Have Yourself a Merry Little MMISL Christmas --- Part One
I hesitate calling Meet Me In St. Louis my favorite picture of all time, but then I can’t really think of one that's better. Among a wider public, it’s lacked the enduring appeal of The Wizard Of Oz. When I rented
All that’s passed now and we’re left with a show that maybe will remind us of right here where we live, as Judy exclaims at the fade. Certainly for me its setting and incidents evoked happy past times. Lines for MMISL stretched miles past year-end '44 and into ’45. I try to watch every Christmas, being more inclined to follow this Yellow Brick Road than the one in Oz, not least for subversive aspects partly intended (or were they?), plus as many more revealed for passage of time and much-changed attitudes since. The Smiths are a happy singing family enriched by peculiar shadings thought up by artists who did not necessarily come of so functional a background themselves, here striving to portray idyllic home life they imagined others to have had.
From an upstairs window, we see Judy Garland (as Esther) enter. She alights from a horse cart parked on a dirt street, but her clothes are pristine. That contrast made me wonder how anyone at the turn of the century (and before) kept his or her attire clean for even fifteen minutes after leaving the house. Plus she tells mother Mary Astor how hot it was on the tennis court. I’d marvel over anyone engaging exercise in so many layers of dress. Plain to see I’ve lived in this movie a long time. Wonder if Margaret O’Brien got that impression the time we met at an autograph show back in the nineties. I was thrilled talking to Tootie at last. Unlike a lot of after-the-fact whining child stars, she really liked being an actress.
John Truett is the neighbor as played by MGM beginner Tom Drake. Character and actor are tentative, Drake no doubt intimidated by high-powered talent he’s working alongside. Miss Esther, there are mice in the house. Two-of-them. How he over-enunciates that last part might be a dialogue director’s handiwork, or a young actor’s anxiety to recite it plainly. Either way, we flinch. Drake was said (in later years) to have spelled out his one-time employer’s name with as much deliberation: When I was working at Met-ro-Gold-wyn-Mayer. Never just MGM. By then, memories of association with that fabled place were about all he had left.
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The house party scene (aka Lon’s Going Away Party) about twenty minutes in gives us first opportunity to see dancers and background players that appear throughout the rest of the film. I developed sort of a crush on one of them and wondered for years who she was. Somewhat tall and dark-haired with real energy vested in a non-speaking role, this girl had a beauty not rooted in 1903 when the story took place or in 1944 when Meet Me In St. Louis was made (she’s seated on the floor lower right in the above group still). I always enjoy spotting said rare specimens. They are what I’d call The Sisterhood Of Louise Brooks, or faces that look good and never mind how long ago.
Perusal of the Judy Garland Message Board provided sort of an answer to the identity of my swoon (she’s also seated beside Esther on the trolley, dressed in blue). According to experts at JGMB, her name was Dorothy Gilmore Raye … but wait… others say the lady was Dorothy Tuttle Nitch. Both were dancers and occasional bit players in MGM musicals. Neither got screen credit, so it’s difficult confirming parts other than by facial recognition. Trouble is knowing for sure which is who. Dedicated
I wrote previously about the time we visited Suzanne Kaaren. She was the 30’s/40’s starlet who worked variously with Bela Lugosi and The Three Stooges, plus B westerns and odd castings elsewhere. Kaaren also danced in Metro musicals and was among background faces in Meet Me In St. Louis. Suzanne claimed she was considered for the part of Rose Smith, but that Lucille Bremer got it for being friendly to Arthur Freed. The very mention of Lucille prompted dismissive sneers from Suzanne Kaaren. She probably wasn’t alone for objecting to rivals who got casting legs up (or spread) to secure cooperation from producers. Bremer comes across less appealing in part because her
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Meet Me In St. Louis paints what seems a vivid and accurate picture of turn-of-the-century life we never knew (unlike many who saw it in '44-45 and did remember 1903). Guests bring instruments to Lon’s going away party. How else would they have had music? It’s hard to imagine households without even a radio. Parents of that era encouraged and sometimes insisted their children learn to play something, be it piano, violin, or washboard. My father was raised near around this time (b. 1907) and packed an unwilling me off to keyboard lessons during fourth and much of fifth grade. That ordeal ended in disaster of a public recital townfolk still chortle over. Sixth grade efforts at mastering the clarinet under the baton of former Our Gang member Priscilla Lyon ended with my dismissal from the band. How common was musical talent among 1903 youth? It would have assured your welcome at parties if nothing else. I should think those who played instruments well would have been most popular among peer groups. It’s a shame recorded music came along to erase such a talent advantage. Maybe without a phonograph’s prop, I’d have applied myself more to piano/clarinet, and been the hit at some latter-day equivalent of Lon’s party.
I finally looked up the Welsh Rabbit John Truett calls "ginger peachy." It was (is?) cheese melted with ale or beer and served over toast. Has anyone out there ever served such a thing? Welsh Rabbit may have been considered a retro dish even in 1944. Maybe it’s a delicacy I’m just too provincial to have heard of. Then there is the "cakewalk." Esther and Tootie perform one at the party. Turns out a cakewalk can be many things, being defined as a strutting dance based on a march, and not confined to a particular type of music. The cake refers to a prize that winners received and ate after a competition. Meet Me In St. Louis revolves around anticipation of the 1904 World’s Fair coming to “Skinker’s Swamp,” which was an actual place. There was a major sequence taking place there with