Tag Archives: 1944

Top 100 Films #28 – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

 

mmisl3#28. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
Written by: Irving Brecher, Fred F. Finklehoffe (based on Meet Me in St. Louis by Sally Benson)
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Tom Drake, Marjorie Main, Robert Sully

Meet Me in St. Louis is Vincente Minnelli’s familial musical romance starring Judy Garland at the absolute peak of her stardom.  The film takes place over four consecutive seasons, covering a year in the lives of Smith family – an upper middle class unit gearing up for the upcoming 1904 World’s Fair in their home town of St. Louis, Missouri.  We meet Esther (Judy Garland), a young woman pining for her next door neighbor John Truett (Tom Drake), Rose (Lucille Bremer), who is to be married to a young man named Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully), and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), the mischievous youngest daughter of the Smith family as she navigates her carefree childhood.  Through the months, the Smith patriarch Alonzo (Leon Ames) receives a job promotion and decides to move the family to New York – which is not well received by his St. Louis loving family.  Along the way to the World’s Fair and the eventual move to New York, we see the Smith family celebrate Halloween and Christmas, fall in love, have their hearts broken, and get involved in generally humorous and dramatic situations. Though Meet Me in St. Louis is very early on in Vincente Minnelli’s career, his talent as a director of musical films is immediately apparent.  He uses bright, beautiful Technicolor to accentuate his unique aesthetic, and excellent blocking and choreography in the film’s many musical scenes that make it stand out from the crowd.  Minelli’s direction feels both classic and modern in many ways, with the film’s pacing being one of the most notable – the film never spends too much time in any of the seasons, using the unique elements of each to push the main storylines forward.  The musical aspects of the film work perfectly in context throughout, as the Smith family are established in the very beginning as a fun-loving, music-playing family, specializing in piano and song-and-dance numbers that they perform to entertain guests.  The songs are excellent and incredibly catchy, most notably “Skip to My Lou”, “Under the Bamboo Tree”, “The Trolley Song”, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – which was written for the film before ever becoming a Christmas classic.  Judy Garland carries each and every song she is featured in to memorable heights, using her beautiful and unique voice to make each and every song her own.  The performances in Meet Me in St. Louis are charming and often hilarious, with the highlights being Judy Garland’s bold, but shy, Esther and Margaret O’Brien’s wide-eyed and curious Tootie being the highlights.  Supporting characters add a great deal of comedy to the film, with Leon Ames’ Alonzo and Marjorie Main’s Katie being the comedic highlights.  Meet Me in St. Louis is an absolute blast from start to finish, featuring some of my favorite musical numbers, incredibly endearing characters, and a wonderfully funny and sentimental story to make it a truly special experience.  If you’re interested in reading my full thoughts on Meet Me in St. Louis, you can read them here.

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Classic Musicals #2 – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Meet_Me_in_St._Louis_posterMeet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
Written by: Irving Brecher, Fred F. Finklehoffe (based on Meet Me in St. Louis by Sally Benson)
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Tom Drake, Marjorie Main

In 1944, young starlet Judy Garland could do no wrong.  Coming just five years after tremendous hits like The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms, the now adult Garland was on track for even more success.  Her collaboration with fresh-faced director Vincente Minnelli on Meet Me in St. Louis would result in a marriage between the two eventual icons, and the creation of one of Hollywood’s most revered musical films.  Based on a series of twelve autobiographical short stories called 5135 Kensington by author Sally Benson, which followed the Smith family over a period of twelve months, each story covering one month.  MGM acquired the rights to the stories, renaming the anthology Meet Me in St. Louis, and instead opted to follow the family over four seasons instead of the more ambitious twelve months.  The events of the film are roughly structured around the time of the Louisiana purchase, which author Sally Benson lived through.  Minnelli’s film was also one of the first musicals to naturally and seamlessly implement musical numbers into the story, never awkwardly digressing from the story to fulfill its obligated song and dance numbers.  The Smith’s are portrayed as being a delightful, wholesome, and musically-talented all-American family.  The cast is made up of Judy Garland as Esther, Lucille Bremer as her older sister Rose, Mary Astor and Leon Ames as the matriarch and patriarch of the family, respectively.  Rounding out the cast of family members is the breakout star Margaret O’Brien (who would win a Juvenile Oscar for her breakthrough in the film) as the young Tootie, and Joan Carroll as Agnes.  Meet Me in St. Louis was shot in brilliant technicolor by cinematographer George J. Folsey, who is notable for shooting a number of early Marx brothers comedies, as well as comedies Adam’s Rib and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Minnelli’s early film was a smash hit at the box office, being the fifth highest grossing movie of 1944, and proving to be MGM’s most profitable project since 1939’s Gone with the Wind.  Meet Me in St. Louis established Vincente Minnelli as a colorful and inventive director to watch, set Judy Garland on a path to stardom, earned four Academy Award nominations in the process, and put a number of iconic songs on the map including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, “The Trolley Song”, and “Skip to My Lou”.  Though it left the Oscar ceremony without a single statue, Meet Me in St. Louis has stood the brutal test of time, especially in comparison to other musicals of the era.  The Library of Congress’ National Film Registry honored the film with preservation status in 1994, ensuring that it would be beloved by audiences for decades to come.

