What says Christmas more than a movie that is quite possibly the prequel to Blue Velvet and is set over pretty much the course of an entire year? Well probably a lot of things, but Meet Me In St. Louis is the film that was drawn out of the hat, so here we go… Opening on a street with a horse-drawn carriage to let us know it’s ye olde times, we are taken into the Smith family home. Instantly we are drawn into a seemingly endless series of critiques on the flavour and texture of the soup. Rather than view this as some kind of Masterchef style cooking show critique as it seems to become over the course of a few minutes, I prefer to read it as the deeply cynical judgements of an angry screenwriter, bitterly pronouncing their characters as “too sour” or “too thick” and raising their middle finger to the upper middle class… Although I’m probably wrong about that.
Anyway the endless judgements over the soup are interrupted by a precocious child who wanders in waterlogged from some kind of outdoor activities gratingly singing “Meet Me In St. Louis”. Stomping her way upstairs, the tune is then picked up by a weird old man wearing a silly hat in the bathroom, thankfully after whichever activities required him to wear said hat and then everyone seems to be singing the song. When the song mercifully ends, Judy Garland runs into the house with a tennis racquet and a terrifying ginger hair helmet on her head. Clearly the first port of call for anyone in the Smith house is to run into the kitchen and criticise the soup, which she does proclaiming the soup to be “too sour”.
This is probably as good a place as any to note that Judy Garland is excellent as Esther, the character holds the film together and, let’s face it, sings pretty much every song in this musical, certainly all the songs worth listening to… However, her portrayal of Esther is so breathless, excited and frantic that the character comes across as somewhat of a speed freak. Added to the fact that Esther is stalking her next door neighbour and is meddling as deeply as she possibly can into everyone else’s private lives, she does ever so slightly come across as a terrifying monster at times. Anyway, she seems to have started up some kind of conspiracy with the Katie the maid in order to have dinner early so that her older sister Rose can talk to some chap on the phone at the time usually designated for dining. To garner support for this arrangement Esther uses the wonderful argument: “Although we love Rose, the brutal fact is she isn’t getting any younger”, by my judgement the character of Rose is probably 18 or 19.
We then move out to the front porch as Esther and Rose preen themselves in the sun, allowing Esther ample opportunity to ogle the chap next door posing awkwardly with a pipe. This is followed by an incredibly jarring edit, where we are shown what appears to be a medium shot of Judy Garland smiling while drowning in a world made of Vaseline, before cutting back to a shot of her in sunlight. I suspect that this is one of those occasions where the blu-ray transfer gives a crystal clear view on the long shot, but when a couple of litres of Vaseline are smeared over the lens for a soft focus shot, you see a crystal clear view of the Vaseline. We are then informed that although Esther has never met this chap next door, she has essentially been stalking him for some time. There is then much talk of “boys” and “proposals” before Rose offers Esther the sage advice “when you get to my age you’ll find out there are more important thing than boys”, once again noting that Rose is probably about a year older than Esther.
What then follows is the song “Boy Next Door” which is an absolutely brilliant song… Probably the best song in the film, but it is pretty disturbing. Esther reiterates that she has never met or talked to this chap (“My only regret is we’ve never met/Though I dream of him all the while/But he doesn’t know I exist”), before reinforcing her obsession (“How can I ignore/The boy next door?/I love him more than I can say”). That said, Judy Garland’s delivery of the line “Though I live at 5135 Kensington Avenue/And he lives at 5133” is so sweet, yet so filled with longing, it’s relatively easy to overlook the darkness lurking under the surface.
Then we’re back inside the house and they’re banging on about the soup again, before an absolutely terrifying child starts making jokes about killing cats and throwing out random threats like “I’ll stab you to death”. Then everyone’s singing that damn “Meet Me In St. Louis” song again. Mr Smith arrives out the front of the house and to his apparent dismay hears the singing, walking in the door he tells everyone how sick he is of the song and I immediately like him. There’s apparently a gigantic trauma because of the rescheduling of dinner, but once Mr Smith sits down to eat we learn that he likes the soup! There’s some shenanigans with speeding up the dining so that they went straight from entree to dessert! How I laughed! (Note: I may not have laughed). The phone then rings and Mr Smith hangs up as he wasn’t expecting a call, this causes all sorts of chaos, because apparently when a phone call is missed marriage is impossible or some such thing. Mr Smith realises that he was apparently the only one not aware of this phone call and when he asks the various family members if they knew, the creepy child answers “the ice-man saw a drunkard get shot yesterday. The blood spurted out three feet”. Monster.
