Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

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One thing that can be said of Meet Me in St. Louis is that it captures the milieu of an era while simultaneously being quintessential Vincente Minnelli. Every man, woman, and child is dressed to the tee and enraptured by love and the grand promises of the World Fair full of dancing the Hoochie-Coochie with their special Tootsie Wootsies.  It’s cheerfully opulent in such a fashion that some might consider it almost garish and others will deem it the height of turn-of-the-century elegance.

There’s no doubt that the director had one of the most phenomenal palettes of any filmmaker from any time period. Certainly, this extends to the mise en scene and the costumes adorning his stars — pulled right out of Sears Roebuck circa 1900. But the other crucial aspect is that Minnelli seems to handle his talent with kid gloves or at least he creates an environment for them to flourish.

Of course, front and center of the Technicolor extravaganza is Judy Garland who would marry her director the following year and you get the sense that she had fallen in love with how beautiful he was able to make her on film. It’s true that she’s a striking sight to behold, only magnified by the world she traipses through, surrounded by her kin and singing to her heart’s content.

Still, if the set design is such a grand expression of the film’s potency and visual appeal, it’s necessary to point out again that this is far from a Judy Garland show; there is an ensemble component even if she’s the scene-stealer.

Margaret O’Brien is a riot because she plays little Tootie in the most ingratiatingly precocious way possible. Though it must be admitted she has a bit of a morbid side too. We meet her on an ice wagon telling a man how she’s going to give her doll a nice funeral and later on, of course, she takes the heads off all the snow people.

However, there’s also a whole Halloween interlude starring Tootie and their sister Agnes that feels more like a ghoulish Guy Fawkes day than its modern incarnation of door-to-door candy grabbing. Maybe Halloween has gotten tamer than we give it credit for. Put up against the film’s more mirthful moments, it comes off a tad alarming.

But then again, the story continually goes back to its roots in the centrality of the family unit. Its very integrity is in jeopardy of being disrupted when Father (Leon Ames) drops the news that they will be moving to New York from St. Louis. It comes off horrifically. It’s imperative to remember that in order for those heights to be so gay there must be a steady stream of romantic heartbreaks and personal roadblocks which the picture gladly provides.

There’s a lovely scene staged around the piano between Mr. and Mrs. Adams (Ames and Mary Astor) where like in so many other instances song becomes the perfect expression of the current mood. Based on where the camera is situated, the stairwell in the back is visible and you see the shadows of figures before they inch back into the frame and subsequently back into the family room. It’s a visual representation of the family staying rooted together even after a spat — constantly retracting — then contracting back together in continuous motion.

Without question, the well-remembered “The Trolley Song” is a giddy number that outshines any of the others but that’s because it is the summation of romantic euphoria that Esther (Garland) is feeling for her beau (Tom Drake). Meanwhile, “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas,” though hauntingly melodious, is quite easy for me to rip out of the context of this film.

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Meet Me in St. Louis has never been a yuletide film for me in a similar fashion to how Holiday Inn (1942) is not so much attached to “White Christmas” or holiday cheer as the Michael Curtiz picture from 1954. Perhaps its influence isn’t as deeply rooted in my childhood recollections as some of its contemporaries. But then again, Meet Me in St Louis evokes Christmas in the same way that some of the cinematic adaptations of Little Woman (1933, 1949, or 1994) conjure up the season in the context of family. Perhaps that’s how it should be.

In its day, the film was a smash hit only to be outshined by that prior behemoth from David Selznick Gone with the Wind (1939) and it’s easy to draw up parallels if not simply visually speaking. Both films boast breathtaking imagery and extraordinary color photography for the era that even today can rightfully be considered landmark stuff. Still, that doesn’t mean that everything else has improved with age. Make the concessions where you will and the film can be a good-natured classic or even a Christmas perennial favorite. In my estimation its middling in both categories. Still, that can’t completely detract from its finer attributes. Namely Minnelli’s striking color scheme which remains second to none.

