Sweetly Standing in Careless Grace

Warner Home Video has just released that most serenely secular of holiday films, Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 “Meet Me in St. Louis,” in a Blu-ray edition that comes as close as contemporary technology will allow to majesty of Minnelli’s palette. But any excuse is a good one to return to this beautiful and profound film, poised between hope for the future and regret for the past, as moving an evocation of impermanence as anything the cinema has offered us. Here’s my review in the New York Times.

181 comments to Sweetly Standing in Careless Grace

  • Of the films by King I’ve seen, charming is not the word that most readily springs to mind in describing them. But I suppose that he made different films in different styles, or rather with different moods. Of the later films I really like LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING. (Speaking of William Holden, I was just told the other day about the William Holden Wildlife Foundation, working to support wildlife conservation and education in Kenya.)

    Is the general consensus of the commentators on this blog that MARGIE is King’s best film? Is there a general consensus?

    One film of King I’m particularly interested in watching is RAMONA (1936).

    When I wrote about Henry Hathaway earlier this year I said that it would be interesting to compare him with King, as two Foxes, studio style vs. directorial style. That work remains to be done. Alas, I have tentatively decided that my next big research project, after Hasse Ekman, will be Alberto Cavalcanti so we’ll see how much King I’ve got time for (and whether I can get some funding for the Cavalcanti project!)

  • David Cohen

    MARGIE certainly had its charms, though I can understand why it never became a “holiday classic.” I can’t imagine watching it with my 10-year-old daughter without having to explain that any teacher behaving today the way he did in certain scenes would most likely end up in jail.

  • mark gross

    Blake, I apologize if I inadvertently picked up on “slop” & turned it into a mini thread. I too was first introduced to so many American films by Sarris’ book, and I will always have a great deal of affection for his writing because of this.

    On the other hand, I think Sarris was a bit unfair to Henry King by comparing him directly to John Ford. Because it was Christmas, I tried to be nice and neglected to mention all the Henry King films I don’t like. But I was very happy to read your spirited defense.

    King is most definitely a visual stylist, but often those images do not illuminate the subject matter, especially when Zanuck is producing. Take WILSON & A BELL FOR ADANO for example. King’s images and the pacing that is linked to those images are arresting and memorable, although they don’t necessarily have anything to do with the subject matter, and in fact, the films are deeply flawed. When King’s style and the subject comes together, as in WAIT TIL THE SUN SHINES NELLIE or THE GUNFIGHTER, the film are much more satisfying. Nonetheless, watching a series of King’s films in succession, as I did at MOMA in the 70′s can be quite an experience, and even the movies that are not completely successful somehow take possession of a viewer visually.

    King had an unique way of using the camera, and though that may not make him a great director, he is certainly a master whose works should be seen and cherished. On the other hand, a lot of the individual films don’t really hold up as artistic statements for me, although much of the style and the images in those films remain in my mind, and has made my years of watching film richer.

    I also agree with you about many of the ‘scope films, especially THE BRAVADOS, although I find THE SUN ALSO RISES difficult to watch. (I’m afraid the shots in THE SUN ALSO RISES would qualify for me, to use Barry’s phrase, as “personal slop.”)

    THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO, on the other hand, is beautifully directed, and a lot of it is very moving, but the change of the ending makes everything, in my opinion, ridiculous. Of course, that’s Zanuck again, not King. (I also happen to think it’s one of Hemingway’s best stories, but I see the film & short story as two completely separate works.) Still, King’s direction imbues the images with a sense of impending tragedy and waste, which is made irrelevant for me by the happy ending, so it’s hard for me to take the film seriously.

    However, Benny Carter can be seen playing the saxophone in the Paris scenes from THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO. I believe Benny Carter replaced Don Redman (who Barry referenced in an earlier post) in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra as both reedman and arranger. So you see, everything is connected.

