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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

  • jbryant

    Turner Classics showed this in HD the other night and it looked incredible. Can only imagine how great the Blu looks.

    Missed a chance a few years ago to see this on the big screen at the Arclight Hollywood, with Irving Brecher doing a Q&A. But at least I got to meet Margaret O’Brien briefly in 2010 and tell her how much I loved the film and her performance.

  • Patrick

    “With its great sheets of color and capacity for careful gradation, the Technicolor of the 1940s yielded a robust saturation and range of tones that, though frequently imitated, have never been precisely duplicated.”

    Quite so; why is it that 40s Technicolor was much more saturated than 50s or 60s?

    “Meet Me in St. Louis” is often cited as the first movie musical to integrate its songs into a story line; the claim may be debatable…”

    CABIN IN THE SKY, Minnelli’s first film, is an obvious counterexample, if I recall correctly.

  • Pat Palmer

    There’s a great feature on the 2004 dvd where you can watch the movie with just the music track. In the scene where they are carrying Tootie up the steps after her Halloween streetcar mishap, the music is, stranger than strange, identical to part of the music from ‘PSYCHO’! The composing credits are rather ambiguous, was Bernard Hermann perhaps a young apprentice composer working on ‘St. Louis’? Very curious. Any thoughts on this?

    Thanks for such a loving revue on just about my favorite movie.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    The music in the section of the Halloween sequence mentioned by Pat is in perfect unison with the mood of the piece, to me one of the most upsetting in Minnelli’s career (one should always be prepared to encounter a downbeat or creepily dramatic moment in any of his comedies; THE LONG LONG TRAILER, to mention only one other film, is terrifying almost from beginning to end). Halloween is the perfect occasion for Tootie’s morbid imagination to go over the top, and frankly, I have a hard time finding her as cute and amusing as everybody does. It’s interesting to see how lightly the entire family takes the incident of the streetcar and Tootie’s hysterical accusation that John Truett tried to kill her. I bet most modern parents would be quite concerned, but in 1903 they just find the whole thing funny and inconsequential.

    Of course this Halloween is doubly distanced by the fact that it is a Minnelli-made event and one set a century ago from us (not quite half a century for the forties moviegoers). I guess it’s been many decades since kids have thrown flour in people’s faces when going trick-or-treating. I must say I have always felt sorry for Mr. Braukoff (“the Braukoff” as Tootsie and the other kids call him), not only for the flour but for Tootie’s claim that he tortures and kills cats and beats his wife with a hot poker — another obvious product of her fertile imagination, clearly taken with more than a grain of salt by the family. Then again Mr. Braukoff lives in a Chas Adam-looking house, so who knows?

    The above is not intended as criticism (the film is one of my favorites of all times) and I hope Blake, who wrote a warm praise of the Halloween sequence in the “defining moments of cinema” book, will not take it as such. He wrote quite interestingly that Tootie, after her great act of courage in assaulting the Braukoff, “seems to be an artist waiting to emerge.” Still (if we may have fun imagining the future of movie characters) I would hope that she somewhat subdues her creativity as she grows up (by the way, at the beginning of the film she tells the iceman she is five; O’Brien was seven when the film was made I guess, being born in January 1937).

  • Barry Putterman

    Well, entering into the spirit of imagining the future of movie characters; from my perspective, I’m very glad that that the Smith family is not alarmed at Tootie’s morbid imagination and try to re-direct her to more socially acceptable attitudes. And beyond that, I would hope that her creativity matures rather than subdues as she grows up.

    And, of course, those imaginings take on further depth when we consider that these characters are supposedly based on the members of Sally Benson’s actual family.

    By the way, was it ever specified which of the sisters is supposed to be Sally? And, did she ever indicate what actually did happen to her fellow sisters when they grew up?

  • Blake Lucas

    “I would hope that her creativity matures rather than subdues as she grows up.”

    Me too, and that’s how I imagine it.

    Jean-Pierre, I didn’t think you meant it critically–the sequence can, after all, sustain a lot of musing and a lot of prose. Not all of this has been good (hopefully the view of some ideological critics will not itself become “the living dead” as this movie is watched through eternity)–what you say makes sense, especially if you also allow, as you do that this Halloween is “a Minnelli-made event.”

    Barry, I believe in real life Sally was Tootie, though in the book it is Agnes who has the Halloween adventure. It might be added that the sequence also apparently tapped Minnelli’s own childhood memories of Halloween–he too was from the Midwest–so one more reason among many why it meant so much to him perhaps. Sometimes, biography is interesting.

  • Johan Andreasson

    It sounds right that Sally Benson modeled Tootie on herself as a child, so I don’t think we have to be all that uncertain in which way her artistic talents are heading.

