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Meet Me in St. Louis (Blu-ray Review)

12 Dec, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 12/13/11
$35.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Tom Drake, Lucille Bremer.

In the case of MGM’s landmark Arthur Freed-Vincente Minnelli Christmas-of-’44 achievement, Warner Home Video now gives Blu-ray treatment to the big screen’s final word on the subject — though, true, the city is rendered via an expensive, obviously Arch-less and later frequently recycled back-lot set. Blu-ray doesn’t care; this is how neighborly 1903-04 should have looked for anyone not totally hooked by the ultra-urban experience.

The only screen musical I love even more is the same producer/director team’s The Band Wagon, made nine years later — which like Meet Me and Singin’ in the Rain and just a few others is a movie that could still stand alone (and even proudly) without the tunes. Though in this case the Hugh Martin-Ralph Blane originals included all-timers “Have Yourself a Marry Little Christmas,” “The Trolley Song” and “The Boy Next Door” (which, with a gender switch, was also enough of a big deal to make the cut for inclusion on Sinatra’s first Capitol album and first with Nelson Riddle).

Leaving aside Meet Me’s boy-girl romance and some intriguing forays into the diseased child’s mind of Margaret O’Brien’s Tootie character, the story (adapted by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe from a series of Sally Benson New Yorker stories) turns on whether its apparently nicely heeled plot-central Smith family will leave St. Louis in 1904 to satisfy its patriarch’s New York job promotion. Tootie’s eligible older sisters (Judy Garland and the spectacularly redheaded Lucille Bremer) are demonstrably upset about this — and not because they have some premonition that they’ll miss out on having Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang be part of their lives as middle-agers. Instead, it’s the realization that their city is about to host the World’s Fair, that Garland’s Esther has already suffered a feature’s length of romantic roadblocks with that next door boy (Tom Drake) and that remaining in St. Louis is consistent with the movie’s “there’s no place like home” theme it shares with its star’s career-making The Wizard of Oz. Except in this case, St. Louis looks like a more colorful place to live than Oz’s drab sepia farm (like John Waters, I have always wondered why Dorothy longs to want to leave Oz for some place where she’ll have to slop hogs).

Cinematographer George Folsey (Sr.) was Oscar-nominated 13 times, but I think Meet Me has to be his crowning achievement, even if I do love his widescreen compositions for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Forbidden Planet. Minnelli’s background as art director helps explain the eye he always seemed to have, and you can see from the framing of the very first shot he directed in this movie’s shooting chronology (Garland and Bremer at a bedroom mirror) that we are dealing with two behind-the-camera artists who always know where a moviegoer’s eye wants to go. There’s another scene where Garland and Drake douse her household’s downstairs chandelier lights — a masterwork of photographic ingenuity in terms of set-ups and an assignment much more difficult to pull off than you might assume. The visual totality is so overwhelming that you find yourself staring at the weaving on the Smith’s living room upholstery, as in the wonderful show-stopper where Garland and O’Brien perform “Under the Bamboo Tree” at a gathering of young friends. Like a lot in the movie, the scene is about a lot more than what is just happening on screen. It shows what social mixing was like for young people in those pre-radio days when it paid to have a piano-player as one of your friends — just as the famed Halloween sequence shows how the holiday was once celebrated before “trick or treat” took over.

With the passage of time, Meet Me looms as the standout Technicolor feast of its year, though I have seen a 35mm nitrate print of Leon Shamroy’s Oscar-winning ’44 work for 20th Century-Fox’s Wilson, which is definitely something to be reckoned with. This long-awaited Blu-ray version of Minnelli’s own career-maker is a kind of color alternative to what Warner did earlier this year with black-an-white on its release of Citizen Kane — employing a kind of “artful grain” that shows up if you’re fairly close to the screen but contributes marked detail if you move just a few inches back (I tried this out). The release rates the same cardboard book-like packaging that Warner reserves for its most prestigious Blu-ray releases, and also included is a short CD of the Martin-Blane staples the movie produced (imminent petrol for my Ipod).

The other extras recycle a lot of what was on the deluxe 2004 standard DVD version, including a marvelously weaved-together assemblage of scene-specific audio interviews and commentary (O’Brien included) — spearheaded by John Fricke, who is resident expert on all things Joo-dy. Fricke is so knowledgeable that he could probably still get away with his voice-over if he sounded like Elmer Fudd, but as it turns out, his speaking voice is most pleasant, and he has a gift for organizing the material. Other extras among many include a couple vintage documentaries and an unsold 1966 “Meet Me” TV pilot with Celeste Holm in the Mary Astor mother’s role, which would have likely seemed as out of its time as that same year’s The Singing Nun, the MGM feature that finished off Benson’s screenwriting career. (Had it sold, the series would have likely premiered at the same time Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” was charting, around the time I was beginning my sophomore year of college). 

There’s all kinds of famous stories involved with the movie’s production: how Minnelli and Garland first met here — and initially didn’t get along; how Garland rightfully balked at a singing a much more lyrically morose version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” until Martin and Blane did a polish; how the unforgettable Halloween scene was almost cut from the final version and how a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune included here on some bonus track audio (“Boys and Girls Like You and Me”) was excised. Yet the movie’s reviews were glowing the get-go, and (says the commentary) Meet Me went on to become the biggest box office success MGM had had up to that time — discounting Gone with the Wind, which was distributed by the studio but produced by Selznick. Beyond the flop pilot, it spurred many stage productions, some featuring Jane Powell as Esther, who also starred in a terrifically cast 1959 production that CBS aired on a Sunday night a year after her big-screen career ended. Top-billed was Tab Hunter in the Tom Drake role — who, because his career started late and Powell’s early, was only two years younger than his co-star when one would assume a much larger age differential.

Benson then went on to write the screenplay for Viva Las Vegas. It’s just a guess, but I’m betting that she was the only New Yorker writer who ever penned an Elvis movie.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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