Meet Me in St. Louis covers one year in the lives of the Smith family, a wholesome upper-middle class bunch living St. Louis, Missouri in the summer of 1903.  Alonzo (Leon Ames) and Anna (Mary Astor) head the family, guiding their four daughters and young son to success in their comfortable American lives. Rose (Lucille Bremer), the oldest daughter, is expecting to be proposed to by the man she loves, and Esther (Judy Garland) has fallen in love with her neighbor John Truett (Tom Drake).  Their younger siblings Agnes (Joan Carroll), Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), and Lon (Henry H. Daniels Jr.) all lead relatively more carefree lives, enjoying the simplicities of childhood in the comfort of their family and home.  The film is split into four vignettes, each chronicling a single season in the year.  We begin with Summer 1903, where the love lives of young Esther and Rose are detailed, as well as the inner-workings of the Smith family. We see each member going about their usual routines, eating dinner together, hosting parties, singing, dancing, and generally having a lovely time together. Esther vies for John’s affections multiple times, to varying degrees of success, while Rose patiently waits for the call she’s been eagerly awaiting.  In the Fall 1903 vignette, we follow Tootie and Agnes as they go out for Halloween, trick or treating and causing general mischief in their neighborhood.  Tootie returns home injured, falsely claiming she has been struck by the charming John Truett. Esther reacts poorly to the revelation, confronting John before finding out the true story.  Once the air has been cleared, Esther dashes to John’s house and the two share their first kiss.  In Winter 1904, the Smith family are preparing for a move to New York, where Alonzo has found a work promotion.  Each member of the family is upset about the move, but willing to do whatever it takes to see that their family is successful.  Esther attends a Christmas ball, where after a series of misfortunes she finally gets to dance with John.  She returns home to find Tootsie distraught, not wanting to leave the only home she’s ever known.  Will the Smith family uproot and move to the bustling big city, or will they sacrifice the opportunity to stay in the place they love?  Find out in Vincente Minnelli’s iconic film Meet Me in St. Louis!

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The young Margaret O’Brien and Judy Garland performing one of the many iconic musical moments in 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis.

My history with the grand musical films of Oscar-winning director Vincente Minnelli has been rocky to say the least.  His two most successful movies, Best Picture winning An American in Paris and Gigi, both have incredible and ambitious aspects to them, but have always failed to connect with me on any meaningful level.  Meet Me in St. Louis is the first Minnelli film that I’ve absolutely fallen in love with, let alone enjoyed fully and completely.  His direction is inventive and energetic, changing pace for each of the film’s four acts. The Summer 1903 segment is bright, colorful, and positive, Fall 1903 is dark and brooding, with the Halloween scenes being genuinely creepy and atmospheric. From there, Minnelli immediately changes his style for something a little more traditional, portraying a wholesome and somewhat tragic and mostly believable Missouri Christmas.  While it may never seem as grand as some of the bombastic musicals of the 1930’s, the family-friendly nature of Meet Me in St. Louis feels perfect for any movie viewer.  It’s constantly interesting to look at, well-acted with lovable characters to get behind, and incredibly well written, bringing with it relatable family tensions, comedy, and catchy music.  Judy Garland effortlessly holds the film together, taking advantage of her incredible singing voice and wholesome nature.  Garland’s Esther is hopelessly positive, helping to keep her family together even when nothing seems to be going right for the young woman. She’s charming, and the love story told between Esther and Tom Drake’s John Truett is believable and lovely.  Though I haven’t seen Garland’s entire catalog, Garland’s performance in Meet Me in St. Louis is the best I’ve seen from her. Backing up Garland is a great juvenile performance from Margaret O’Brien as the odd but lovable Tootie.  O’Brien’s Tootie goes from a clumsy and lovable little girl in one act, to a creepy and fairly complex character just twenty minutes later. Her performance is rare for somebody of her age, and it absolutely stands the test of time as far as child actors go.

