Vincente Minnelli's warm piece of turn-of-the-century Americana has gone down in history as a holiday perennial - a somewhat unusual fate for this peculiarly shapeless yet fuzzily heartwarming collection of vignettes inspired by Sally Benson's loosely autobiographical short stories published in The New Yorker. It isn't a particularly Christmassy film, and it falls somewhat in between stools; it's neither a fully-fledged musical (despite the presence of two of MGM's most-loved musical numbers, "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") nor an outright comedy, melodrama or romance. What it is, instead, is a loose-leaf collection of episodes in the life of an average Saint Louis family in 1903, as the city prepares to host the World Fair, structured according to the passing seasons (from Summer to Spring), as the Smiths face a possible move to New York after the father is offered a promotion by the law practice where he works.

     What Mr. Minnelli does with this, though, is nothing short of outstanding, and a breathtaking affirmation of the power and craftsmanship of Hollywood studio film-making at its height. Only the director's third feature, and in many ways his "entry level" exam to MGM's big leagues, it's remarkable for many reasons. It was on the set that he met future wife Judy Garland, and his traditionally elegant, colourful style seems to arrive here fully formed, its gliding, nearly effortless pans and tracking shots immaculately following the story's lightly bittersweet arc, George Folsey's richly-hued Technicolor giving the film the air of a tinted family portrait.

     At its heart, that is exactly what Mr. Minnelli does - create a family on-screen that extends to the viewers and also to the idea of a family of performers. See, for instance, the scene where Ms. Garland and Margaret O'Brien perform for the guests at a house party, where the older actress follows her child partner with her eyes, making sure she has all the steps of the routine down pat, while at the same time being a doting sister lovingly looking over her younger sibling. In that articulation lies the key to the film - not only does the family on-screen truly look and feel like a family, that is the "glue" that sustains the whole film and makes it transcend the mere appeal of nostalgia for simpler, younger, earlier times (it must be remembered this, after all, was a wartime production). And the precise attention to detail that is so typical of the director's work is all here, as if Meet Me in St. Louis was a sort of "blueprint" of what was to come in its expert sequencing of laughter and tears, desires and disappointments. A "classic" it may be, but it is also a surprisingly modern film, and its ability to straddle so many different universes effortlessly is, in the end, what makes it such a perennial.

Judy Garland; Margaret O'Brien; Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Tom Drake, Marjorie Main, Harry Davenport.
     Director, Vincente Minnelli; screenplay, Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe, from the book by Sally Benson, Meet Me in St. Louis; cinematography, George Folsey (Technicolor); musical director, Conrad Salinger; art directors, Cedric Gibbons, Lemuel Ayres, Jack Martin Smith; costume designer, Irene Sharaff; editor, Albert Akst; producer, Arthur Freed (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Loew's Incorporated), USA, 1944, 111 minutes.
     Screened: Castro Theatre, San Francisco, December 26th 2011. 


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