Tag Archives: Musical

Pre-Code Hollywood #14 – Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

gold-diggers-1933-03Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley
Written by: Edwin S. Gelsey, James Seymour, Ben Markson (dialogue), David Boehm (dialogue) (based on The Gold Diggers by Avery Hopwood)
Starring: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee

Anybody who has read Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Film Club for any amount of time probably already knows that I have a weakness towards musical films. Gold Diggers of 1933 combines my favorite genre with elements of Pre-Code Hollywood into one impossible to hate package. Director Mervyn LeRoy’s (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) visionary talent behind the camera, Busby Berkeley’s energetic musical sequences, and a hilarious story set during America’s depression makes for one of the most memorable Pre-Code films of the era.

Gold Diggers of 1933 sees four aspiring stage actresses Polly (Ruby Keeler), Carol (Joan Blondell), Trixie (Aline MacMahon), and Fay (Ginger Rogers) struggling to find work during the depression. Producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) is desperate to put on a show with the girls, but is struggling to find any source of funding. After hearing their neighbor Brad Roberts (Dick Powell) playing the piano and finding out his talents as a singer-songwriter, he is recruited for the hypothetical show. Brad eventually comes up with the money for the play, leading the Gold Diggers and Barney to suspecting him of criminal activity. In truth, Brad is the son in a millionaire family that despises the theater. Things become severely complicated when Brad’s brother Lawrence (Warren William) shows up to stop Brad from falling in love with a “gold digger”.
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From the very opening moments of Gold Diggers of 1933, I knew that the film was going to be an absolute treat. We open with a rendition of the now famous song “We’re in the Money”, which sets an ironic tone for the depression-era set movie to come, especially when the show is immediately shut down due to lack of funding. Not only does Gold Diggers have all the charm and wit of classic musical films of the era, but it also becomes something of a madcap screwball comedy in its second half – we are treated to mistaken identities, overly complicated plots to seduce and distract certain parties, and more banter than you can shake a stick at.

With four credited writers (two for dialogue, two for the screenplay) it could have been disastrous for the film – one of the major problems with modern films is having too many cooks in the kitchen. Luckily for Gold Diggers of 1933, this simply isn’t the case. The screenplay is hilarious and often risque, tackling the American depression head-on. We get musical numbers like “Pettin’ in the Park” that features a heavy dose of eroticism thanks to some near-nudity, naughty lyrics, and a very, very curious and nearly voyeuristic “baby” causing mayhem in the titular park. The writing for both musical and spoken portions of the film are equally strong, with both complimenting each other quite nicely. Much of the screwball elements introduced during the film’s second half are genuinely hilarious, even more than 80 years later – Trixie’s faux seduction of “Fanny” Peabody (Guy Kibbee) is my personal favorite part, but there’s just so much to love about it as a whole. The film ends with “Remember My Forgotten Man”, a rather dark commentary about the depression, war veterans, and the ultimately false promise of change – what a powerful statement for such a silly, energetic musical.
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The real star of the show in Gold Diggers of 1933 is the direction of musical sequences by the famous choreographer Busby Berkeley. His direction elevates the film from being another depression-set comedy film to being a memorable, erotic, energetic, and visually unique masterpiece of the musical genre. As with many other musical films, the song and dance sequences are the strongest element of Gold Diggers, which is saying a great deal because of its zany underlying story. Each musical sequence feels completely separate from the last, with all of them bringing striking visuals and seamless choreography that never overstays its welcome. “We’re in the Money” is garish and showy, “Pettin’ in the Park” is playful, silly, and titillating, “The Shadow Waltz” stands out from the crowd by being rather beautiful and understated, not quite matching the rest of the film’s tone, and “Remember My Forgotten Man” features a hint of German expressionism and says a great deal about living in poverty during the depression. Few other musical films boast such a diverse set of musical numbers, and even fewer can live up to the brilliance of the mad “Pettin’ the the Park”.