The music in Meet Me in St. Louis was written by the famous Arthur Freed, who worked with Vincente Minnelli on many of his musical pictures.  Freed’s songwriting combined with Garland’s beautiful voice makes for a breezy two hours, and often had me wishing that the movie featured more musical numbers. The singing and dancing sequences are perfectly written into the happenings of the film, never seeming out of place or unnecessary.  The lyrical content is surprisingly dark at times, and relentless optimistic at others.  Memorable songs like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Trolley Song” are absolute ear-worms, and will be stuck in your head for days.  The screenplay, written by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe, feels completely fluid and constantly does it’s best to feel fresh and inventive.  The four season vignettes ensure that we never linger for too long on any one part of the film, and helps to break up the tone from act to act.  Despite the constant change in scenery and events through the film, the themes of the importance of family and unity are never lost.  The most important thing in every scene of Meet Me in St. Louis is family, and no decision is made without considering the repercussions and effects it may have on the rest of the Smith household.  The family values portrayed in the film are relatable and affecting without being over-the-top or obnoxious, instead creating something magical that can be viewed by anybody.   The stand out scene takes place during the Fall 1903 portion of the film, specifically the Halloween sequence starring Tootie and Agnes.  The film’s tone is immediately changed from bright and cheery to dark and moody, with Minnelli’s camera shooting lower and from harsher angles, in order to portray the perspective of the trick or treating children.  Tootie’s true personality is revealed in this scene, and Minnelli’s direction is at its most interesting.  There’s no doubting that it’s slightly out of place in our otherwise fairly standard wholesome 1940’s musical, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

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A still from the Winter 1903/04 portion of Vincente Minnelli’s Oscar-nominated Meet Me in St. Louis.

After three viewings of Meet Me in St. Louis, I feel confident in saying that this is quite possibly one of the greatest musicals I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.  It’s made me a huge fan of Judy Garland, and even has me wanting to revisit Vincente Minnelli’s later famous works and reassess how I feel about them.  Meet Me in St. Louis features incredible songs, a great performance from one of Hollywood’s most beloved actresses, a lovable cast of characters, beautiful cinematography, and daring direction from one of Hollywood’s most revered musical directors.  The themes of family and unity explored throughout are universally relatable and are every bit as relevant now as they were more than seventy years ago.  There’s no way anybody with a heart and a taste for musicals can sit through this film and not be beaming for two straight hours.  Meet Me in St. Louis gets my absolute highest recommendation.  

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Women in Film Feature #3 – Gaslight (1944)

gasl2Gaslight (1944)
Directed by: George Cukor
Written by: John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John L. Balderston (Based on Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton)
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury

The Swedish born Ingrid Bergman has starred in some of the most iconic films of the 1940’s and 50’s, and yet remains undiscovered by an entire generation of people unenthused with the pictures, and uninterested in their storied past.  With an impressive resume of films including Casablanca, Notorious, Spellbound, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Anastasia, Murder on the Orient Express, Autumn Sonata, and a thematic trilogy of films with director Roberto Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman has an entire body of work ripe for discovery.  Renowned in Hollywood for her naturalistic performances, Bergman helped change the way actresses were viewed during the golden age of American films.  On screen, she was graceful, subtle, and effortlessly realistic – which stood out in an era filled with over-the-top damsel in distress performances by some of her contemporaries.  Ingrid’s realism focused performances managed to win her two Academy Awards for Best Actress, one for Best Supporting Actress, and saw her nominated a further four times throughout her career.  Her work with directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini, Ingmar Bergman, George Cukor, Leo McCarey, and Michael Curtiz remain some of the most acclaimed films of their time, and have ensured that Ingrid Bergman’s place in Hollywood history is rightfully recognized.

The man of the hour in 1944’s Hollywood was undoubtedly the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.  With a Best Picture win just a few years previously for Rebecca, and a slew of hit American films under his belt, the man had quickly managed to leave an impression on other filmmakers of the time.  There’s no doubt in my mind that director George Cukor took a page (or an entire chapter) out of Hitchcock’s book when approaching the story of Gaslight.  Soaked in an atmosphere of dread, featuring incredibly suspenseful moments, packed with twists and turns, and filled with good performances, it has all the makings of a Hitchcock film.  Cukor had made a career as a director for hire for major studios throughout the 1930’s, and had succeeded in eventually making quite a name for himself.  With a pair of incredible performances from leads Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, a tight and thrilling screenplay, and dark and moody cinematography, it’s no wonder why Cukor’s Gaslight instantly became one of the director’s biggest hits.   The film earned seven Oscar nominations including major categories like Best Picture, Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman), Best Actor (Charles Boyer), and Best Supporting Actress (Angela Lansbury).  The highly acclaimed Swedish-born actress Ingrid Bergman took home her first of three statues for her performance in Gaslight, praised for her portrayal of a paranoid and desperate woman trying to a solve a deadly mystery with suspects right under her own nose.  Gaslight is also notable for being the on-screen debut of prolific actress Angela Lansbury, multiple time Academy Award nominee, and star of the long running hit show Murder, She Wrote.  The film is seen as being somewhat dated to today’s standards, but remains an incredibly effective and suspenseful look at the forced descent into madness of a woman by a man who has managed to make his way deep into her heart.

