It’s often strange when you watch a film for the first time, and the emotion that best describes the experience is nostalgia. I often associate this feeling with films I’ve seen a dozen times over, or are tied to significant events, or holidays. While I suppose, the latter loosely applies as the film touches on Christmas, a season that really draws so much on experiences and emotions. It evokes a sense of familiarity and comfort that few films outside of family and childhood favourites ever achieves. Perhaps my own affection for the film comes from Judy Garland and her singing of “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. As a child my favourite film, that I would watch daily was the Wizard of Oz, so Garland’s voice alone brings me back a few years. Then the song, as I mentioned I had never seen the film until yesterday, but my aunt who was a great classic film enthusiast idolized Garland and had a music box with the music that she used to sing to me when I was four or five years old. It’s while watching films like this that you really become aware of the filters that prevent us from seeing the world in the same way, and in turn interpreting and appreciating art as unique individuals. It’s a constant dialogue between one’s experiences, emotions, personalities with the work of the artist. No two people will ever have the same experience. That being said, the effect of the film lies beyond myself, as Minnelli is truly able to create an extraordinary film that plays on common experiences and emotions.
Instead of spectacle and wide ranging conflict, Minnelli’s decision to make a story of the experiences of one family and their everyday struggles was an interesting innovation at the time. He really introduced a new kind of musical, where music carries on with emotion, and it’s character, and their own fears and hopes that drive the plot rather than an external influence. The Smith family is a well off family living in St. Louis in 1904, one year before the World’s Fair. They are a large and happy family, ranging from a young girl to an elderly grandfather. Their dynamic is positive, however not sugar coated. There is a lot of the sibling conflict that I find familiar in my own home, and generally I think it’s a rather realistic portrayal of a “happy” family unit. The drama emerges from the struggles that are so ordinary, the father getting a job in New York, a Halloween prank gone sore, and countless tangles with the opposite sex. The film truly fits in the category of “harmless” and “innocent” fun, and it’s almost a shame that those have become synonymous with badly made films, or films that are not worth remembering for one reason or another.
This perhaps is not entirely true, because in the youngest daughter, Tootie, we find a very strange character who adds an edge of danger and menace to the film. Played by leading child actress of the 1940s, Margaret O’Brien, she’s cute as a button and not as shrill as most child actors. Her character is obssesed with death, and is often burying her dolls in the garden as they have died from various terminal diseases. In my brief readings on people’s reactions to the film, her character, as well as the Halloween episode stand out as the most heavily criticized sequences. I think though, people are unfortunately imposing twentieth/twenty first century ideology on a different time. First and foremost, in 1900 there was a significantly higher infant mortality rate adding in to the fact that infectious diseases were still a major issue. Yelllow Fever, Polio, Influenza, Cholera and others were still a major cause of death. Even a child as young and “innocent” as Tootie had no doubt encountered more death and sickness than most of us do in a lifetime. It’s so common, it’s almost normal, and is of little concern to those around her. While the era is romanticized, we are hinted that it was not as ideal as we are lead to believe, and these moments of discomfort (be your reaction laughter, or a slight adjustment in your chair) add needed tension to the film. The Halloween episode as well hints to time when there was a lot less parental supervision, and while some criticize the parents’ lack of attention, even my parents were going out on Halloween alone, getting into who knows what kind of mischief. These traditions were carried along from Europe, where this was just as normal. Halloween was the one night the children could let loose, and while Agnes and Tootie’s actions far surpass what even I think is permissible, I do understand why they were not severely punished. Even coming back to the obsession with death, there is a strange sense I have in the film that Tootie has had her own brushes with it (the doctor says something like, what trouble have you gotten yourself into this time), and no doubt has witnessed her share of it. I think there is a fear of shattering her fragile innocence. … Sorry for the strange tangent.
The music in the film is positively lovely, and every song is essential. I find too often with musicals that there are too many songs, and that some are underdeveloped. It’s not the case here. Each one is integrated perfectly in terms of character, timing and execution. As Liza Minnelli points out in her introduction, even the Trolley song is given an extra punch because it becomes more of a celebration of youthful happiness, but he anxiety and enthusiasm of young love is added to the mix when Garland’s beau misses the ride. It also makes the song dynamics far more interesting as the tone shifts, as well as Garland’s presentation. My two favourite numbers though are probably Meet Me in St. Louis, the song that runs throughout the entire film, sung by different characters, for different reasons and the afore mentioned “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. It’s also one of the best examples of Technicolor, the film is so vibrant, rich and beautiful.
Overall, while I loved the film I can’t recommend it to everyone. Most people who don’t like musicals probably won’t have much enthusiasm for it, as it really defined the ones that most people see and hate. I still say give it a chance, but you really have to let go of inhibitions and expectations.