    I can easily imagine Tootie a couple of years ahead a lot like Jo in ”Little Women”, also based on the author and also obsessed with inventing morbid stories.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Barry, the Smith family is a musical-comedy family and as such has no business re-directing a child to more socially acceptable attitudes. There is no preaching, which we can all appreciate.Still they blithely condone Tootie’s lies and her gratuitous vilifying of neighbors, and for some silly reason that bothers me a bit.

  • I’m sorry to bring this back to the purely emotional level, but – am I the only one who wells up at Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in one of the most moving moments in the history of cinema? For that alone this would be one of the most utterly devastating films ever. I can’t see it without tearing up.

  • D. K. Holm

    Interesting that the MGM poster calls St. Louis a “love story with music.”

  • Barry Putterman

    Well yes Jean-Pierre, claiming that the boy next door tried to kill you does in fact go a bit beyond the normal run of childhood fantasies and isn’t something which you would want to encourage as a way of life. And if Tootie went around the neighborhood making such accusations instead of just confiding these things to her family (and good old Chill Wills) I think we would have a situation similar to THE BAD SEED on our hands. So I understand why you and others would be bothered by this.

    But, as you say, this is a musical-comedy family. And maybe that helps them understand this as a stage of development which they assume will lead to better rather than worse things for Tootie’s imagination. Possibly Benson exaggerates the amount of fantasy she was allowed to publicly express as a child. Possibly Minnelli adds visual exaggeration to Benson’s memories. I suspect that they both would like to have been part of musical-comedy families which allowed them free reign to run amuk in their own private worlds. Me too.

    Me too also to Jorge’s sentiments regarding “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Do you join me in cringing at the current renditions of the song which drop the line “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow?”

  • nicolas saada

    Sirk’s HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY GAL was recently published in France on DVD. It’s an entertaining piece of technicolor Americana, a genre in itself (LIFE WITH FATHER, LITTLE WOMEN can be added).
    It’s interesting to think of MEET ME IN ST LOUIS as a possible companion piece to Hitchtcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT.
    The genre shifted also into noir with films such as OUR TOWN, KINGS ROW and even It’s A WONDERFUL LIFE. Heirs of that “Americana meets the gothic” range from Joe Dante’s wonderful GREMLINS to Carpenter’s eerie HALLOWEEN.
    By the way, am I misleading in using the term “Americana” for these films ? Would you call them “small town films” ?
    Interesting to establish a list of “sub americana” films where the “small town” feel is spoled by evil forces.
    Think of THE PHOENIX CITY STORY as a chronicle of Americana : Georges Bailey IS dead !!

  • Blake Lucas

    Me too re Jorge at 12/13, 4:09…

    But it would be interesting if anyone here says “Not me…”

  • “hopefully the view of some ideological critics will not itself become “the living dead” as this movie is watched through eternity”

    I trust you’re including yourself among the ideological critics who do not share the view of the other ideological critics Blake. I certainly wouldn’t want to ignore my own ideology by presenting it as unproblematical. When that happens, then ideology becomes the condition of one’s consciousness because there is nothing to view it against and it’s taken for “life.”

  • Barry, re: the dropped line – oh do I ever cringe. I’d go so far as to think that any attempt at covering the song is blasphemy, were I in a a foul mood. Thanks for the support though from you and Blake on the welling up.

    Nicolas, I’d definitely call “Meet Me in St. Louis” “Americana”, just as I would other pieces as different as “Easter Parade”, “American Graffiti”, “The Last Picture Show”, “The Majestic” or “L. A. Confidential”. Not sure about some of your others – “Our Town”, “It’s a Wonderful Life” certainly, “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Gremlins” only in the context of your possible sub-category of “inverted/subverted Americana” – it’s an interesting spin but it might just be too wide open.

  • “I’d definitely call “Meet Me in St. Louis” “Americana”, just as I would other pieces as different as “Easter Parade”, “American Graffiti”, “The Last Picture Show”, “The Majestic” or “L. A. Confidential”.”

    The inclusion of “L.A. Confidential” as Americana seems curious to me. Why isn’t it in the same category as “Shadow of a Doubt” for example?

  • X,
    I include “L. A. Confidential” because it’s a period piece extremely tied to its period – though it’s certainly not designed as such I feel it trades partly on that romantic nostalgia for the recent past and especially on its period setting (the fifties as a key moment for the American noir/hardboiled thriller or detective film), especially shot at this remove (and something like “the Black Dahlia” would be Americana as well – it’s so quintessentially American as to be automatically identified with Hollywood cinema). Unlike these films that trade on genre and location, “Shadow of a Doubt” was a small town picture, yes, but subversive (in the sense “Blue Velvet” was by showing the underbelly of the town) and not a period piece at the time of its making.