Anyway the guy calls back and Rose speaks to him and it is completely bizarre. They are essentially shouting at each other about the weather as her entire family watches like creepy waxwork sculptures. I’m assuming while all of this is going on that the terrifying child is plotting the murder of all of them, but that thread is left unexplored by the film. Long story short, he doesn’t propose to Rose, he apparently wanted to talk to her about the weather and how amazing telephones are and we’re just left with some kind of creepy family bonding moment. Next up Esther bullies her brother into inviting the guy she’s stalking to some kind of shindig at their house, boldly telling Rose “I’m going to let him kiss me tonight” and rather than screaming at her sister “You’ve never met him you crazy stalker!”, Rose more discreetly states “Nice girls don’t let men kiss them until after they’re engaged. Men don’t want the bloom rubbed off”. Esther responds “Personally, I think I have too much bloom. Maybe that’s the trouble with me” and wins the entire movie. Later that night Esther actually meets the guy she’s stalking and they hit it off quite well, as you’d expect from a 40s musical… Then again, you don’t necessarily expect psychotic tweens, so it could have gone either way.
So there’s this party at their house which seems suddenly capable of holding about 400 guests and we’re unnecessarily subjected to fiddle music and “Skip To My Lou” and I can understand how this family raised a psychopath. When the song finishes everyone collapses into laughter just like in any good musical, until they notice the two youngest Smith children watching. One of the guests erroneously states “She’s such a sweet little thing” before being corrected “Sweet? She’s a hoodlum” and I am suddenly filled with dread at the prospect of the children singing. We are then treated to the monster child singing some kind of song about being drunk, before Esther and the other sister perform some weirdly racist song about Zulus, bamboo trees and broken English (“you like a me like I like a you”). When the party ends Esther uses her wiles to detain the object of her affection with something to do with raisins in his hat and turning out lights. Amusingly he says to Esther “I hope I’m not being too presumptuous”, which given her track record must be impossible, before saying “you don’t need any beauty sleep”.
Lots of guff about The World’s Fair follows and they jump on a trolley car and sing that “Zing zing zing went my heart strings” song. Still not terribly Christmassy yet, but a title card pops up to tell us it’s Autumn 1903, so I guess we’re getting a bit closer. The zoom into the house makes it look alarmingly (and appropriately) like the Bates house from Psycho. It’s apparently Halloween and the two little children are unsurprisingly terrifying with one claiming to be a “horrible drunken ghost”, while talking about how one of the neighbours “burns his cats at midnight” and that she saw him “beating his wife with a red hot poker”. We go outside to see the neighbourhood under a reign of terror from all of the local children breaking and burning anything they can find. What follows is then possibly the longest scene in cinema history as one of the children slowly trudges to a door to throw flour on some chap, I’m sure there was some purpose to the scene, but if it was to make the child seem awful, it was probably redundant.
What then follows is some malarkey about how the neighbour that Esther was stalking hurt the annoying child, running into the house screaming “John Truitt tried to kill me!”. Enraged Esther heads next door to beat him up and finds out that he tried to stop the little abomination as she played a life-threatening prank by throwing a fake corpse in front of a trolley car. When she apologised he admits to loving it: “It’s no worse than football practice… Except it’s better with a girl”, before going all Blue Velvet and asking “If you’re not busy tomorrow night could you beat me up again?”. He then kisses her and Esther wanders around looking completely stoned.
Looking at my notes, everything is now a series of caps and obscenities for the rest of the film. I suspect that may have been partly, but not entirely, due to the red wine. In summary, Mr Smith tells the family that the company is promoting him and sending him to New York, after the initial response of “We’ll all get on OK without you”, the realisation that everyone was going to have to move was a cause of much trauma. The family are told they’ll be moving in the New Year because… “I thought we’d all like to have Christmas in St Louis”. Finally! Christmas! A series of reasons and complaints follow, including my personal favourite “I worked all my life to be a senior”. However, they all sing a song and everything’s OK, so it’s time to tuck into some comically large slices of cake.
