agnes anxiously join the other children in the street, throwing shreds of abandoned furniture onto an anarchic bonfire. With a scream in the night, the family comes running, suddenly terrified that not all the promises will be kept. More bad news is in the offing. They're to leave St. Louis for New York on the first of the year, following Father into a kind of exile. In her only flash of anger, Mother castigates him for his nonchalance: "You're being very calm about the way you pack us off, lock, stock, and barrel," she says.

Maybe this delicate measure of sorrow amid the shine is what makes the film's climactic Christmas so powerful, far more resonant than the reams and reams of holiday celluloid that avoid the more complicated truths about life in a family. Happiness, the thing itself, remains a moving target, glimpsed in Esther and Grandpa's swirling dance at the Christmas ball. Even when the boy next door finally proposes, Esther's response is bittersweet. She asks him to keep it secret for a night, as though their silence might comprise a protective charm. If she doesn't tell, she doesn't have to choose between romantic and familial love, between her future and her past, not just yet, anyway.

Garland's iconic song, then, registers as a very particular kind of heartbreak, still warm with regret. Crimson-clad, silvery hood glinting in the moonlight, Esther joins Tootie at the windowsill and refuses to ignore the truth of their predicament. Even with its faint hope that the next year will bring an end to their troubles, the song is full of the conditional tense, struggling out of the dark:

Someday soon, we all will be together


If the Fates allow 


Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow


So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Returning to it every year, Garland's song, like Minnelli's film, is a refreshing burst of invention — a reminder that whatever I may have faced in the last year, I will, like the Smiths, muddle through somehow. On the other side of "Meet Me in St. Louis" is the World's Fair, its sparkling illumination shedding light where there was shadow. As Mother says, "There's never been anything like it in the whole world." And she's right.

This article is related to: Now and Then, Reviews, DVD and VOD, Headliners, Genres, Musical, Classics, Directors


E-Mail Updates