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Meet Me in St. Louis

Critics tend to take Meet Me in St. Louis at face value. Arguably the best movie musical ever made, and one of the few great musicals developed originally for the screen, this Vincente Minnelli-Arthur Freed film from 1944 is accepted for what it is by most commentators. While the domestic melodramas of Douglas Sirk are probed for an underlying critique of middle-class life, the films of Max Ophuls are celebrated for their sympathy toward their daring heroines and films of Fritz Lang are loved for their sardonic misanthropy, Minnelli's films, and especially Meet Me in St. Louis, are toasted as exquisite but unambiguous exercises in style and decor. Such reviewers hesitate to grope for evidence that Minnelli was undermining or commenting on the very bucolic setting that he appeared on the surface to be celebrating. But Minnelli was a complex filmmaker indeed, and over a long career much superior to the director he is most often compared to, the terribly overrated George Cukor.

Adapted from a series of short roman à cléfs by Susan Benson published in the New Yorker and later gathered into a book, Meet Me in St. Louis takes place over the course of one year in the lives of the Smith family: befuddled patriarch Lon (Leon Ames), quietly commanding matriarch Anna (Mary Astor), and kids Esther (Judy Garland), Rose (Lucille Bremer), Agnes (Joan Carroll), and Tootie (Margaret O'Brien). There is also a son, Lonnie (Henry H. Daniels), but no one cares about him. Not much ostensibly happens in the course of the film. Esther gets a crush on the boy — literally — next door; Rose expects a proposal; the family eagerly anticipates the St. Louis World Fair of 1904; and Lon announces that the whole family is moving to New York City at the end of the year. The "drama" of this musical, such as it is, revolves around the family's coping with this crisis (it's worth noting that in the original stories, the family in fact does move to New York).

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Minnelli's third film (and first in color) celebrates American suburban life here as he does in several films to follow, but not without an awareness of the ambiguities and tensions to be found there. What attracted Minnelli most to the material, in a film that celebrates the color bounty of the seasons, was the Hallowe'en sequence. There, Tootie, who has a morbid sense of humor, has to bravely "kill" a scary neighbor by throwing flour in his face. Minnelli and the screenwriters here beautifully capture the way in which childhood fixations and fears loom larger and can define a personality. But Tootie and sister Agnes, with whom she shares this almost shocking morbidity, allow some critics, such as James Naremore in his book The Films of Vincente Minnelli, and Robin Wood, in his anthology of essays on horror films, The American Nightmare, to buck convention and find complexities and subversively explored contradictions in Meet Me in St. Louis. For Naremore, this wonderful sequence "momentarily inverts the patriarchal and heterosexual values of the film," while for Wood it anticipates the horror films of the 1970s that would find the American family imploding — when it wasn't exploding — and plagued by terrors that exposed the fragility and / or corruption of "family values."

Consumers wondering why Warner Home Entertainment is releasing an MGM movie on DVD when there already is an MGM Home Entertainment should know that all MGM films made before a certain time period are owned by Time Warner, thanks to Ted Turner buying the MGM library in 1986. This fine two-disc set assembles some materials derived from the 1994 Laserdisc with newer material to celebrate the film's 60th anniversary. The image is a superb, vivid full frame transfer (1.33:1) with adequate Dolby Digital 5.1 and monaural audio, with subtitles in English, French and Spanish. The first disc contains a fine, edited audio commentary by Garland biographer John Fricke, with additional comments from Margaret O'Brien, composer Hugh Martin, writer Irving Brecher, and Barbara Freed-Saltzman. Also on the first disc is a selection of seven trailers for Minnelli films, plus the 1955 reissued trailer for Meet Me in St. Louis. Disc Two has nine items. First off is an informative "making-of" doc narrated by Roddy McDowall and made in 1994 for the film's 50th anniversary (30:45). It should be pointed out, though, that in the audio track Fricke says that source-writer Benson is represented by Agnes on the screen while the 50th anniversary "making-of" says it is Tootie. Second is "Hollywood: The Dream Factory," a celebration of movie musicals narrated by Dick Cavett (50:24), which also is broken up into chapters. This is followed by a Turner Classic Movies original production, Becoming Attractions, about the trailers for Judy Garland's movies and how they attempted to shape her image (45:57). Next up is the pilot for a television sitcom based on the movie, which bears all the ills of a poorly conceived laugh-track-enriched low-budget set-poor show (26:27). "Bubbles" is a Warner Bros. short from 1930 that may be the earliest surviving footage of Garland on screen (7:05), while "Skip to My Lou" is a "music video" version of the song later used in the film and sung by the St. Louis's composers, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane (3:11). The short was made by the Soundies Corporation in 1941. In sound only, the disc also has the Lux Radio Theater version of the movie, broadcast in 1946 with Garland and O'Brien, plus the Rogers and Hammerstein song "Boys and Girls Like you and Me," sung by Garland but cut from the film, here illustrated with stills. Finally, there is an animated stills gallery (11:04). The animated musical menu offers 32-chapter scene selection. The discs come in a fold out dual DVD digipak in a slipcase.
—D.K. Holm

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