It’s in the second half of Gold Diggers of 1933 where the performances finally begin to stand out as something special – chemistry between actors is obvious, characters are developed, and our four main “gold diggers” are finally allowed to show us what they’ve got to offer. Joan Blondell’s Carol is passionate and seductive, making quick work of Warren Williams’ Lawrence. Aline MacMahon’s Trixie is purposely naughty in her “seduction” of Fanny, providing some of the film’s more laugh out loud moments. Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell are believable as the film’s central romance, as the two have immediate chemistry in both their musical and non-musical scenes. Also worth noting is Ginger Rogers’ early performance as Fay, who tries to seduce one of the three wealthy men, but ultimately fails.
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Gold Diggers of 1933 is one of the most triumphant films of the Pre-Code Hollywood era, genuinely pushing the envelope of accepted movie morality, and providing a funny and insightful commentary on depression-era America. Its musical numbers are brilliant choreographed and staged by the master Busby Berkeley, turning Gold Diggers into one of the most visually striking musicals ever produced in Hollywood. With solid performances across the board, inventive direction from two of the most consistent filmmakers of the era, and a screenplay that will put a permanent smile on your face, there’s a lot here to love. Gold Diggers of 1933 easily gets my highest recommendation.

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Top 100 Films #23 – All That Jazz (1979)

 

all-that-jazz-dancing#23. All That Jazz (1979)
Directed by: Bob Fosse
Written by: Robert Alan Aurthur, Bob Fosse
Starring: Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer, Ann Reinking

All That Jazz is Bob Fosse’s semi autobiographical masterpiece about his experiences as stage dancer and director, as well as his time working on his previous film Lenny and the stage production of Chicago simultaneously.  All That Jazz follows stage director and performer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) as he splits his time between editing a feature film and directing an ambitious new Broadway show.  In order to cope with the stress, Joe relies on his a trusty cocktail of cigarettes and pills, which eventually catch up to him.  Joe eventually begins to experience serious chest pains and is rushed to the hospital – where he is forced to stay for a number of weeks.  With his projects on hold indefinitely, Joe is forced to deal with his health issues and reevaluate his life decisions.  What follows is a surreal and dreamlike series of bombastic musical numbers and existential angst, imagined only as a visionary like Bob Fosse could.  Roy Scheider gives a career-best performance as Joe Gideon, who is a compulsive, workaholic visionary who never comes across as anything short of genuine.  Scheider’s Joe is perfectly understated and subtle – something I had never seen from the actor before All That Jazz.  Bob Fosse’s work behind the camera is highly energetic, self-indulgent, and full the director’s stylistic flares – the dream sequences in particular are some of the highlights of All That Jazz.  The director’s attention to detail pays off in spades in the incredibly well-choreographed musical numbers, proving that his time on the stage could translate perfectly to the big screen.  The screenplay by the duo of Fosse and Robert Alan Aurthur is entirely self-aware and death-obsessed – it’s clear that these themes and ruminations are coming from a very intimate and personal place.  All That Jazz is Bob Fosse’s brilliant take on a subject many all-time great directors have tackled – a self-aware exploration of the tortured mind of an artist, obsessed with their legacy and their untimely death.  It’s easy to argue that Fosse’s film is self-indulgent and more impressed with itself than it should be, but to deny its sense of passion and the artistry involved would be plain foolish.  All That Jazz is not always an easy or joyful watch (especially for a musical), but it’s one hell of an affecting film.  

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Top 100 Films #26 – Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

 

SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS#26. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Directed by: Stanley Donen
Written by: Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, Dorothy Kingsley (based on The Sobbin’ Women by Stephen Vincent Benet)
Starring: Howard Keel, Jane Powell