4/5 Stars

The Clock (1945)

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May 25th, 1945. That’s when The Clock was originally released. To save you doing all the mental calculations V-E Day was on Tuesday, May 8th and the folks at home were ready for the war to be over. So in such an environment, this is hardly a war film and it can’t even claim to be a post-war picture like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). It’s floating in limbo.

This is the story of a fresh-faced soldier boy in the big city (Robert Walker) constantly craning his neck in awe of skyscrapers and cowering a little bit under the weight of them all. As such he’s constantly being bumped into, like a tourist perpetually lost. From such a moment springs an almost unforgivable meet-cute we can spy from a mile away. She trips over him and loses a heel.

But our stars are winsome and their persons genuine in nature in the days when that was unequivocally so. Corporal Joe Allen (Walker) proves to be to New York City what Mr. Smith was to Washington D.C. He even rides the very same sightseeing bus. He’s also a bit of an idealistic builder not unlike George Bailey.

The soldier and the gal he asks to follow a piece, end up taking a Central Park stroll together followed by a tour of the local art museum, taking a load off, butt up against an Egyptian sphinx. There’s something inherently refreshing about its meandering wanderings through New York City. It gives this illusion of circumstance where there is no clear-cut agenda. In a moment of decision, he goes pell-mell chasing after her bus because he knows something special is onboard and he sets up a date just like that.

Vincente Minnelli is looking out for his heroine as Judy Garland was his own new romantic interest but his camera setups also reflect a stewardship over the contents of the film with his usual array of fluid shots. Far from just taking care of Garland you always get a sense Minnelli is watching out for all his actors with his camera often walking alongside them. She proves to be a fine performer sans singing and although long remembered for Strangers on a Train (1951) and his tumultuous personal life, Robert Walker undoubtedly exudes a naive candor of his own.

It’s always striking how Hollywood was able to cast a certain vision of the every day while reality was oftentimes so different. One aspect of that was the wartime shortages which made shooting on location highly impractical so everything from train stations to exteriors were created on the MGM lot to closely mirror their real-life counterparts and it, for the most part, takes very well. We feel like we are traveling through the big city with a soldier and a gal. At any rate, the city crowds feel realistically suffocating.

But beyond the simple (or not so simple) realm of sound stages and set design it also extends to the actors themselves. Robert Walker who played opposite his wife in the epic home front drama Since You Went Away (1944), had a horrid time getting through the picture as their marriage was on the rocks.

By the time he got to The Clock he had been overtaken by alcohol addiction and Jennifer Jones was all but on the way to marrying executive David O. Selznick. Judy Garland on her part, that shining beacon of traditional Americana was struggling with an addiction of her own and after some creative differences with Fred Zinnemann, she had her soon-to-be husband Vincente Minnelli brought on to revitalize the production.

In these ways, it becomes obvious how there’s almost a conflicting double life going on in front of and behind the camera and yet there’s no doubting that this picture is brimming with sincerity whether partially made up or perfectly simulated. It still works.

You can undoubtedly see the same fascination with the very conversations and interactions that make up a relationship in everyday environments. The walking and talking we do when we share time together. The silly things we get caught up on or pop into our heads on a whim. And yes, there is a bit of Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) in Minnelli’s picture for those who wish to draw the parallels but the beauty of it is The Clock is obviously not trying to be anything else. It takes simple joy in its story and the characters it holds in its stead.

It’s a film that dares have a scene where our two leads sit in a park, silent for a solitary moment as they listen to the street noise emanating from the city center and breaking into their tranquility. Take another extended sequence where the two lovebirds catch a ride on a midnight milk wagon driven by that perennial favorite James Gleason.

He’s the local milkman waiting impatiently for his request on the late night radio station and intent on some company along the route. But a flat tire puts him out of commission only to bring about another inspired piece of casting. Keenan Wynn as a drunk appears for mere minutes and earns high billing in the picture. It’s worth it. When our stars are allowed to sink into the periphery, the accents of the real world come into focus.

