Meet Me in St. Louis
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (Vincente Minnelli, 1944) is a movie that seems to me both obvious and essential for any list of the 10 greatest American movies ever made—let alone any list of the 100 greatest. Yet Minnelli’s exuberant musical is nowhere to be found on the AFI’s 1998 list. Why is this? A box office success at the time and critically respected today, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS seems like a natural for the AFI. It’s a movie musical as American as apple pie. Made during World War II, the film brims with nostalgia for a warm, simple, and idealized American past. It’s an idealized, harmonious past in which seemingly contradictory elements resolve themselves effortlessly. You can have it both ways. St. Louis is a city that is also a small town. “New York is a big city,” says matriarch Anna Smith, comparing her beloved St. Louis to the Big Apple. “Not that St. Louis isn’t big. It just doesn’t seem very big out here where we live.” And thanks to the World’s Fair, the Smiths can stay put and have the wonders of the world brought to them, “right here—in St. Louis!”.
However, despite MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS’S strong flavoring of Americana, the film is highly un-American in one regard: its structure. An overriding conflict, three-act structure, and strong narrative drive are all central components of classical Hollywood cinema. Yet MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS lacks these typical elements. It is a film organized by seasons and episodes, not a central character’s growth over the course of three acts. And where is the conflict? The threat of the Smith family’s move to New York from St. Louis does not emerge until more than midway through the picture, so we can hardly call this an inciting incident. In his thoughtful essay “Happiness,” David Thomson suggests that “perhaps happiness is the absence of story” and goes on to celebrate MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS as a “movie in which nothing happens.” In lacking any sort of serious conflict, Minnelli’s musical invites us to live with the characters and share in their happiness. It’s a movie that suggests it’s ok to not take action—to not take the promotion, not move to New York. It is ok to just be.
A film as rich in cinematic artistry as it is in human emotion, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS only becomes greater with each subsequent viewing. Minnelli gives delicacy, care, and affection to every scene (to every shot!) in this film. If I had to isolate one particular scene that encapsulates the film’s richness, it would be the song “You and I.” In the dinner table scene immediately preceding “You and I,” father Alonzo Smith announces the news that he’s been promoted and the family will all be moving to New York City in the New Year. Upset, Alonzo’s wife Anna and his children turn against him—choosing not to eat the cake placed before them for dessert (a dessert that will follow the ice cream they have just eaten immediately before this—a fact that I have never been able to resolve in my head. Is having two separate courses—one for ice cream and one for cake— problematic or are back-to-back desserts just another sign of what a great place St. Louis is?).
Alone, Alonzo walks into the parlor with his cake. His wife Anna calms down, and more resolved now she crosses the room to the piano. She begins to play a familiar melody. Alonzo hums and then begins to sing “You and I.” Recognizing that Alonzo is struggling a bit with those high notes, Anna says, “I’ll put it down in your key.” It’s a tiny moment within the song, but as true of an expression of intimacy and geneorosity between spouses as I have ever seen in the movies. Alonzo sings, more confidently now: “You and I / Through years of / dark and fair weather / you and I.” Anna then prompts him with his next verse, “from my heart,” again extending the sense of familiarity and love.
At this point, Minnelli uses the basic directorial tools at his disposal—blocking and shot composition—to bring the family reuniting as one. As Alonzo and Anna sing together in the foreground, we see daughter Rose’s brilliant yellow dress enter the stairway in the background. Now younger daughters Tutti and Agnes descend the stairs too. The girls retrieve their abandoned cake slices from the dining room and enter the parlor to be with mother and father. In a single high-angle shot, Agnes, Rose, Grandpa, and even Katie the maid enter the same frame as Anna and Alonzo. Minnelli’s use of blocking and composition (or mise en scene) emphasizes the family’s bond and unity. They will get through this ordeal together and remain as a family—even if it means moving to New York (which, we are relieved to know in the end, it does not).
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is filled with these sorts of small, tender moments of affection. I selected “You and I” to write about, but I could have just as easily chosen “Under the Bamboo Tree,” “The Trolley Song,” or any one 6-year-old Tutti’s deliciously malicious asides (she plans to dig a tunnel from her garden to Mrs. Middleton’s terrace so that she can yank Mrs. Middleton by the leg when she least expects it). Like Tutti’s borderline violent comments and actions that go ignored by the film’s adults, many people today write off MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS as sentimental fluff and don’t listen closely enough to the film’s subtleties and complexities. Beneath the veil of simplicity and sentimentality, here lies one of the most accomplished and exquisite movies that America has ever produced.