Just last week, my wife, two children, and I walked down Main Street in our small town. Such walks—weaving ’round fire hydrants and passerbies with our bulky double stroller on the narrow sidewalks—have become a favorite pastime of ours since moving to this historic hamlet in western Virginia. We enjoy the shops, the restaurants, and the museums, all locally owned and operated by fixtures who couldn’t possibly live anywhere else than behind their corner counter. If they do indeed leave that iconic spot at the back of the toy store at night, then undoubtedly it is to a Rockwellesque home where the fire place perpetually blazes, complete with a circling coat rack, pastel wallpaper, and children pristinely obeying grandma and grandpa.
This particular walk was a little different. Many of these human fixtures indeed had gone home, leaving their shops locked up for the night. But, even as they flicked the light switches behind them, as they left work for home and their advent calendars, they left on their Christmas lights. Quaint and thoughtful displays were left in their front windows: dusted trees, poinsettias, toys, animals, and wood carvings all lit with the soft white lights of Christmastime. Along the sidewalks hung wreaths from streetlights, and our tiny little city green featured a big pine covered in giant glowing bulbs. If you didn’t maintain your grasp on reality, you may have thought you’d jumped into a cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
There’s something special about window designs during the holidays. The designers are meticulous, it seems, as they play their parts in making the holiday spirit public. Our small town window displays weren’t much compared to the types that you may see around 30 Rockefeller Plaza, but there was still a joy to them. Regardless of where they are, window displays create an atmosphere that quite literally light up the night. They hearken to tradition, to a nostalgia both for the human past and our own departed innocence. It is to the innocent, the child, that December brings the most joy. Despite the cliché, these quaint displays help us feel a little of that preadolescent euphoria that, let’s be honest, we missed.
As I, like last year, take a quick break from my current course of action to review the remaining Christmas films on my list of the 555 greatest films, I think about this experience on Main Street and think of one movie: Vincente Minnelli’s musical, Meet Me in St. Louis.
See, before becoming a renowned director, Vincente Minnelli worked as a Holiday window display designer at Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago. He would go on to work as a photographer, and later as a stage designer, in Chicago’s theater district. These three jobs worked to spark his interest in the melded visual art of film and theater, and a renowned anecdote from his time on the set of Meet Me in St. Louis works very well to show this special affinity:
Working with legendary set director Cedric Gibbons (the man responsible for the design of a golden statue named “Oscar”), Minnelli decided that he would film the haunting Christmas scene of his masterpiece—easily one of the greatest American musicals of all time, let alone of the era in which it was made—in a darkened room highlighted by greens and reds. Gibbons was adamantly opposed. Meet Me in St. Louis was an intentionally vibrant film, meant to be as much a showcase of Technicolor’s abilities as it was a commentary on the middle-American family, and the reds and greens would get flushed out and bland amid the darkness of the scene at hand. Gibbons also didn’t want the obvious Christmas reference: the scene was darker than it was hopeful, and Gibbons didn’t approve of the cliché approach, which would, he felt, oversimplify and maybe even prostitute the depth of the visual. Furthermore, he just didn’t think red and green belonged together, despite their juxtaposition as complimentary colors in the color spectrum.
Red and green don’t belong together? “Tell that to God when he created roses,” was Minnelli’s reply.
And the scene was born. Judy Garland’s Esther Smith, the second-oldest daughter in a 1902 St. Louis family, walks through the halls of the house that she and her family have lived in for years and from which they will soon be moving, in order to start a life in New York after their father received a job offer. The camera pans her slowly through the darkness, and she pauses at the sound of a music box behind her. Immediately, she switches course, turns around and walks into her little sister Tootie’s room. Tootie is an interesting and dark character; her obsession with death seems too morbid for a quintessentially Americana film like this one. But, here in this scene, her addiction to the grim side of eternity seems an all too fitting symbol of the story going on around…a story which, itself, is a symbol of the life’s sad lack of permanence.
As Esther walks into Tootie’s room, the dim bars of light create a labyrinth of shadows, and Esther quickly navigates it to Tootie’s window, where her little sister sits sobbing. Tootie cries about how she doesn’t want to leave for New York; she wanted to stay in her beloved St. Louis. Just then, the window lights up with an artificial, burning glow.
Here, Brian Doan points out that we see the first shot of Esther’s point of view. There are actually a relative few POV shots in this film, and many of them are based on Esther’s observation of her love interest, John Truett. One of the best examples of this was earlier in the film, as Esther rode on the double decker trolley in town and she and the cast sang the famous “The Trolley Song” (“ding-ding-ding went the trolley, clang-clang-clang went the bells…”). In that sequence, the choreography is interrupted for a moment as Esther looks over the bars onto the street below, and sees John moving alongside. Then, the song turns, talking about Esther’s heartstrings and her innocent love through the rhythmic timbre of the song.
This time, the mood is different. She looks up at him, instead of down, through the open window of his home across the yard. Somberly, he closes the drapes, and the light that cast over them is shut out immediately. They are back in darkness, and Esther turns again to Tootie. This is where the reds and greens, like the plants in the hallway, really matter, especially the red of Esther’s cloak and dress. It is an explicit Christmas reference, exactly as Cedric Gibbons feared. And, it’s not meant to be a cynical one. In a scene where the darkness, the minor key of the score, the actors, and all the lead-up to it are saying “sad,” the colors are saying “stay hopeful.” That is the power of a single, well-used film element, and one of the advantages to color film. This Technicolor masterpiece knew very well the types of colors it was using.