It’s equally true that those are the exact moments where you see the extent of another person’s character. Because it’s not simply the two of you but you get the opportunity to see them in a context with other people and that’s often very telling about who they are. Depending on the perceptions it can make you fall even more in love with someone and seeing as these two individuals help their new friend with his milk run, you can just imagine what it does for their relationship.

As for James Gleason and Lucille Gleason, they make the quintessential cute old couple and that’s because they truly are spinning their wisdom and bickering like only the most steadfast wedded folks do. The last leg of the film is when it goes for drama turning into a literal race against the clock bookended by one of the most distinct courthouse weddings ever captured. But even this picture doesn’t end there. Further still, it sinks back into this odd shadowland between the drama and the happy ending.

We could venture a guess it settles in on a realistic denouement where life isn’t always as we would like it but we can still love people deeply and do not regret the decisions we have made. As we walk off into the crowd with Judy Garland there is little to no regret only a faint hope for a future and assurance in the institution of marriage as something worth pursuing.

They are traditional values and yet somehow, in this context, there’s something comforting about them. Minnelli has spun his magic on us even as the cinematic in its so-called reality slowly drifts away from the Hollywood marital standards of its stars. It’s both an idealized vision and a genuine one.

4/5 Stars

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

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The people making the decisions, at least some of them, undoubtedly knew that this title implied some sort of sordid melodrama, a Douglas Sirk picture anyone? And yet I do admit despite the emptiness in the title, there’s some truth to its implications. Hollywood often is this gaudy, outrageous, maniacal monster looking for people and things to gorge itself on.

Except this is no Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Ace in the Hole (1951) for that matter. It’s not quite as biting or even as tragic or twisted as Wilder’s films but that’s what comes with having Vincente Minnelli at the helm. But rather than critique that decision in any way I think someone like Minnelli thinks about such a picture in a way that Wilder never would. That in itself makes for interesting creative deviations.

First, the camera setups feel impeccable, like a Hitchcock or Ophuls, finding the perfect moments to bring attention to a shot and the precise instances to sit back and allow things to unfold. It’s utilizing a bit of a flashy framing device like a Letter to Three Women (1949) or All About Eve (1950) but in this case, it relates the story of one Hollywood producer through the eyes of the people who worked with him.

Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) is a man whose father was one of the most hated men in Hollywood and also one of the most successful. Jonathan buries his father and with hardly a penny to his name looks to rise out of the ashes his dad left behind. He just might make good too. So as such, it’s another exploration of Hollywood top to bottom, starting very much at the bottom.

That’s part of what makes this story compelling as we watch an ambitious man claw his way from poverty row and B pictures using a joint partnership with another up-and-comer (Barry Sullivan) to slide his way into a gig as a big-time producer. It’s at these beginning stages where they succeed in making a name for themselves under producer Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon).

For Sullivan, he is so closely tied to the business, it’s almost as if he’s wedded to the picture industry.  It’s both his life and obsession every waking hour. So when he’s done with one and waiting for the next he has what can best be termed, “the after picture blues.” He’s still trying to adopt his philosophy for women and apply it to his films — love them and leave them.

In passing, we get an eye into the bit players and the small-timers working behind the scenes just to make a decent day’s wage whether assistants or agents or pretty starlets moonlighting as companions at night. There’s even a very obvious current of sexual politics where women are naturally assumed to be at the beck and call of any higher up to pay them any favors. It’s the grimy, sleazy side of the business that continues to reveal itself in due time with connivers and drunks and suicidal wretches conveniently hidden by bright lights and trick photography.

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Further still, there are screen tests, meetings, rushes, and sound stages, makeup artists, and costume designers each a part of the unwieldy snake that makes up a film production. All the nitty-gritty that we conceive to be part of the movie-making whirly gig churning out pictures each and every year. They say if it’s not broke then don’t fix but what if it is broken and no one is fixing it? I write this right in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s ousting due to a laundry list of accusations against him.