  • Blake Lucas

    x, of course no one is free of ideology and I’m not either. But the ideological critics I refer to always seem to come first from ideology apart from any other considerations and never to consider their own ideology as problematical. And that is why such things as a speculative relationship between MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD are to me “problematical.” But that’s a kind way to speak of one of the more bizarre jumps of critical thought I’ve ever encountered. So I believe your very just comment should go to those who engage in radical ideological critique while claiming purity for themselves.

    The aesthetic/emotional whole of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, like most Minnelli, does support much nuanced interpretation, like Dave’s as regards “impermanence” but you have to start with what’s there in the film.

    Want to get back to this more with more time (meaning more about the whole film), but did want to address your comment. You know, this is a more casual conversation here and that passing remark was intended kind of lightly. I didn’t address that LIVING DEAD theory at all when I wrote about the Halloween sequence in DEFINING MOMENTS–and I wouldn’t in a much longer piece. To so is to dignify it and maybe I shouldn’t have, even if I meant it as a joke.

    And just to add that like Barry and Jorge, I cringe at the changed line in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” To me, the song as it is in the film is the only version I’ve ever truly cared about. It was meant for that scene.

  • “WITH its bleak, film-noir imagery and barely suppressed undertone of suicidal despair, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” has somewhat mysteriously assumed an unshakable position as America’s official holiday film.”

    Not a lot of people actually perceive this, and it’s heartening to know someone does. I don’t think the ending is exactly happy either–Bailey’s been wanting to leave all his life, he’s had a terrifying nightmare, and now he’s been successfully brainwashed, trapped forever inside a Hallmark holiday card. Only bleaker holiday ending I can think of is Eyes Wide Shut.

    Love Meet Me in St. Louis, by the way. Spielberg tried to evoke the Halloween sequence in his ET, but couldn’t quite match Minnelli’s palette–probably lacks the necessary stylization.

  • skelly

    Nicolas – Orson Welles’ THE STRANGER fits in nicely with you list.

  • Barry Putterman

    Noel, it seems to me that it is pretty hard to miss the despair at the core of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Other Capra films climax with similar suicidal impulses (MR. DEEDS, MEET JOHN DOE) and the work it is structured on, Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” is another holiday favorite which isn’t exactly a laugh riot. However, I expect that the point on which you and most of the film’s admirers differ is the interpretation of the ending.

    The matter of our interpretations of songs which originate in stage or screen musicals strikes me as very complicated and endlessly fascinating. For instance, I heard the songs from MY FAIR LADY on the original cast album and saw them performed on television variety shows countless times before I actually saw an actual production of the show. So it isn’t surprising to me that I can still think of them as stand alone popular songs in addition to their meanings within the context of the show.

    On the other hand, I first encountered “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” when I originally saw MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. And, like Blake and Jorge, I find it difficult to consider the song in any other context. But what if I had heard the song over and over again on a Christmas album before actually seeing the film? Would even that extremely powerful sequence in the film then be only one of many possible ways of thinking about the song for me?

    One thing I am certain about however is, that no matter how many valid ways i could come uo with to think about “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” they would ALL include the line “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”

  • jbryant

    Interesting to note that songwriter Hugh Martin (who just died back in March at age 96) changed those lyrics himself at the urging of Frank Sinatra, who thought the song too downbeat for the holidays. He had already lightened it up a bit for the movie after the studio had similar complaints. About ten years ago, Martin, a Seventh-day Adventist, rewrote the song again for a gospel singer, calling it “Have Yourself a Blessed Little Christmas.”

  • Robert Garrick

    It’s interesting that Nicolas mentions “Shadow of a Doubt” as a “possible companion piece” to “Meet Me in St. Louis,” because Sally Benson, whose autobiographical stories from The New Yorker were the basis of the Minnelli film, was one of the screenwriters for “Shadow of a Doubt.”

    Back in the late 1970s, when I was commuting between Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, and before I ever dreamed that I would one day live in St. Louis, I voted this film one of the five best American movies for an AFI poll. (My other choices, for the record, were “Out of the Past,” “Psycho,” “They Were Expendible,” and “Best Years of Their Lives.”)

    5135 Kensington Avenue is a real address, in a once-fashionable and now rundown section of the City of St. Louis. St. Louis unceremoniously bulldozed Sally Benson’s old house in the mid-1990s. It’s a vacant lot today, though there are a number of houses from her era still standing, from which one can imagine what the area would have been like. For most of the last century it was quite a nice neighborhood, but not as grand as the one on the Culver City lot. The houses were spacious, but they were much closer together than they are in the movie.