  • Blake and Junko, I’ll just have to concede that you are much more sensitive to King’s virtues than I am. I think he was at his best in the 20s and early 30s, with rustic/rural material like “Tol’able David,” “The Seventh Day,” “Winning of Barbara Worth,” “Lightnin’,” “State Fair,” “Way Down East,” and “One More Spring,” which turns Central Park into a highly Kingian Arcadia. But by the time he becomes Fox’s official prestige director in the late 30s, his mise-en-scene begins to mummify, and films like “Jesse James” (much inferior in visual invention to the Fritz Lang sequel), “Chad Hanna” (a subject King would have knocked out of the park a few years earlier), “The Black Swan,” “Wilson,” etc., strike me as almost completely inert. It’s interesting to compare King to Frank Borzage — both began as actors who graduated to direction in the late teens; both specialized in melodramas and rural comedies at Fox; both had excellent rapport with Will Rogers, and both made versions of “Seventh Heaven” and “Liliom” (King’s as the musical “Carousel”). But as Borzage continued his lonely road as an artist, King became increasingly corporate and featureless; perhaps “Margie” roused him from his torpor because the setting and subject took him back to his glory days. Even with Leon Shamroy at his side (his regular cinematographer from the late 30s on), King seems to become even blander with the advent of ‘scope: his shots are either timidly center-framed or, when he feels the need to acknowledge the wide screen format, flatly clotheslined two-shots, with the actors staring at each other from the far sides of the frame in perfect, unwavering profile, as if they were Presidents posing for the US Mint.

    In any case, there are several more King titles from the 30s that would seem to be worth seeing, should only Rupert Murdoch allow us to do so: “The Woman in Room 13,” “I Loved You Wednesday” (co-directed with William Cameron Menzies), “Merely Mary Ann” (Gaynor and Farrell in a Jules Furthman script), “The Country Doctor” (in which Jean Hersholt delivers the Dionne Quintuplets!). “Marie Galante” is another engaging (if atypical) King film from that period (international intrigue along the Panama Canal) that has slipped into the public domain and is available from the usual sources.

  • Blake Lucas

    Mark, no apology necessary from you for referencing my comment on that “slop” line in Sarris, because I did write it and you read it when you saw it posted–I decided to delete within maybe 5-10 minutes. (by the way, Mark, thanks for your kind comments re my DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD piece and also to Jbryant and to him for properly linking it).

    I don’t agree with you about the end of THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO–since as you acknowledge yourself, the movie and the story are different works, why not take it on its own terms? If you do, Harry’s wound and infection can be taken metaphorically as a sickness caused by his selfish attitudes that have wound up making him deeply unhappy and unfulfilled–when he fully addresses them by coming to terms with what is in the flashbacks (especially about Cynthia) and finally responds to Helen the way he does, he can be cured of this sickness and live. It’s not about a happy ending–it’s about spiritual renewal. Of course, this is not what Hemingway’s story was about–it was about actual death. But it’s spiritual renewal that King would be interested in, so it’s not fair to say this ending is Zanuck’s; it has the whole force of King’s sensibility behind it. And for me it is one thing that makes for a more mature work in this instance than Hemingway created.

    I hope to see more early King than I have–I have seen a fair number of his silents and 30s films as available and have generally liked them (especially STATE FAIR). Of course, before I meant ONE MORE SPRING–when you haven’t seen a movie the title might not stay properly in mind. The difference I have with Dave here is that I find him consistent through all phases, and never the slave of Zanuck–those later films seem to me to have his interests in them very consistently, with perhaps some exceptions (I would rather have seen Raoul Walsh on THE BLACK SWAN, for example–King does lack elan for that kind of movie). And Dave, short of us sitting there and watching them all frame by frame and scene by scene, I don’t know how I could argue that you are mischaracterizing his later style, or at least characterizing it too simply. I would be interested in how you view my naming George Stevens as a cross reference–in Stevens I can actually feel him behind the camera overdeliberating everything at the expense of undermining the beauty even of some of the images he himself creates. In his later films, it seems like he almost never can just let it be.

    In any event, my main point is this–it’s right to argue over King’s style, or anyone else’s, but I’m just arguing that King’s is a personal style and like him or not, he never became some hack. It seems very unfair to characterize him in some way as “Zanuck’s boy”–it’s more accurate to say that because Zanuck did like and value him, King had a certain creative power at Fox and was able to maintain it. Does the MARGIE story I related support that King was some kind of yes man?–he told Zanuck straight out that Zanuck did not know what he had in that script and asked to direct it and apparently Zanuck respected him enough to just let him do it and not say “No, Henry, I need you to work on a big picture, not this one.”