One of those involved in this beast receives a stellar introduction of her own. We meet Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) with her feet hanging down from the eaves of an old mansion that belonged to her deceased father. She like Shields comes from Hollywood royalty and she like him is also looking to get out of her father’s shadow.

Jonathan is derisively called “Genius Boy” and maybe he is but opportunistic might be a more applicable term. Still, when he makes his mind up, he cannot be stopped and when he deems this smalltime actress will be his next star, he makes it so.

The same goes for novelist turned screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) who Jonathan is able to coax out to Hollywood albeit reluctantly and works his magic to get him to stay along with his southern belle of a wife (Gloria Grahame) who is completely mesmerized by this magical land out west. Again, Jonathan turns his new partnership into a lucrative success but not without marginalizing yet another person.

One of the most interesting suggestions made by the film is not how much Jonathan ruined his collaborators — alienated them yes — but he really helped their careers. In some ways, it reflects what happens with great men who are lightning rods and always thinking about the next big thing. They’re obsessed with ideas and connections, finding those relationships that will lead to power, wealth, acclaim, and awards. Any amount of honest-to-goodness friendship goes out the window.

But for all those who felt slighted, there’s almost no need to feel truly sorry for them because they bought into this industry with its promises and they bit into the fruit. Sure, their feathers got ruffled and their egos bruised but it goes with the territory.

For everything we want to make it out to be, it’s a tooth and claw operation and those who get ahead usually are the most ruthless of the bunch. Whether we should feel sorry for them or not is up for debate. But maybe we should because a mausoleum full of Academy Awards means nothing. A life of power will be ripped from you the day you die as will the wealth, elegance, and extravagance. It will all be gone. Then, you’re neither bad nor beautiful. You’re simply forgotten. In that respect, this films has meager glimpses of a Citizen Kane (1941) or even real-life figures like Orson Welles and David O. Selznick.

Except in the sensitive hands of Minnelli, this picture is neither an utter indictment of Hollywood nor does it take a complete nosedive in showing how far the man has fallen. It even reveals itself in the performance of Kirk Douglas who while still brimming with his usual intensity chooses to channel his character more so through the vein of charisma.

So if we cannot love or admire his dealings there’s still a modicum amount of respect we must hold for him. Everyone comes out with a shred of dignity and the film’s end is more lightly comic than we have any right to suppose. But then again, we’re not in the moviemaking business and they are.

4.5/5 Stars

The Father of the Bride (1950)

FatheroftheBride1950I’ve seen both versions of Father of the Bride and Steve Martin is fine and dandy but there is no better lovable curmudgeon than Spencer Tracy and he dons the role of the protective and skeptical father so effortlessly.

Furthermore, all down the line this production is an impressive gathering of talent with a radiantly young Elizabeth Taylor embodying the role of Kay, Joan Bennett leaving behind femme fatale roles for that of the level-headed mother and, of course, Vincente Minnelli positioned behind the camera. All in all, it’s a delightful light comedy that also finds time to say something heartfelt about the relationships of parents and their children, especially between fathers and daughters.

It’s rather like sitting back for story time as Tracy struggles with his shoes and begins to regale us with the recent happenings — the events that left his stately home looking like a hurricane disaster zone. It was all as a result of his daughter’s wedding. The event that is bound to challenge his sanity and bankrupt him in the process. But it’s for his “Kitten” so he’s willing to go through it out of his unwavering love for her.

First, he’s dubious of his future son-in-law, cringing at the thought as he shuffles through his memories of Kay’s many beaus. In his estimation, none of them was a winner, but then again, no one is good enough for his daughter. He’s not too excited about giving his daughter away nor by the prospect of supporting her good for nothing husband either. I’m sure most every father has the same conundrum to wrestle with. And it’s important to note that it’s played for comedic effect but never in a way that belittles these characters.

Minnelli was always a master of the color medium but here he still takes on the important role guiding us through the comedic moments with a deft touch and allowing us to track with the mayhem at large when necessary.