    I am maybe two miles from 5135 Kensington Avenue as I type this, and I am a half block from Skinker Boulevard. In the film, the trolley boarded by Judy Garland bears the destination “Skinker Heights,” which was the entrance to the fair. My house sits on the site of the fair’s largest exhibit.

    Sally Benson was born in 1897, so she would have been six and seven years old in 1903 and 1904, when the film takes place. That makes her Tootie (“without question” so, according to the book’s dust jacket), and how appropriate that the death-obsessed Tootie would later contribute to “Shadow of a Doubt.”

    Dave Kehr writes beautifully about the film’s sadness in his New York Times piece. With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that in real life, Sally Benson did not get to stay in her beloved home town. She was moved to New York as an adolescent, attended the Horace Mann School, got married at 19, had a daughter, and then got divorced. When she wrote about St. Louis in those vignettes for The New Yorker, I imagine the sense of loss was quite real.

  • Noel: wow. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see “it’s a Wonderful Life” again without thinking of Bailey being trapped in a Hallmark card. Well put. It’s certainly not my idea of a holiday movie.

    Barry, hear hear on the first exposure to songs. “meet Me in St. Louis” is one of the few cases where the song demands the movie and fails up to a point without it.

  • Brad Stevens

    Blake – “such things as a speculative relationship between MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD are to me “problematical.” But that’s a kind way to speak of one of the more bizarre jumps of critical thought I’ve ever encountered.”

    If you find that bizarre, I wonder what you’d think of the claim I make in my Abel Ferrara book: that the Tootie of MEET ME IN ST LOUIS becomes the Thana of MS.45 (whose also kills men during a Halloween celebration).

    But it’s never been clear to me exactly why you object to the idea of a connection between MEET ME IN ST LOUIS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Perhaps your objection is less to this specific example, and more towards Freudian theory in general, since critics who see a connection between Romero’s film and Minnelli’s tend to evoke Freudian notions of the return of the repressed (Tootie’s symbolic murder of a symbolic father becoming the actual murder of an actual father in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD).

  • X, in an extreme example of Lacanian criticism as un-pleasure, Andrew Britton explicitly links “Meet Me in St. Louis” to “Shadow of a Doubt” and, of course, “The Exorcist” as classic bits of Americana dedicated to the suppression of female sexuality — what he charmingly calls “blocking the hole.” The piece, titled “Smith; or The Ambiguities” (poor old Melville gets dragged into it, too) is on exhibit in Joe McElhaney’s stimlumating collection, “Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment.”

  • mark gross

    Hello. I’ve been unable to read, let alone contribute to anything the past few weeks, but seeing as you’re discussing one of my favorite films, I couldn’t help but take the time and comment briefly.

    I’ve always interpreted the words “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” from “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” as not so much referring to the specific plot & character relationships of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS but instead reflecting the sadness of the time in which the film was made: the Second World War, and the fact that so many people from so many families would end up missing on that particular Christmas in 1944 when Minnelli’s film was released. It’s also there in the music, which veers between major and minor keys, expressing to me a bittersweet sense of melancholy, especially in the bridge, to the extent that whenever I hear Sinatra sing the song, the music itself contains those words: “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” in my inner ear, even though they are missing from that particular performance.

  • Barry Putterman

    Possibly not so oddly enough, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is about the despair of possibly having to leave your home town while IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is about the despair of never having been able to leave your home town. As I recall, the source material for IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE actually came from something on a greeting card. On the other hand, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS seems to consciously evoke the look of a greeting card; or at least Currier & Ives. In any event, if Tootie grew up to be Thana of MS. 45, maybe it isn’t the Christmas movie I thought it was.

    It does seem to me that most songs from stage and screen musicals try to both specifically fit the scenes they appear in within their stories and evoke a more universal feeling as well. I don’t think that “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” would have caught on with the public which didn’t see the film had it not tapped into the overall feelings of yearning and loss within the World War II homefront public.

    Another example. When I was young there was a popular recording of “Diane” which I heard all the time on the radio and had no trouble accepting as a regulation song lyric. It wasn’t until many years later that I saw SEVENTH HEAVEN and discovered how specifically the lyrics expressed what was happening at the end of the film.

  • mark gross

    I prefer to think that Tootie grew up to be the character played by Christine Lahti in HOUSEKEEPING, rather than Ms. 45.

  • Gee, I was hoping Tootie grew up to be Ray Eames, then moved to France and became Agnes Varda. In other words, Blake’s suggestion that Tootie is an artist in childhood origin.