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the kind of movie that simply couldn’t and wouldn’t be made today – it’s satirical take on gender roles is far too controversial for the internet age.  Director Stanley Donen was still fresh off his highly successful Singin’ in the Rain, with Donen continuing to tackle the comedy and musical films that made his landmark film so successful.  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers takes place in 1850, and follows a backwoodsman named Adam (Howard Keel) as he ventures into town one day in search of a wife.  He meets a young, assertive woman named Milly (Jane Powell), and the two quickly marry and set off to Adam’s cabin.  What he hasn’t told her is that he has six younger brothers, and expects Milly to cook for and clean after the whole lot of them. Milly, with her never say die attitude, quickly teaches the brothers how to be seen as modern men and how to respect women.  The brothers all fall in love with local girls from the town, with Adam encouraging them to be bold and profess their love for them.  What follows is a serious of hilarious and fun situations that could only be found in a musical from the 1950’s.  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is without a doubt one of the most charming, fun-loving musical films I’ve ever seen, and I adored it from the moment the opening credits rolled.  Howard Keel’s Adam is loud, brash, and follows an outdated code of living, but is lighthearted almost to a fault.  Keel’s deep singing voice carries many of the film’s musical numbers, and is one I’ve attempted to replicate in the shower more than once. Jane Powell’s much more innocent, but progressive, intelligent, and level-headed Milly serves as the film’s moral counterweight to Keel’s Adam.  Powell’s beautiful singing voice serves as the perfect contrast to Keel’s booming voice – the two compliment each other perfectly.  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers really shines in its songwriting, featuring three of my favorite musical numbers in “Bless Your Beautiful Hide”, “Goin’ Courtin’”, and “The Sobbin’ Women”, all of which are funny and charming in their own ways.  Director Stanley Donen makes the best of MGM’s back lot sets, using matte paintings and rear projection to give a sense that the sets are much larger than they are in actuality.  Donen and choreographer Michael Kidd make Seven Brides for Seven Brothers a truly unique experience, making compelling song-and-dance numbers out of things like chopping wood and raising a barn – both sequences are far more grand and memorable than they have any right to be.  The highlight from a direction and choreography standpoint is the song “Lonesome Polecat”, which sees Adam’s six unhappy brothers chopping and sawing wood – Donen captures the entire impressive sequence in a single take.  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a hilarious satire that takes a good, hard look at gender roles and masculinity.  It’s easy to mistake the film for being a misogynist and ignorant work, but I truly don’t believe it to be anything of the sort.  It’s far ahead of its time in terms of themes and subtlety, and is a film I could watch over and over again.  If you’re fresh off this year’s wildly popular La La Land and looking for another (far different) musical to satisfy your appetite, look no further than Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

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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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Top 100 Films #58 – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

 

uc-2#58. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Directed by: Jacques Demy
Written by: Jacques Demy
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) is Jacques Demy’s beautiful and bittersweet musical masterpiece.  The film sees a young woman named Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) who falls in love with a handsome young auto mechanic named Guy (Nino Castelnuovo).  Guy is eventually drafted into the Algerian War, and Geneviève is left at home with little to no contact to her love.  She soon finds out that she is pregnant with Guy’s child, and after several failed attempts to contact Guy ends up marrying another man.  When Guy returns home, he learns that Geneviève has moved on, and also begins to move on with his own life.  Jacques Demy’s film is deeply romantic and tragic in a very relatable way, even if it is melodramatic in its best moments.  Every moment of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is well-intentioned and sweet, telling a very basic, but endearing love story that spans several years.  The songs featured throughout are beautiful and moving, and the film’s choreography and Demy’s attention to detail makes them all the more memorable.  Demy and cinematographer Jean Rabier shot the film with a focus on gorgeous, vibrant colors that are one of my absolute favorite parts of the film.  The Umbrellas of Cherbourg looks and feels like a vivid, colorful dream – one I never wanted to leave.  The performance of Catherine Deneuve as Geneviève is another of the film’s strongest points, delivering a sweet, playful, and deeply emotional role.  Without Deneuve’s dedication to the performance, the love story between Guy and Geneviève would not have been nearly as compelling.  The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a beautiful, playful, and deeply moving picture that should be seen by all lovers of musical films, if only for its songs and its sickly sweet sense of romance.