The title card tells us that we’re finally up to Winter 1903, indicating that we’re going to see something of Christmas. Maybe. Possibly. Finally. Hey, what’s that? I hear bells jangling… We now have some argument over who is going to a Christmas dance with whom and some kerfuffle about how Esther’s brother and sister going to the dance together. Esther helpfully adds “If I didn’t have a date with John Truett, I’d be thrilled to go with my own brother”. Then there’s a whole weird bit between the siblings that is probably best not analysed too much. After a disturbingly sado-masochistic scene featuring Esther, Rose and a couple of corsets, Esther then makes me question her remaining “bloom” by saying “There’s only going to be twenty boys worth looking at, anyway, we can certainly handle twenty men. Can you handle ten?”. We then have a brief interjection by the monster child asking “What did you get me for Christmas?” before adding “I hope it’s a hunting knife”.
Then everything is thrown into disarray as John doesn’t have a tux. The world is over because they’re leaving St Louis in a few days and Esther can’t go to the dance or some such thing. So Grandpa steps in and saves the day… Not by lending a tux that fits to John, as I figured was going to happen, but by taking his granddaughter instead. Anyway it all works out OK in the end and every Smith ends up with the non-Smith person that they want to. Although the bit where Esther and Grandpa dance around the giant Christmas tree and when they appear around the other side it’s Esther and John is very disquieting, given Esther’s delusions and leaves the viewer concerned that she has exited reality and is about to molest her grandfather. Soon there’s proposals going left and right and Merry Christmases all round.
Back at the Smith house, the terrifying child is wondering what Santa is getting her, who knows why, it’s bound to be a lump of coal. Esther then sings the “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” song which is pretty great as far as Christmas songs go… Curiously the little monster is crying, before going outside and bashing a perfectly innocent family of snowmen screaming “I’d rather kill them if we can’t take them with us”. Following this scene, probably out of fear for his own life, Mr Smith tells the family that they’re not going to New York and everybody rejoices. Then a psychopath runs into the house points at Rose threateningly and shouts “I love you! Merry Christmas”, this is accepted as if it’s a good thing, probably something to do with that whole “brutal fact is she isn’t getting any younger” thing. So it’s Christmas cheer all round. Then a quick cut and it’s spring and we’re at the World’s Fair, which is “Right here where we live. Right here in St Louis” and everyone is singing that godforsaken song again. I reckon they still would have been OK if they moved to New York. I give it five out of nine reindeer, one for each weird child.
December 26, 2016 at 6:21 am
Brilliant analysis and wonderfully humorous. I’ve been amused for decades by the fact that I consider Esther to be some kind of sociopath. She’s a manipulative monster who controlls everyone and everything about her.
It is no wonder that Tootie has dead dolls and cemeteries. If her shares her sister’s gene pool, she probably luxuriates in reading about Jack the Ripper. It is the scene where Esther decides to play on Tootie’s fear of moving to New York (to cap off her campaign of emotional pressure on the father) by singing that funereal song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Here, one realizes the full power of Esther’s disease. The kid, naturally, goes berserk.
Esther succeeds, and the family misses the opportunity of a lifetime … all so that they can keep Esther installed in her perch of total control, evidently over all of St. Louis … certainly over the poor boy next door who has just been stalked and shot like a cross-eyed lion.
Only the magnificence of Judy Garland could have transfigured this monster into some kind of sweetheart. I have read that the original lyrics of “Merry Little Christmas” involved Esther’s telling Tootie that “this Christimas might be your last” … and that Garland refused to sing such a scary message to a child (particularly one with a death fixation).
It is probably no accident that, when I was growing up in St. Louis, this film was not considered a Christmas movie. It was shown at Halloween.
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December 28, 2016 at 9:08 am
Thanks for the feedback. I love the idea of Meet Me In St Louis as a Halloween movie! It was a lot of fun writing that piece, it is such a strange film and I suspect a huge influence on Blue Velvet.