  • mark gross

    In all probability, Tootie grew up to be Vincente Minnelli, at least on a symbolic level.

  • mark gross

    To expand ever so slightly on my previous comments, many film directors (Kurosawa & Scorsese, for example) seem to have had isolated and melancholy childhoods. Although I’m not familiar with Minnelli’s biography, the mise-en-scene of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS implies a point of view that resides in Tootie’s consciousness, not so much her verbal exaggeration and blood-thirstiness,but rather a magical sense of transformation, as expressed in the way she is framed and the use of colors and objects around her, especially in the Halloween sequence. It is this sense of transformation as expressed in the way Tootie interacts with the visual plan of Minnelli’s that made me think of the Maiden Aunt in HOUSEKEEPING.

  • Great news from Dave! I’ve somehow never got around ordering this as a dvd from abroad, and it has not – to my knowledge – ever been released in Finland as a VHS or dvd.

    But I did see MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS one time as a young boy – on black and white television! And the memory of that still haunts me, not the musical pieces but the visuals, although I must’ve heard the songs later.

    Wonderful that it’s now on Blu-ray, because musicals really look their best on that medium – unless one can see them in a cinema! So its Minnelli definitely on my wish list, Santa Claus! (Who, of course, comes from Finland and Korvatunturi, as you all know by now.)

  • Alex

    This week’s essay on the great “Meet me in St, Louis” is superb, but hyperbole may sneak into a trope or two.

    Dave K. comes close to declaring “Meet Me”‘s cinematography the best U.S. achievement in three-strip Technicolor ever, but for this honor I’d venture away from this certain masterpiece and it immortal auteur director to lower altitudes (if truly high ones) –to Ray Rennahan’s 3-strip work for “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Blood and Sand.”

    He does proclaim “Meet Me in St. Louis” as , moving an evocation of impermanence as anything the cinema has offered, but the film is almost a hymn to permanence compared to the devolution of Welles’ Ambersons, the proletarianization of Antonio Arcidiacono in “La Terra Trema” and social displacement of Il Principe Fabricio in “Il Gatopardo,” the final failure of Ricci and son’s long day’s bicycle search, the risks to filial wellbeing taken by Barbara Hershey’s South African legal activist in Menges’ “A World Apart” (written up in lightning bolts of insight by Dave 28 years ago)or the whole set of sacrifices to Arletty’s White Goddess that culminate “Les Enfants du Paradis.”

    There are a dozen places in every viewing of “Ladri di Bicicleta,” and a half dozen in every one of “A World Apart,” that hold a command on my tear ducts deeper and surer than any of Minnelli’s fine tear jerking moments.

    Perhaps “Meet Me in St. Louis” provides the most “moving an evocation of impermanence” ever offered by a feel good Holiday delight — which I’ll go rent immediately.

  • Blake, thanks for taking the time to clarify that casual remark, much appreciated. Also to Brad for laying it out. I’m unfamiliar with that particular thesis. I’m willing to test it by comparing the two scenes.

    If I understand Blake correctly, his reservations about this kind of criticism have to do with fitting the work in question into a conceptual apparatus that takes itself for granted without leaving room for a counter interpretation, sort of like the vulgar Marxist literary criticism of Christopher Caudwell.

    “in an extreme example of Lacanian criticism as un-pleasure”

    I’m almost reluctant to read the article after that caveat Dave.

  • Tony Williams

    Dave K. For your information, Andrew Britton was a caustic critic of Lacanian psychoanalysis and his article on MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS was indebted to both Freudian psychoanalysis, a completely different conceptual world from that of Lacan, and American culture. Have you never read “The Ideology of Screen” first published in MOVIE and then reprinted in Barry K. Grant’s clumsy misnamed book THE COMPLETE (???) FILM CRITICISM OF ANDREW BRITTON”? There he criticizes Barthes, Althusser AND Lacan, criticism that were never answered by the film establishment, then and now. I was in class during Andrew’s 1976lecture on this film and a visiting Australian critic asked if he could publish it in THE AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF FILM THEORY where it first appeared. The debate that both Andrew and Robin Wood wished to promote at that time involved the relationship between Hollywood cinema and the classical American literary tradition that indirectly influenced such films. Far from promoting an ideological agenda, this was they key element in Andrew’s scholarship. At this time, Harold Beaver taught American literature at Warwick University and among his achievements was a heavily annotated edition of MOBY DICK that needed such footnotes to really understand the text. Melville wrote PIERRE after MOBY DICK. I don’t know if you (or Blake?) have read this text but it deals with a dysfunctional American family involving implicit aspects of incest. Although Melville and Minelli wrote different works, they explored what was a very common theme in American literature that went into certain aspects of classical and post-classical Hollywood. Thus, a connection between MEET ME AT ST. LOUIS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is not as arbitrary as Blake seems to think it is. At that time, we all read Melville in Warwick and I read as much of his work as possible including MARDI (a first draft for MOBY DICK, the Civil War poems, and CLAREL. This was also a time when we read much more than we do now and Brad is one of the few people (I’m sure there are others) who take reading very seriously and explore relevant sources and connections between what seem to be two totally different texts without dismissing the argument out of hand. Unfortunately, both Dave K. and Blake hav e led to x359594’s comment above, “I’m almost reluctant to read the article after that caveat Dave.” My response is, please read it. You will find an excellent work of film criticism at its best fully aware of cultural, historical, and ideological readings fully intertwined in an engaging and non-dogmatic manner. It is written by somebody who explored and researched every text he read in an intelligent and mature manner. So don’t be put off by those who refuse “to do their homework” for whatever (ideological?) reason they have but just explore and evaluate by yourseof.