  • Barry Putterman

    As Mark mentioned, we in New York got a heaping helping of Henry King in the late 70s when MoMA did an almost complete series of his (extent) films, seemingly in lieu of a Fox studio series. And that made a certain amount of sense since King pretty much was to the Fox studio in the 30 through the 50s what Curtiz was to Warners. (And Fredrik, I suppose that in this analogy Hathaway would be to Fox what Walsh was to Warners). And yes, seeing them all one after another, day after day, was an experience; but not necessarily the one I would have opted for at that time.

    I pretty much line up with Dave in finding the 20s and 30s films preferable to his later work. But mostly I think that it is a case much like his fellow ponderer George Stevens where the larger the subject matter became, the smaller the reward was artistically. Which is to say that while I’ll stand by MARGIE whatever the circumstance, it might seem even better if you have just sat through THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, WILSON and A BELL FOR ADANO.

    One of the early 30s films which doesn’t seem to have turned up anywhere outside of that MoMA series is OVER THE HILL, an extremely heartfelt and rather moving adaptation of a then old property about the mother of three grown children facing having to go to the poorhouse. And while it might not stand in complexity to MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW, it certainly is a film which should be much more widely available.

    Personally, I don’t think that Sarris was off the mark in comparing King to Ford. Their projects at Fox run somewhat parallel and they share a somewhat similar approach to them. OVER THE HILL for instance would make an interesting companion piece to PILGRIMAGE.

    But for all of the comparisons between King and other directors I have already made here, to me the contemporary whose style, sensibility and subject matter he most resembles is Clarence Brown.

  • Barry Putterman

    Oh, and Blake, I’ll contact you tomorrow about getting you a DVD of ONE MORE SPRING.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Not that anyone was getting his hopes up, but bad news about Fox Movie Channel – come January 1, rather than digging into the vaults, they are starting to show, for the first time, non-Fox titles – such recent and readily available items such as The Iron Man (Paramount), Beloved and The Horse Whisperer (Disney).

    TCM seems to be picking up the odd Fox vault film these days (at least two next month, although one seems to be a scope film in p/s).

  • mark gross

    Barry, I’d completely forgotten about OVER THE HILL. Thanks for reminding me. I also think Clarence Brown is a very interesting comparison to Henry King. Although Ford and King directed similar material at Fox in the early 30′s, for me their handling of this material is completely different. I think one can simply compare how Will Rogers is directed in STEAMBOAT ROUND THE BEND or JUDGE PRIEST & STATE FAIR to see the difference. I think King is a much more pastoral director than Ford, beginning with a sense of image, and only then suggesting the theme through a slowly evolving style, whereas Ford places the theme as expressed by Rogers’ persona against the landscape (with King, I feel it is often the reverse) and works from there.

    Blake, I’m not suggesting that Henry King was Zanuck’s yes man. Rather, Zanuck has a history of giving a director carte blanche, and then re-shooting and changing elements of the film, especially the ending. What I was attempting to say was that WILSON & A BELL FOR ADANO (among others) may have been much more consistent stylistically before Zanuck got his hands on the film in post-production.

    I also found your argument about the ending of SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO very compelling. I’m not sure if I agree, because for me, those images are imbued with a sense of loss. But I’ll have to watch the film again.

    Basically, I agree with Dave (& Barry) about King’s work –that the films are much stronger in the 20′s & 30′s. And yet, watching those movies in succession at MOMA, the style and the images held me even though I didn’t necessarily think the film was successful. So I would not say that King became a corporate director under Zanuck, for I feel many of those late films have a very consistent visual style which I find very beautiful and compelling.

    On the other hand, I can’t really defend the films as consistent artistic statements, for King’s style in many of those Zanuck produced films doesn’t really connect in any way to the themes. In fact, many of those films are deeply flawed. Nonetheless, those films work for me as personal statements visually, even if they don’t work as consistent films. As you can see, I’m on the fence here, but I really enjoyed watching all those Henry King films, even from the 40′s & 50′s, apparently much more than Barry did. I can’t really make any kind of a consistent argument, but I did love watching those films.