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Paula (Ingrid Bergman) and Elizabeth (Barbara Everest) in 1944’s Gaslight.

Gaslight begins on a murderous note, with opera singer Alice Alquist turning up dead and her jewel-seeking killer fleeing the scene after being interrupted by a young woman.  The young woman is Paula (Ingrid Bergman), Alice’s niece.  The young Paula is sent to Italy soon after, in order to study under a famed opera singer, and so that she can hopefully forget about the events she saw unfold on that fateful night.  Soon, Paula meets a charming and wealthy man by the name of Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), and the two quickly fall in love and marry.  Gregory convinces Paula that returning to London and living in her aunt’s vacant house would be best for her mental recovery, and the two set off for their new home.  Alice’s belongings are tucked away in the attic in order to help Paula adjust, and a young maid named Nancy (Angela Lansbury) is hired.  After accidentally finding a letter addressed to her late aunt and being forbidden by her husband to read it, Paula begins to notice odd occurrences around her new home.  The home’s gaslights begin to dim and brighten at random, pictures disappear off the walls, and she loses prized possessions from the safety of her own person.  To top it all off, the new maid seems to have taken a disliking to Paula, but her husband ignores all signs of this.  Convinced by Gregory that she’s imagining all of these events and that she’s still reeling from the trauma of seeing her aunt’s murder, Paula begins to doubt many aspects of her own reality.  She is soon isolated from outsiders by those inside the house, and her sanity is called into question by her husband.  Is there more at play than just a woman losing her mind, or is Paula being influenced by an insidious power?  Find out in George Cukor’s Gaslight!

While George Cukor and company may have taken many a page out of Alfred Hitchcock’s style book, there’s something very different and special about the way Gaslight plays out.  Its twists and turns aren’t quite as “big” as some of Hitchcock’s most effective moments, but Cukor instead opts for subtlety and making the audience think really hard.  The well-paced direction focuses on getting to know our principal characters initially, and then takes a sudden and hard turn into one woman’s battle for her own sanity.  The attention to detail and art direction is something to be admired, as the sets and costumes create a realistic and fully-immersive portrait of the film’s time and setting.  The real shining feature of Gaslight though, is its acting.  Cukor’s film is more than anything a moody and dark showcase for four incredible talents to give their absolute best performances possible.  The audience knows the twist from the very beginning, making Ingrid Bergman’s supposed descent into madness a truly frustrating and infuriating experience for viewers.  Bergman’s performance as the tortured Paula is incredible, as it’s never played in an over-the-top fashion.  Paula is a believably traumatized young woman who may have put what little trust she had left into somebody that is completely toxic for her.  Supporting Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning performance is a delightfully evil Charles Boyer as Gregory, Paula’s charming husband.  Boyer’s Gregory is sly, cunning, and has a silver-tongue when it comes to dealing with his wife, and every scene featuring the two becomes a subtle and suspenseful power play.  Even Hitchcock would have trouble making a character so hateable and yet so fully-realized at the same time, but Cukor pulls it off masterfully.  Worth mentioning is the debut of Angela Lansbury, whose turn as the maid Nancy earned her an Oscar nomination as well.  Nancy aids in creating the tense and toxic atmosphere that is slowly driving Paula insane, and the very young Lansbury is perfect for the role.

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Oscar-winner Ingrid Bergman and Best Actor nominee Charles Boyer in George Cukor’s terrific Gaslight.

While it may not be a completely unique or unpredictable tale in the modern age, George Cukor’s Gaslight is an incredible tale of a web of lies, deceit, betrayal, and madness.  It gives Alfred Hitchcock’s very best a run for its money, and has been undoubtedly influential on modern day suspense pictures.  Guillermo del Toro should have taken a page out of George Cukor’s book when making 2015’s Crimson Peak, as the two films share a great deal of similarities.  Gaslight features an Oscar-winning performance from one of Hollywood’s most talented actresses, a terrific and believable antagonist, subtle and deliberate pacing, and hopelessly bleak atmosphere aided by the dark and foggy cinematography.  It’s slow, maddening, and chock full of incredibly admirable qualities.  George Cukor’s Gaslight is highly recommended.