  • Hannu, you canta fool me, there ain’t no sanity clause.

    I’ve been a fan of Minnelli’s work for a long time, but he (together with Preminger) is unique in the sense that I’m becoming more and more impressed and amazed. It’s not only a case of discovering films I hadn’t seen before but also discovering more and more things in the films I have seen, and how well integrated the individual films are in the complete body of work. I sometimes wish I had written my thesis on Minnelli instead of Ekman, although writing about someone unknown has its obvious advantages. And I do mention MEET ME IN ST LOUIS in the thesis, but just once. For the time being I will have to settle for a talk I’m giving soon, on acting and ethics in the films of Minnelli and Bergman. But now that the thesis is all but complete I have considerable freedom to chose more freely what to write about.

    Yesterday I did propose to the department that we should organise a whole module (or class) around TEA AND SYMPATHY. It can be used to study genre, mise-en-scene, cinematography, authorship, queer theory (I’ve used for explaining a theory of mine, tentatively called “lonely are the queer”) and so on and so forth. I did get some supporting comments but I don’t think it will happen until I become the head of a my own film studies department…

  • My favourite Minnelli films include: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Yolanda and the Thief (1945), The Pirate (1948), Madame Bovary (1949), Father of the Bride (1950), An American in Paris (1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon (1954), and Lust for Life (1956).

    It’s remarkable that MGM let him flourish like this. The “ars gratia artis” motto was richly deserved. There is the touch of grace everywhere. Most remarkably, MGM produced even the uncompromising Lust for Life, which is my personal favourite Minnelli film, with Kirk Douglas at his best as Vincent Van Gogh. The agony of vision is deeply felt.

    We did a Vincente Minnelli memorial retrospective in our Cinema Orion when he died in 1986. Now Minnelli is on our shortlist for great directors to be considered, but MGM costs are prohibitive, and the retrospective would fall to the “for the happy few” category. We have a strong cinephilic audience (with a healthy proportion of young cinephiles as well as gray panthers) but unfortunately with an anti-Hollywood bias. More precisely: with an anti-mainstream bias, and Minnelli would be perceived to belong to the mainstream.

  • Antti, if I might add to your list “Some Came Running” and “Gigi”…?

  • Jorge, many pleasures in The Clock, Tea and Sympathy, Designing Woman, The Reluctant Debutante, Bells Are Ringing, and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, as well. But the first list was my top ten.

    In Meet Me in St. Louis, Minnelli was a master of Technicolor, but he became also a master of Ansco Color, a more subdued colour system, reportedly based on the German Agfacolor. It is interesting to compare Brigadoon with Immensee.

    Lust for Life (Ansco Color) I have seen on screen only once: at UCLA, Westwood, in their Hall of Mirrors: Film and Art Since 1945 series in 1996. I’ll never forget the beauty of the brilliant film print. The dvd is only a reflection of it. They actually photographed the real Van Gogh paintings for the movie.

  • Robert Garrick

    For a good time, go read the Wikipedia entry on Natalie Kalmus, who worked as a Technicolor expert on “Meet Me in St. Louis” and on just about every other American color film in the 1930s and 1940s.

    Kalmus liked lots of light, and indeed three-strip Technicolor required so much light under most circumstances that it could be dangerously hot on the set. (Just ask Bert Lahr.) She also disliked bright colors.

    One can imagine the conversations between Kalmus and Minnelli. One of the notable things about Minnelli’s use of color in films like “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “The Pirate” is that he used a lot of high contrast and a lot of black. Kalmus couldn’t have liked that.