  • As a freshman at Northwestern I had a class in 20th century American literature with Alfred Appel, Jr. (of THE ANNOTATED LOLITA). He said that following service in Korea he made his way to Paris, where one night he went to see THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO. But he found it difficult to enjoy, as behind him two men were chuckling and laughing at the movie. Fed up, he went to shush them–to find that the offenders were none other than Ernest Hemingway and Gary Cooper. Which shut him up.

  • Alex

    Barry,

    Saying that McCarey is, generally speaking, best doing genre pieces is not a dismissal. Confusing McCarey’s worst work with his best is more damaging to a serious regard for McCarey than recognizing that GOOD SAM as failured, inferior McCarey (albeit better for me than it appears to have been for most). I hardly added kische to my characterization of McCarey’s treatment of straight — comedy free– romance because i thought it would help sell my view of McCarey to so relatively unqualified a McCarey fan as you.

  • Robert Garrick

    Alfred Appel, Jr.’s articles in “Film Comment” were a huge influence on me back in the 1970s, as was his book “Nabokov’s Dark Cinema,” which came out of those articles. I had some connections to him at Northwestern and always wanted to meet him, but never got the chance.

    I watched “Margie” again a few hours ago, and it’s winning me over. It doesn’t feel like a Henry King film, which I believe is a compliment. It starts awkwardly, but the outdoor scenes at the skating rink are lovely and so are the waltzing scenes at the prom. Minnelli gets a lot of credit for “dancing with the camera” in films like “Madame Bovary,” but there’s some of that in “Margie,” too, in those scenes.

    There’s also something magical about Margie’s room, as some here have noted. With its low, angled ceiling and with Charles Clarke’s silhouette photography, there is an almost religious aspect to the scenes played there.

    The film is (not even remotely) comparable to “Meet Me in St. Louis” overall; the characters and storyline aren’t as compelling. But “Margie” is a very nice film and I’m grateful to the people here who alerted me to it. I’ve particularly enjoyed Blake Lucas’s comments in this thread and also at the TCM website.

  • Robert Garrick

    Tom Brueggemann, I’m sure you noticed that it was TCM, not the Fox Movie Channel, that showed Fox’s “Margie” on Christmas Eve.

    When you see a Fox title on Turner, it generally means that it has fallen into the public domain. That’s what happened with “Margie,” and that’s why TCM was able to show it for the first time.

    As long as the Fox Movie Channel continues to show things in the correct aspect ratio and without commercials, I’ll be content. Last year we lost the IFC, and I’m still mourning AMC from over a decade ago.

  • Blake Lucas

    Hey, Robert G., while saying thanks could I ask “Where at the TCM website?” I’ve never contributed anything there, so I’d be interested to know to what you are referring.

    It’s hard to hear MARGIE has fallen into the public domain. How was the copy? (I recorded it but haven’t watched it)–I saw an original Technicolor nitrate the first three times and I’m sure it had a good effect on my high opinion of it (Perhaps that’s true of those who saw it at MOMA that time as well). The second of these times it was part of a cinematography series and Charles Clarke came and talked about it to a highly appreciative crowd.

    Can Fox still put out their own DVD from original materials as they did with SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO (why they let that Peck/Hayward/Gardner starrer fall into PD is a real mystery)?

    By the way, I’ve heard that Fox channel will now be commercials in at night but not during the daytime when they usually show more of the older movies. But isn’t that just the beginning? It seems like the way of IFC and AMC can’t be too far away there.

  • mark gross

    Thanks Robert & Blake for your informed and enthusiastic words about MARGIE and helping me remember. I don’t have cable, so I can’t watch TCM. And yes, it was a revelation seeing MARGIE in a Technicolor nitrate print back at MOMA in the 70′s, especially, as Robert notes, the bedroom scenes with a quality of shimmering light and silhouettes that do contain aspects of the spiritual, and also the skating rink scenes, where the camera does appear to be dancing.

    Speaking of Charles Clarke, I watched CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE last night, and many of those effects, especially silhouettes of figures in dawn light, are in that film as well. I also like the way the film is edited. It’s like moving through a 17th Century painting by someone like Guercino, with all these shadows and beautiful light. Of course, King’s style is so modulated that even the action scenes appear to be part of the build up to a climax which never actually arrives. But it is a gorgeous looking film, with a very sensitive performance by Tyrone Power.