Then, Esther starts to sing, as only Judy Garland, with that incomparable tonality, could:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away
Once again, as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Will be near to us once more
Someday soon we all will be together
If the Fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now
What ensues is a brilliant and symbolic move in the plot as Tootie reacts to the song. Her reaction is likely not what we’d expect, but it brings her otherwise morbid character traits to the forefront. Finally, we are allowed an opportunity to understand why her character was drawn up the way it was in this story, a story about what happens between the beginning and the ending, between birth and death.
Elsewhere in the same article I referenced above, Brian Doan pulled apart a section of the lyric: in the song’s bridge, Esther references past and future, hearkening back to the olden days, hoping that friends will near again one day. As for now, the present, have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Meet Me in St. Louis works so well as a narrative film because it shows the life of the Smith family in more than just the limbo of a big family move across country. Having undergone a couple moves of that variety in my youth, I know what it is like to feel spiritually displaced by the uncertainty of the future. It is not the move itself that displaces you; it’s hearing about it for the first time, just waiting for it to come. Is it worth further investment in your social life in place A, considering the impending relocation to place B at some later date? For all intents and purposes, you’ve already moved, and yet you still see the same sights, the same people, everyday. This is the feeling that permeates that little scene with Tootie in the bedroom window nook. But, it is only a microcosm of the greater point. Whether or not they move, the characters in this film grow up. And growing up, like it or not, is an act of perpetual limbo: we prepare for what lies ahead despite the present, and, at least most of the time, want to go back to where we were before.
This is why Meet Me in St. Louis has aged over the last 71 years into a Christmas standard, despite the fact that the movie really isn’t a Christmas movie. It is about one year in the life of the Smith family as St. Louis is humming in anticipation of the upcoming World’s Fair the city is hosting. They go through all the seasons, not unlike the experience of the characters in Holiday Inn. Each season is its own vignette, including fades from sepia to help distinguish them. Each vignette also features its own sort of coming-of-age story that culminates with the family’s experience at the 1903 World’s Fair. As a matter of fact, the winter vignette is one of the shorter ones, and yet, a Christmas movie it remains.
Because Christmas is a limbo period, just before the New Year. Faced with nature’s death all around us (leaves falling from trees into the earth, not unlike Tootie’s dead and buried dolls), we approach a new year. Universally, the new year is considered a rebirth or restart. It’s like the Tennyson poem, “Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky/The flying cloud, the frosty light/The year is dying in the night/Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.” Without Christmas, I think, the whole thing would be kind of depressing. We would all be like Tootie, tearing down everything we love as the world dies and changes all around us, because, “if (we) can’t have them, no one one can”.
That is why, I think, Vincente Minnelli was the perfect director for this film. The movie is rife with joy, as if a Norman Rockwell story had come to life with rich color and vibrant music. (Not unlike my little town in Virginia). Yet, all that color and vibrancy seems a little misplaced. But, it’s a movie about displacement, and its universality in the human experience. So long as change is part of the plan, find joy in it. This is what Christmas window displays do, isn’t it? They bring us back to the innocent years we knew before, back when we weren’t put off by clichés.
Minnelli made many great films, in particular his work in An American in Paris and The Band Wagon are considered masterworks. While I am partial to the former, Meet Me in St. Louis is easily its equal in almost every respect. That’s because, both stylistically and thematically, it’s Minnelli’s last great window display. Not only did the nostalgic, Christmas-y, Americana approach to the Technicolor invoke the sort of visual quaintness of holiday window dressings, but the entire idea of growth, change, death, and rebirth created a literary narrative the worked in perfect conjunction with its images and the Christmas season.
And, like the star on top of the tree which stands in that red-flushed window, Judy Garland glows. From the fame to which she ascended in 1939 with The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms, Judy Garland moved to dominate the American musical both directly and indirectly. She deserves all the credit I can give her for her performance in Meet Me in St. Louis, but I can’t help but include Minnelli himself when I praise her. This was the set on which the two people would fall in love. A year later, Garland and Minnelli were married. Their daughter, Liza, would become a theater and movie star herself. Liza herself said that Meet Me in St. Louis is her very favorite movie of her mother’s, and said of her father’s directorial role that one can see his love for Garland throughout the film. He shrouds her in light, and often, she is seen in a frame—a door frame, a window frame, or the frame of streetlights—to say outright that she is the film’s source of light: his muse.
Another person put Judy Garland in a frame for all eternity. His name was Norman Rockwell.
Rockwell was criticized in his time for caring less about “art” and more about aesthetics and moments. Only later did Rockwell get the credit he deserved: his artistic awareness was toward the moments that gave a culture its distinctness, and the colors he used were key elements in that creation.
Meet Me in St. Louis was Minnelli’s Rockwell. Renowned critic Andrew Sarris once said that Minnelli cared more about beauty than he did about art, and praised him for it. Beauty itself is art, even if devoid of meaning. But Meet Me in St. Louis is anything but devoid of meaning: to its brim, it is full of the euphoria of youth, the disillusionment of adolescence, and the restoration of hope that time (and Christmas) seems to always bring. From it’s greatest songs, “Meet Me in St. Louis”, “The Trolley Song”, “The Boy Next Door”, and many others, to it’s dance numbers, dialogue, and, maybe above all, color, Meet Me in St. Louis is a perfect celebration of Christmas and of life.