    In other films, like “Yolanda and the Thief,” Minnelli continued with the blacks, but also splashed on the bright colors. That must have gotten him a double demerit from Natalie.

  • Oliver_C

    It’s worth tracking down a copy of Gilbert Adair’s Flickers, perhaps now more than ever, on account of not only his recent death but also his little essay regarding It’s A Wonderful Life.

    Favourite Christmas movie? Goodfellas, if only for the Phil Spector tunes and the post-heist reunion scene at the bar that’s a perfectly curdling combination of ostentation and acrimony.

  • Gregg Rickman

    I was inspired to reread, after many years, Andrew Britton’s “Smith; or The Ambiguities” after Dave brought in up in reference to Blake’s complaint about forced “ideological” readings of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, and Tony defended the piece by writing “So don’t be put off by those who refuse ‘to do their homework’ for whatever (ideological?) reason they have but just explore and evaluate by yourself.” Although I could post a (very detailed) point-by-point commentary on Britton’s essay, I will limit myself to points already raised here.

    1) Britton’s essay is in part brilliant, in part exasperating, with the ratio of good to bad up to the reader to determine: your mileage may vary. On the plus side, he allots the film the close attention it deserves, and he brings to the table a formidable (if imperfect) knowledge of American culture. I’m handicapped in judging the piece in not having read Melville’s “Pierre,” but his references to works by Hawthorne and James, which I do know, help place the Minnelli in a living cultural-historical context.

    2) Andrew Britton was a great critic, but he had (at least) two flaws, one of temperment (what I would call humorlessness) and one of ideology. On this first point, while Britton was certainly capable of heavy sarcasm (as in his assaults on those he disagreed with), his evident inability to register a lighter register than tragedy darkens (of course!) his reading of this buoyant film. To be specific, his description of the opening of the Halloween sequence (“a forward tracking shot takes us… toward a Gothic mansion at night, scarred by the shadow of a dead tree, the orange light of the windows no longer connoting a safe ‘inside’ but assimilated by a dissolve to a shot of lurid skull masks and candles burning inside scooped-out pumpkins”) (I quote from McElhaney’s Minnelli anthology, page 114) takes a humorous bit of scene setting and colors it with nightmare paint. He follows this practice throughout, never registering the film’s (very ample) humor.

    3) Britton’s ideological approach to the film is very much Freudian-determinist, a school of thought that was indeed very potent in the 1970s, but which has dated very badly. Dave’s comment that the piece is “an extreme example of Lacanian criticism as un-pleasure” was criticized by Tony, who reminded us correctly that Britton was “a caustic critic of Lacanian psychoanalysis,” certainly as it manifested itself in film theory at the time (as in his great essay on “The Ideology of Screen”). However I must say that all of Britton’s references to Lacan in this particular essay are favorable citations (for example, “It is useful at this point to recall Jacques Lacan’s definition of desire,” p. 121). Dave was perfectly correct, in his facts, in his comment.

    4) Britton’s close reading of the film, or at least the parts of it he discusses, is generally solid and at times brilliant (as in his description of how the film’s opening sequence successively “binds in” each new member of the family we see into the Smith family, pp. 115-6). He is by no means blind to the positive aspect of Smith Family Values, as with his description of the “You and I” song (115), which is loving enough to please the staunchest Minnelli fan. (Hello Blake!) He pays attention to the roles of such neglected family members as Grandpa. And his at times problematic reading of the key figure of Tootie, and her role in the central Halloween sequence, does present she and it in a very positive, even utopian light (127-8). In fact, Britton’s commentary here excites me very much, pointing the way to a greater recognition of the utopian drive in Minnelli’s work generally. But to return to the point at hand, Britton writes here “It is this triumph of the child that distinguishes the Halloween sequence from say, ZOMBIE, PSYCHO, THE EXORCIST, CARRIE…” (127).

    5) Which leads right into a key issue raised in this discussion, the putative connection between MEET ME AT ST. LOUIS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Nowhere in Britton’s essay does he mention Romero or his zombies; he DOES bring up certain other horror films, notably the Lewton-Tourneur I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, as well as the other titles just listed, but only and very specifically in the context of works of American literature like “Pierre” and “The Scarlet Letter.” It was actually NOT Andrew Britton, BUT INSTEAD Robin Wood who advanced the ST. LOUIS/NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD comparison. In “Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan” for example he writes of Tootie as comparable to the “Terrible Child of 70s horror film” and avers “What is symbolic in 1944 becomes literal in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.” Wood was making this point as early as his 1976 collection “Personal Views” so it wasn’t a one-shot anomaly. He was, further, prone to make other, similar comparisons, as with his 1979 essay “The American Family Comedy: From MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.” Wood was also a great critic, but he several times stated that his sometime pupil Andrew Britton was his superior, and in this particular case, at least, I must agree, for while Britton was subtle and careful, Wood’s commentaries on the Minnelli make great associative leaps that seem to succeed partly by shock value. (The comparison has certainly embedded itself in academic culture, as can be seen by consulting our modern Delphic oracle, Google. I am sure first year film studies lectuerers around the English speaking world delight in the delicious, taboo-breaking – in their minds – comparison of the two films, marking them off, at least to themselves, as free spirited radicals. Such are the joys of cultural studies.)