    When I watch a film like that, which in spite of the corporate nature of the enterprise, is very sensitively directed in a more or less pastoral visual style, I think that King is grossly underrated as a director. There’s simply something about the way the camera lingers on details that I find very moving, if you like an almost “spiritual” sense of possible personal transformation (which Blake mentioned in reference to KILIMANJARO).

  • mark gross

    By the way, I like the way Henry King uses Cinemascope. I find the composition very painterly, both in the use of light and also the manner in which the figures are balanced in the frame, (which makes me think about the painter Caillebotte)especially the scenes in the carriage between Ava Gardner & Tyrone Power from THE SUN ALSO RISES (though I do find the way the ending of the book has been changed to take on a religious meaning rather distasteful…Sorry, Blake, but I’m a big fan of the book.)

  • Robert Garrick

    Blake, my apologies for failing to remember where I saw your remarks. I was looking at the TCM website (which has comments on “Margie”) and got it mixed up with a site called “Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings,” where I saw your long comments on the film. Anyone interested in “Margie” should take a look.

    TCM’s copy of the film had nice colors, but it seemed fuzzy–ever-so-slightly out of focus.

    I’m pretty sure Fox could still put together a high-quality DVD if it wanted to. It might have to buy up some rights first, but since the film does seem to have fallen into the public domain all it would take is a great print and some extra material.

    A few more quick comments on the film. First, “Margie” (like “Meet Me in St. Louis”) does an exemplary job of using music throughout the film to enhance the scenes. “Meet Me in St. Louis” also allows the characters to sing–it’s a real musical while “Margie” is not–but “Margie” has as much music in it as “Meet Me in St. Louis” and it’s well used.

    Regarding the photography: It’s interesting to compare Clarke’s photography in “Margie” with the cinematography in another 1940s film set in the 1920s at a school: “Good News.” Charles Schoenbaum shot “Good News,” and it’s nothing but bright birthday cake colors from start to finish. Most of the MGM musicals (including great ones like “Singin’ in the Rain”) looked like that, and the style fit their relentlessly cheerful nature. But the Minnelli musicals at MGM did not look like that, and neither did “Margie.” They were well-served by their darker, more textured look.

    Alan Young is third-billed in “Margie.” It’s his first film, and he’s still alive. He’s a pretty annoying presence in “Margie.” These days he’s much better known for his work in “Mister Ed,” and the romantic lead in “Margie,” Glenn Langan, is better known as “The Amazing Colossal Man.” I thought he was fine in “Margie.”

  • Barry Putterman

    Robert, what exactly is the source of this information that Fox films being shown on Turner have fallen into the public domain?

  • Robert Garrick

    Barry, it’s just my reasoning and of course I could be wrong. But “Margie” does appear to be in the public domain as a quick search will verify. (There are various DVD versions of the film available.)

    My understanding is that the Fox Movie Channel was created as a showcase for pre-1990 films to which Fox holds the rights. Obviously, once a film falls into the public domain anyone can show it.

  • Barry Putterman

    Robert, I think that we ought to be a little more cautious about this. I have hundreds of titles that I’ve bought bootleg which are not out on commercial DVD, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that any of them are public domain. It just means that the studio which holds the rights is indifferent.

    And frankly, indifference; thy name is Fox. Their movie channel notoriously plays only a small percentage of the titles to which they hold the rights, making life miserable for us hearty knuckleheads who would actually like to see these films.

    It could be that Turner, in its neverending search for new titles to play, has struck a deal with the can’t-be-bothered Fox people, who are tossing them whatever prints that they first stumble onto in the vault.

    In any event, this is a question which we might want to submit to the wisdom of Robert Osborne.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    MARGIE didn’t look fuzzy at all on my screen. Of course it isn’t blu-ray quality but it definitely didn’t look like most public domain prints do. Is MARGIE really pd? I join Barry in asking if all Fox films shoun on TCM are in public domain and where the information comes from.