There are also some wonderful spots for veteran supporting players like the overly stuffy wedding coordinator Leo G. Carroll and the charmingly enthusiastic Melville Cooper as he guides the wedding rehearsal with a chaotic vigor.  Then, of course, there’s the prospective groom Buckley, played by the always affable everyman Don Taylor.

But everything must return to Tracy and Taylor because they are the nucleus of the storyline and as such, they work well together. Admittedly, Taylor might feel slightly out of place in such a family, but she is Elizabeth Taylor and she’s captivating all the same. Putting her together with Tracy means a lot of poignant sequences. Those moments where he comforts her, encourages her over a midnight snack at the dining room table, and finally, willingly gives her up to the man she has chosen to have and to hold for the rest of her life. To its credit, the film strikes a fine balance between comedy and heart always returning to this father-daughter relationship.

3.5/5 Stars

Some Came Running (1958)

Poster_of_the_movie_Some_Came_RunningSome Came Running is a film that can so easily get lost in the shuffle of 1950s Hollywood. It’s hardly the most well-known picture of director Vincente Minnelli, known generally for his musicals and excellent set direction. Furthermore, this is most certainly a melodrama, certainly affecting, but not quite as falsely superficial to the degree of Douglas Sirk’s work. In a way, it feels like a 50s variation on The Best Years of Our Lives.

In the post-war years drifting vet and one-time author Dave Hirsh (Frank Sinatra) comes back to the town he skipped out on as a young kid. He’s a bit hung over getting off the Greyhound and realizes he has another traveler in his wake. The fellow passenger is the potentially disreputable and slightly dumb Ginny Moorehead (Shirley MacLaine), who came along for the ride from Chicago on his invitation.

Now that he’s back home, he just wants Ginny to head back the way she came, while he gets over with the obligatory meeting with his older brother. After handing his brother over to a boarding school, Frank Hirsh (Arthur Kennedy) did pretty well for himself. He married a wife (Leora Dana) from a good family and inherited a profitable jewelry business. By now he’s living the American Dream and his daughter Dawn (Betty Lou Keim) is growing up to be a beautiful young woman. In fact, you might call Frank a pillar of society, because everything’s working for him and people look up to him for what he has made for himself.

Thus, the arrival of Dave is not without its problems. The brothers have not talked for well nigh 16 years now. Frank looks to play things up like nothing’s changed and they’re both pals. He sets his brother up to an evening with a Professor French and his beautiful and highly intelligent daughter Gwen (Martha Hyer), who happens to be a literature teacher at the local high school. This is his way of trying to get his brother into good company. After all, he can’t bear that people should talk. He’s got a reputation to uphold.

But Dave’s not much for that type of company, although he takes a liking to Gwen, who avoids his advances while still taking a great interest in his work as an author. Furthermore, the cynical drifter begins to keep company with jovial gambler Bama Dillert, played by none other than a boozing, poker playing Dean Martin. Thus, there are some genuinely entertaining moments that feel like nothing more than a Rat Pack hangout.

But Some Came Running is quick to plunge back into dramatic turmoil. There are affairs, hypocrisy, unbridled passion, bar fights, parades, and carnivals all highlighted by the eye-catching staging of Minnelli. In fact, Minnelli always has an eye for his scenes, and there’s nothing different about this film. We are watching the players of course, but the space they fill, the clothes they wear, and so on are almost just as interesting. Colors pop making for vibrant viewing to match the spectacle. The climactic moments feel rather Hitchcockian with the pulse-pounding intensity set to the backdrop of a bustling carnival and the Elmer Bernstein score reverberates with his usual fervor.

Dean Martin is the comedy. Arthur Kennedy is necessary. Shirley MacLaine is the tragedy. Martha Hyer is rationality. But Frank Sinatra is the core of this film because he balances a surface level cynicism with genuine affection. He shows his interior on multiple occasions. His eyes watch over his niece with great care. His heart yearns for Gwen ardently, and he holds a deep sympathy for Ginny. Sinatra was in many quality films, but this is perhaps his greatest performance.

