• U.S.

The New Pictures, Nov. 27, 1944

5 minute read

Meet Me in St. Louis (M.G.M.) is a musical that even the deaf should enjoy. They will miss some attractive tunes like the sure-fire Trolley Song, the graceful Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, the sentimental You and I and the naively gay title waltz. But they can watch one of the year’s prettiest pictures.

Based on Sally Benson’s New Yorker stories, Meet Me in St. Louis has a good deal more substance and character than most musicals. It is the story of the well-heeled Smith family during the summer and fall and winter of 1903 and, more particularly, of the four Smith Sisters.

Rose (Lucille Bremer), the eldest, is merely waiting for a proposal, which at length she gets. Esther (Judy Garland) is tremulously interested in the shy basketball player (Tom Drake) next door. Agnes (Joan Carroll) is still chiefly interested in things like swimming and hunting knives. Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) has a passion for letting her dolls die off so that she can bury them in the backyard.

Tragedy, of a gentle sort, threatens the Smiths when their father (Leon Ames) accepts a business promotion which means their permanent removal to New York. During the later reels of the picture they realize with considerable poignancy just how cherishable the spacious and innocent securities of early 20th-century life in a good provincial city could be. Director Vincente Minelli and his colleagues are so profitably absorbed in such everyday matters that they make only a curtain-bow to the St. Louis Fair.

The solidest single achievement of the movie, in fact, is to give the Smiths something to be sorry about: the real love story is between a happy family and a way of living. Technicolor has seldom been more affectionately used than in its registrations of the sober mahoganies and tender muslins and benign gaslights of the period. Now & then, too, the film gets well beyond the charm of mere tableau for short flights in the empyrean of genuine domestic poetry. These triumphs are creditable mainly to the intensity and grace of Margaret O’Brien and to the ability of Director Minelli & Co. to get the best out of her. Her song (Drunk Last Night) and her cakewalk, done in a nightgown at a grown-up party, are entrancing little acts. Her self-terrified Halloween adventures, richly set against firelight, dark streets and the rusty confabulations of fallen leaves, bring this section of the film very near the first-rate. To the degree that this exciting little episode fails, it is because the Halloween setup, like the film as a whole, is too sumptuously, calculatedly handsome to be quite mistakable for the truth.

Mademoiselle Fifi (RKO-Radio), as admirers of Guy de Maupassant will remember, was the nickname of a bored, cruel young Prussian lieutenant in the Occupied France of 1870. His story is combined with that of Maupassant’s Boule de Suif, gallant prototype of a hundred storied prostitutes who, in their humaneness and courage, shame their social betters.

In this film, Ball-of-Fat is no longer fat and no longer a prostitute. She is a young laundress (resolutely played by Simone Simon) in a coachload of bourgeois and their wives—natural-born snobs, cowards, ingrates, sycophants and collaborationists, all of them hell-bent for England and security. The one exception is a corrupt, indigent liberal (John Emery) who, for all his patriotic theory, still has everything to learn about patriotism in practice.

When the travelers are delayed at a wayside inn because the laundress refuses to dine in private with the enemy officer, Fifi (Sahara’s Nazi airman, Kurt Kreuger, magnificently cast), it is the liberal who tells her, shamefacedly, that her betters are right, that their wholly selfish interests are those of France, to which she must sacrifice her principles.

Next morning, when Fifi boards the coach with the girl, the passengers will not so much as speak to her. Toward the aristocratic lieutenant, however, they behave like true internationalists.

Arrived at her aunt’s small-town laundry, the girl finds the companions of her own class as shamefully cooperative with the enemy as the bourgeois pack she left. Rather than deprive her aunt of the Prussian trade and the girls of their jobs, the heroine once more ditches her principles—and once more runs afoul of Fifi and his cold will to degrade, through her, the very soul of her country. This time Fifi overplays his hand.

Maupassant, being an artist, a patriot and a magnanimous man, would almost certainly have saluted this film. He would overlook its shortcomings the more readily if he knew of the circumstances which chiefly explain them. The picture cost about $200,000; it is by far the least expensive costume picture that has been made since sound added so immensely to production costs. It was shot in 22 days. With a little more time, and a little more money, it would very probably have been a first-rate film.

Even as it stands, it makes most of its better-barbered, better-fed competitors look like so many wax dummies in a window. And it adds still more to the mounting credit of Producer Val Lewton and his collaborators (Director Robert Wise, Writers Josef Mischel and Peter Ruric, Cameraman Harry Wild and a half-dozen excellent, little-known players). No other group in Hollywood, it appears, knows how to do so much with so little.

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