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Noirvember Feature #1 – Laura (1944)

Laura23234Laura (1944)
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Betty Reinhardt, Ring Lardner, Jr. (based on Laura by Vera Caspary)
Starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson

Otto Preminger is a director who skirts the fine line between mainstream classic cinema, and obscure or cult classic cinema.  1944’s film noir Laura was arguably his most successful film ever, earning him his first of two Academy Award nominations for Best Director, along with a slew of other nominations at that years Oscar ceremony, including Cinematography (the only award won by the film), Best Supporting Actor for Clifton Webb, Best Screenplay, and Best Art Direction.  Preminger is a director who I’ve struggled with since getting serious about the world of film, with his movies being quiet and largely dialogue-based, mostly lacking in grand set pieces like many films of the time.  He’s a filmmaker who I’ll probably explore in further detail in the future, so look out for that.

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Our cast of characters: Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Prince), and detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews).

Preminger’s Laura sees detective Mark McPherson (played incredibly by Dana Andrews) investigating the apparent murder of a young woman named Laura Hunt (the lovely Gene Tierney).  The circumstances behind Laura’s death are shrouded in mystery, and came at the result of a shotgun shell to the face from somebody close to her.  Our prime suspects in the case are the eccentric and charismatic Waldo Lydecker (which netted an Academy Award nomination for Clifton Webb), and Laura’s fiance Shelby Carpenter (a very young Vincent Price).  While on the case, detective McPherson comes to find that few of his suspects and witnesses have anything bad to say about the young beauty, and eventually begins to obsess over a dead woman he’s never even met.  Fortunately for our intense detective, Laura may not exactly be as dead as she appeared to be just days before.  But her sudden reappearance begs many questions: who was then murdered with the shotgun?  Did the culprit think they had killed Laura Hunt?  How did such a brutal crime turn so messy?  I won’t spoil the film for anybody who hasn’t seen it, but those questions and more are answered in an incredibly tense and twist-filled finale.  

Laura is without a doubt one of the seminal film noirs of the 1940’s, influencing the genre in a big way with its terrific femme fatale character, as well as a cast of potential murder suspects, all with their own motives and unique personalities.  The character of Laura is constantly shrouded in mystery, even when the woman herself is standing right before your very eyes.  Dana Andrews’ detective McPherson is incredibly compelling as our lead character, both in his obsession with an apparent dead woman and his knack for picking up on subtle clues and hints throughout the film.  McPherson never seems surprised by any developments in the case, nor does he seem taken aback when things don’t go according to plan.  The film is dark and full of those trademark noir shadows, billowing cigarette smoke, and superbly narrated flashbacks that perfectly play with the timeline of the film in order to give backstory and break up any possible monotony in the investigation. We learn about the mystique of Laura’s character through these flashbacks, told by Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker, a man every bit as obsessed with the young lady as our main character is.

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The titular Laura (Gene Tierney) and Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) in Otto Preminger’s 1944 noir masterpiece Laura.

The genre of film noir is often criticized for being very similar in tone, story, and storytelling techniques, but I can’t agree with this criticism at all.  Otto Preminger’s Laura is a masterpiece in the genre, weaving an incredibly tense and mysterious story chock full of complex and layered characters, and a thrilling story that never fails to keep you guessing, even after you think you might’ve figured it all out.  The beauty of film noir is that not only do you get to watch all the procedures of an investigation by your main character, but you get to be an investigator yourself.  While the film may not be completely unique by today’s standards. the power it holds over the audience for the short 90-minute run-time is incomparable.  There’s a great deal of fun had in trying to figure out which of these characters has murdered “Laura”, and why on earth somebody would kill somebody that everybody holds in such high-esteem.  The performances throughout the film are terrific, with the standout being the Oscar-nominated turn by Clifton Webb.  Lead characters Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney have terrific on-screen chemistry, never being boring or a chore to watch.  Everything they do and say to each other seems completely natural.  The young horror-icon Vincent Price is also a blast to watch, and his presence in the film genuinely surprised me.  Laura’s cinematography is the cherry on top of this delicious film noir sundae, bringing the classic long shadows and smoky rooms to life in front of your eyes.  Preminger’s Laura is an incredible example of why the film noir genre works so well when it’s truly great, and a perfect reason why myself and many others are still so enamored by the genre.  Laura is terrific in almost every way, and has aged better than many films of the era.  It comes highly recommended.

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