    6) To conclude, then, Britton certainly touches upon several topics which have been brought up already on this thread, from what Barry refers to the film’s “look of a greeting card” to comparable mid-40s films of dark Americana (SHADOW OF A DOUBT, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE). I can’t argue with Tony’s heartfelt defense of the piece as “fully aware of cultural, historical, and ideological readings fully intertwined in an engaging and non-dogmatic manner. It is written by somebody who explored and researched every text he read in an intelligent and mature manner.” But Britton’s essay, while useful and stimulating, is not the last word on this great film, but more of a side street at the fairground.

  • nicolas saada

    TOOTIE grew up to become Teresa Wright in SHADOW OF A DOUBT. After killing her uncle at the end of the film, she had a brief affair with Mac Donald Carey but fell in love with a returning soldier, Dana Andrews, just after the war in BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.

  • nicolas saada

    We could tie in THE STRANGER, I’ll BE SEEING YOU, and even VIOLENT SATURDAY!!!

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, thank you very much. Your post gives a lot of necessary depth and background to the discussion for us semi-literate casual filmgoers who rarely journey into academic criticism.

    Many additional things could (and possibly will) be said on this issue. For the moment I would confine myself to observing that the only viewpoints which truly irritate me are those which do present themselves as the last word on any subject.

  • Tony Williams

    As mentioned in our pm email exchange, Gregg, thanks for your comments and this very insightful reading. As I also mentioned (pm), nobody ever says the last word on any subject. But I’d like to add that Andrew grew to be very critical of Lacan despite what he wrote in your citation. In fact, one of his very late essays (on NOW YOYAGER, Brad please come and correct me if I’m wrong”) referred to Lacan as increasingly “moribund.” This occurred in the original cineACTION version which Andrew corrected in terms of some Lacanian misreadings in the printing and these corrections do not appear in the Barry K. Grant version.

    The points I took issue with were the association of this article with a Mulvey type of reading as non-pleasurable, an axiom she used to attack Hollywood film in the 1975 “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, which she thankfully later refined) and the hostility towards any form of ideological reading of film which jars with our present climate where one Republican Presidential candidate wishes to abolish the labor laws and three others have signed a pledge to investigate the GLBT community in the manner of a McCarthyite witch hunt if any of them were elected.

    However, back to the literature question, at Warwick a joint seminar on the Western was organized with the American studies department and we were all expected to be familiar with the Leatherstocking novels, Melville, and Hawthorne etc. Naturally, this was the time that saw the appearance of Richard Slotkin’s REGENERATION THROUGH VIOLENCE: THE MYTHOLOGY OF THE AMERICAN FRONTIER 1600-1815 which showed how much contemporary American ideology had been influenced by its cultural past, both in literature and political statements. Henry James also influenced Andrew’s KATHERINE HEPBURN; THE THIRTIES AND AFTER.

  • Fredrik Gustafsson: “Hannu, you canta fool me, there ain’t no sanity clause.”

    Thanks Fredrik for bringing some Marxist criticism into this Christmas season!

    But, judging by your Swedish sounding name, do I find a bit of neighborly jealousy of the proven fact, that Father Christmas really does live in Finland?

    (I hope this seasonal subject is allowed – at least it ain’t baseball!)

    Antti – I’d think mainstream films can take a pretty good care of themselves, but I never thought a unique genius like Minnelli might get overlooked for this same reason! Well, for some people musicals are too soft and colorful and happy endish to be taken seriously.

    I love the way Terence Davies said something along the lines that he’d gladly give away ten Potemkin’s Odessa steps scenes for one rain dance by Gene Kelly…

  • Johan Andreasson

    Well, what did become of Tootie? Not the last word, perhaps, but Hank Williams had a suggestion already in 1947:

  • Hannu, maybe he is from Åland?

    Peter Bradshaw in today’s Guardian compares MEET ME IN ST LOUIS to a “Michael Haneke nightmare”. I myself prefer a David Lynch-comparison. But to each his own.