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Classic Musicals #3 – Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Little_shop_of_horrorsLittle Shop of Horrors (1986)
Directed by: Frank Oz
Written by: Howard Ashman (based on Little Shop of Horrors (stage musical) by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, The Little Shop of Horrors (1960 film) by Roger Corman)
Starring: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Steve Martin, Vincent Gardenia, John Candy, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, Paul Dooley

1960’s The Little Shop of Horrors proved to be an early hit for the prolific and iconic filmmaker extraordinaire Roger Corman.  Shot on a meager budget of $30,000 and being shown mostly in drive-in movie theaters, Corman’s film had a much further reach than he ever could have imagined.  The original film inspired a hugely successful off-Broadway musical, as well as a beloved 80’s cult musical that managed to be a modest financial and critical success.  Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors has a lot going for it, including hilarious leading men Rick Moranis and Steve Martin, a screenplay full of catchy and consistent songwriting by Disney writer Howard Ashman, and an experienced visual director at its helm.  Frank Oz famously worked side by side with Jim Henson (creator of The Muppets) for years, developing his craft and becoming familiar with the use of puppetry and other practical special effects.  Oz, former voice of famous Muppet characters like Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy, as well as Star Wars’ Yoda, made a career of directing cult hits like The Dark Crystal, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, The Indian in the Cupboard, Bowfinger, and Death at a Funeral.  Little Shop of Horrors, one of the director’s earliest hits, combined Oz’s penchant for practical effects and oddball humor.  Starring alongside Moranis and Martin are Ellen Green and Vincent Gardenia, along with cameos from stars like John Candy, Bill Murray, and Christopher Guest.  The movie’s ending was famously re-shot after test audiences reacted negatively to its dark and morbid nature.  Executives at The Geffen Company had been against the original ending in the first place, and used this as an excuse to axe it from the final cut.  The cast and crew of Little Shop of Horrors were forced to cut 23-minutes of footage from the original cut of the film, and instead shot a much more family friendly and optimistic final act.  The removal of the original ending cut two original songs from the film, and even saw a casting change as Jim Belushi replaced the then unavailable Paul Dooley for the role of an important marketing executive. Despite the heavy re-shoots, Little Shop of Horrors proved to be a financial and critical success, picking up two Oscar nominations (for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Song), as well as two Golden Globe nominations (for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical and Best Original Score).  Little Shop of Horrors has managed to find itself a dedicated cult audience, and currently sits among the best musical films of the 1980’s.  The film’s original ending is now readily available on home media, and Frank Oz and Howard Ashman’s original vision can now be seen in all its glory.

Little Shop of Horrors closely follows the plot of Alan Menken’s off-broadway stage play, but also lifts basic elements from Roger Corman’s 1960 film.  The film follows down on his luck Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis), who works at Mushnik’s Flower Shop, owned by the strict and mostly unsuccessful Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia).  At the flower shop, Seymour works closely with his crush and colleague Audrey (Ellen Greene).  Both Seymour and Audrey live in Skid Row, and dream of one day becoming successful and being able to leave the city slums.  Unfortunately for Seymour, Audrey is dating the emotionally and physically abusive dentist Dr. Orin Scrivello (Steve Martin), who refuses to let her out of his clutches.  After a string of bad luck (and bad business), Mr. Mushnik decides to close up his flower shop and move on with life.  Seymour is able to save the shop by displaying his newly acquired unique flower in the shop’s window.  He names the mysterious new plant Audrey II (Levi Stubbs), and quickly finds that the formerly unassuming plant has an insatiable appetite for blood and flesh.  The young and hopeful flower shop attendant soon finds himself conflicted, on one hand not wanting to feed into Audrey II’s dangerous appetite, but also wanting to lead a successful life and move far away from Skid Row. Through a series of unfortunate events, Audrey II finds its prey and grows many times its original size, bringing hundreds of paying customers into Mushnik’s Flower Shop.  Without knowing it, Seymour’s feeding of the plant spells disaster for the flower shop and for the city of New York if it isn’t stopped.  Will Seymour find a way to appease the mysterious Audrey II, or will the ever growing alien plant prove too much to handle for the hapless young man?  Find out in Frank Oz’s 1986 Little Shop of Horrors!