  • Robert Garrick

    Jean-Pierre, see my post above. Everything Barry said is correct, but the public domain story is impossible to resolve definitively without a trip to the copyright office. There is at least one website selling “public domain titles” in DVD form that is selling “Margie.” But it’s possible, as Barry notes, that this company is notoriously and openly breaking the law, and that the rights to “Margie” are still locked up by Fox. I doubt it, though.

    My archivist friends in academia tell me that far more films are public domain than most people realize, or than the studios let on.

    Regarding TCM’s copy of “Margie”–it was sharp as could be in the opening credits, but some of the scenes in the library, about ten or fifteen minutes into the film, almost looked like a colored-in lobby card. Regardless of whether a film is public domain (and many films shown on TCM are public domain), I’d expect TCM to show a good copy.

  • David Cohen

    I ask this in all seriousness: What would be the point of a major studio allowing a film to fall into the public domain? (Does it cost much to renew a copyright?) And I ask that knowing Fox rarely shows these old films – it doesn’t seem in the nature of corporations to just throw away potential revenue, however limited it might be.

  • Robert Garrick

    David–Good question, but remember that movie studios have historically thrown away many of their old negatives and prints, or dumped them into the Pacific Ocean, or allowed them to vanish in fires.

    They have done this intentionally “to save storage space,” or they’ve done it via negligence, as with the fires. And sometimes they have done it through sheer spite, as with the destruction of “It’s All True” and the full Welles copy of “Magnificent Ambersons,” which David O. Selznick pleaded with RKO to save.

  • David Cohen

    I know it used to be a common occurrence. But once we got to the VCR/DVD/Blu-Ray/streaming era, and the era of “57 channels and nothing on,” I would have thought these companies would have said, “Hey, let’s not throw away potential revenue anymore.” That may be naive of me.

  • Barry Putterman

    David, unfortunately, for the most part, the corporate thinking is that the potential revenue is piddling in relation to the time and money it would take to bring these films to the marketplace.

    Nevertheless, I would once again caution against assuming anything is public domain without concrete evidence that such is the case.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    David, it’s not naive at all, actually it makes perfect sense. However the film studios focus their interest on current or very recent movies, mostly because that’s where the money is. The market for fifty year-old or more movies, is so modest, with very few exceptions, that the studios who own them (assuming they know they do)just don’t bother. How many people would care about MARGIE or even know about its existence? I would suspect a few hundreds at most. How many watched it on TCM, although TCM is largely a film buff channel?

    Robert: I wouldn’t say that TCM showed a bad, or even poor, copy of MARGIE. Very few people would have complained about it, say, twenty years ago, but we’ve all become so very demanding about print quality. Now that MEET ME IN ST LOUIS has been refurbished in glorious blu-ray some people will pooh-pooh even the excellent DVD that MGM put out a few years ago. Of course I’d be delighted if Criterion came out with a brand-new restored print of MARGIE, but aren’t we sometimes spoiling our pleasure with that obsessive demand for ever better prints?

  • David Cohen

    That’s why I was curious of the cost – and, if, for instance, if a company can file a bulk application for all its films from a certain year. A company that haphazardly throws away things it owns is looked down upon, unless it costs too much to retain them.

  • Robert Cashill

    What’s needed is for Fox to follow in the footsteps of WB, Sony, MGM, Universal, and (soon) Lionsgate and begin a manufacturing-on-demand (MOD) program to properly release some of these gems/curiousities from its vaults.

  • mark gross

    Hi. Inspired by Blake’s essay on DRIVE A CROOKED MILE, I just went to TCM’s website to pre-order the FILM NOIR III collection & discovered that a “completely restored & remastered” double bill of DISHONORED & SHANGHAI EXPRESS will be released on Feb 6th as part of the TCM/Universal Vault series, available only (at least for now) on TCM’s website.

  • Inspired by Dave Kehr’s review and this chain I ordered a copy of the MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS blu-ray digibook to my dvd store in Helsinki. The copies (they ordered several at once) arrived today, one was playing on the monitor at the store when I arrived, and I just finished watching the movie and some of the extras. At times the Technicolor is too rich and the family scenes too cute to my taste, but it is still a deeply moving and sometimes disturbing movie with memorable topical undercurrents in the nostalgic account of life over a hundred years ago.