Is it blasphemy that in many ways I appreciate this James Jones adaptation just as much, if not more than, the long-heralded From Here to Eternity?  I suppose I am entitled to my opinion.

4/5 Stars

The Band Wagon (1953)

4c8bf-the_band_wagon_posterGoing into this film I must admit that despite hearing good things, I had zero expectations. I must say I was pleasantly surprised by this Minnelli musical because it was a deft and often beautiful production. Channeling the same vein as Singin’ in the Rain and The Red Shoes, this film is a spectacle in its own right. You have headliners Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse matched nicely. Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray act as wonderful comic relief as the wedded playwrights, who also do some song and dance. Finally, there is Jack Buchanan, as the stereotypical theater maestro Jeffrey Cordova.

It all begins with Tony Hunter (Astaire) a washed up has-been who is headed to New York for some relaxation. There is little fanfare during his arrival except coming from his friends the Martons, who have a new production for him to star in. They get the famed Cordova on board and next comes an up and coming choreographer and his girlfriend, who is none other than the young starlet Gabrielle Gerard (Charisse)

Following an initial misunderstanding, the leads finally clear up their differences and push forward to make The Band Wagon the smash hit it is destined to be. However, Cordova has turned it into a modern-day Faust and when opening night comes the after party is more like a wake.

All the players seem strangely nonchalant and then the idea hits! Make The Band Wagon over again and take it on the road. Everyone in the cast from the bottom up is excited for the second chance with Hunter at the helm. All that is except choreographer Paul Byrd.

Despite Paul’s departure, Gaby is still enthusiastic and they turn the Band Wagon into the production that the Martons had envisioned from the beginning. Tony is a success once again, and he receives a round of rousing cheers from his new family. Gaby speaks for all of them (and herself) when she says they love him and believe that the show will go forever.

I immensely enjoyed many of the numbers including: “Shine Your Shoes,” with the camera following Astaire as he frolics around at an arcade with a shoeshine man. The extras, the exquisite set, and Astaire himself all culminate in an often comical and always upbeat number that is great fun to watch. Then, of course, there is the ever memorable “That’s Entertainment,” which even spawned a series of musical documentaries, and for good reason. The words and melody are quite a catchy ode to the stage. Perhaps the most beautiful sequence in the film involves Astaire and Charisse in “Dancing in the Dark” where they positively glide through Central Park together in perfect cadence. They move not as individuals but as a poetic unit in motion. It is fitting that it was their first dance together in the film.

For never seeing Cyd Charisse in another film (except briefly in Singin’ in the Rain), I must say that I really did enjoy her performance opposite the always likable Fred Astaire. Furthermore, I am in complete agreement with her character, “I don’t think a dancer should smoke,” it’s bad for the lungs.

The cameo of Ava Garner was an odd surprise (especially due to her resemblance to Charisse). Furthermore, I never thought it could exist, but this film proved me wrong. There is such a thing as a film-noir musical! That’s The Band Wagon for you folks! That’s Entertainment!

4.5/5 Stars

 

An American in Paris (1951)

18e5b-an_american_in_paris_posterStarring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron with director Vincente Minneli, this musical follows an American painter in Paris (Kelly) as he struggles with life and love. Jerry Mulligan is a painter who loves Paris and has made friends with many of the locals. The only problem is that he has no money. That all changes when a rich patron begins to sponsor him and his luck begins to change. Soon he becomes enchanted with a French girl (Caron) and after initial conflict they try to meet up whenever they can. At the same time Jerry is tied up with his patron and Lisa is engaged to a kind Frenchman who Jerry knows. When Jerry learns this he is devastated, however in the end he does get the girl. Although the final dance sequence seemed out of place, awkward, and too long, much of the rest of the musical is enjoyable. I Got Rhythm and The American in Paris Theme are catchy Gershwin tunes that Gene Kelly performs to perfection.

4.5/5 Stars