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Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, and Vincent Gardenia playing the employees of Mushnik’s Flower Shop in Little Shop of Horrors.

For the sake of clarification, I’ll start by stating that I watched the film as it was originally meant to be seen, downer ending and all.  This is the version supported by the director and writer of the film, and therefore I think it’s only appropriate to focus on that original vision.

Before starting my journey through the classics of movie musicals, I had only heard vague details about 1986’s cult hit.  I knew all about the famous story of re-shooting the ending sequence, and I knew that the now retired Rick Moranis starred in the picture, but it was otherwise a completely fresh experience for this critic.  Having loved nearly every Frank Oz production I’ve seen up to this point, I should have known that my time with Little Shop of Horrors was going to be a memorable experience.  I’ve never enjoyed Rick Moranis as much as I did in this project, and I finally feel like I understand his appeal.  His turn as Seymour Krelborn is perfect, even if it doesn’t go about reinventing the wheel.  His hapless but hopeful good-natured character is far from original, but Moranis manages to nail the role in every way.  Unfortunately for Rick Moranis, his co-star is Ellen Greene, who may just have the most grating voice I’ve ever heard on film.  While it does suit her catchy musical numbers, I just couldn’t take her seriously as Audrey.  What is supposed to be a beautiful, hopelessly romantic, sympathetic punching bag is instead reduced to an annoying cliche that doesn’t even seem to fit the film’s offbeat nature.  Luckily for the film, Frank Oz’s casting of comedic veterans like Steve Martin, Bill Murray, John Candy, and Christopher Guest more than makes up for Greene’s occasionally painful performance.  Martin in particular steals the show with the most physical performance in Little Shop of Horrors, playing a delightfully evil dentist and delivering the most memorable musical number in the film.  Even more impressive than the many hilarious performances are the musical numbers, which are far and away the highlight of this bizarre movie.  Howard Ashman, who co-wrote the successful off-Broadway production, brings with him a host of memorable and incredibly quirky tunes, many of which feature prominent doo-wop and 1950’s pop influences.  The two most memorable numbers come in the form of Steve Martin’s rendition of “Dentist!”, which sees him purposely inflicting pain on patients on dental staff alike, and “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”, where Audrey II tells of its sinister true intentions (and shows off its impressive lyricism, too).  The special effects in the film are incredible in all respects, especially the creature design for Audrey II in all its forms.  The puppetry is entirely convincing and has aged perfectly, never seeming too over-the-top or looking “fake”.  The puppets (designed by Lyle Conway) are gracefully operated, creating a truly frightening and visually interesting antagonist.  The film’s original ending sees the use of incredible model work for downtown Manhattan, all of which looks incredible even today.  I can’t imagine how Frank Oz must have felt when he was forced to cut 23-minutes of tremendous footage from Little Shop of Horrors.  On the subject of the film’s climax, I can say having seen both versions that the original is far and away the best version.  While it may seem unsatisfying for viewers who prefer lighter fare in their musicals, it perfectly suits the offbeat and dark nature of the film.  It’s dark and horrific in many ways, but I wouldn’t want it any other way in this case.  I’m glad that the original version of the film has been restored and treated with the respect it deserves, because it truly adds weight to the final product.

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Steve Martin as the evil Orin Scrivello, DDS in Frank Oz’s cult hit Little Shop of Horrors.

While Little Shop of Horrors may not be a perfect film, there’s just far too much about it that I adored.  The talented comedic cast, the memorable musical numbers and offbeat nature of the screenplay, and the incredibly detailed practical effects and puppetry are more than enough to overlook a few bad performances and some slight drag in the movie’s later moments.  If you’re a fan of cult musicals like Rocky Horror Picture Show and Phantom of the Paradise, or 80’s horror movies in general, then I can confidently say that Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors is for you.  Little Shop of Horrors is an incredibly funny and catchy, if slightly bizarre and nonsensical, musical.  It’s highly recommended.

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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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Filed under Classic Musicals, Reviews