On the surface, this is a slice of Hollywood small-town Americana and this is how the reference books generally present it. It shows Mr Smith, a rather hen-pecked father of 5 children – at least one of whom shows disturbing tendencies – against a quasi-historical backdrop of St Louis in 1903 where the production detail is so lavish, the colours so saturated, that you are not sure whether you are looking at a museum case or having a kind of delirious dream. The costumes are so elaborate, so richly adorned with frills, bows, buttons that they could almost be a set of theatrical costumes. Whatever we are looking at, it has nothing to do with reality. The youngest daughter is given to killing her dolls and staging elaborate funerals for them: she plans to dig up the “dead” ones to take to new York when the family moves. She throws a stuffed figure under the wheels of a streetcar in the hope of derailing it – in concert with her next-older sister. She “kills” her snow figures so that no one else can enjoy them after the family’s move. This strikes me as strange behaviour!
I found myself making comparisons with The Magnificent Ambersons. Although that too was a highly stylised film, the décor is so much less neurotic that it seems realistic. And, of course, for the snow scenes, Orson Welles shot inside a big freezer in order to get the visible breath, a precaution that Vincente Minnelli did not take, but then he was probably not so interested in appearing realistic. And yes, snow is fairly frequent in St Louis, although you would expect someone to know that it is not exactly rare in New York. Like so many MGM musicals, you question why this was a musical at all. The cast includes one singer of note and no dancers and yet it had to contain musical spectacle, while Mary Astor plays perhaps the most anodyne part in her career.
Alongside a slew of old songs – such as “Skip To My Lou” and “Meet Me in St Louis, Louis” – Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane provided a few distinguished and off-beat numbers. Their songs were really not like anything else being written at the time. Perhaps the most widely known is the melancholic lament “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas“. Quite why it has become a standard Christmas song, performed and recorded by so many singers, is a mystery. Like “Send in the Clowns”, it really needs the context in which it was set for it to make any kind of sense. Or at least, this is what common sense would say. Without the context, to me it seems lachrymose and tedious whereas it is actually a statement of heartfelt regret and loss that rises to a lyrical peak in the repeat of the A section – a little gem of craftsmanship. Perhaps almost as well-known is “The Boy Next Door”, which Alec Wilder admired so much for its technical subtleties.
You begin to sense that Hugh Martin was particularly gifted at writing melodies that suited Judy Garland’s voice. He was not afraid to use long trains of repeated notes – as he does in the verse of this song – knowing that she would phrase them to perfection. He also uses the time-honoured device of repeating fairly drab musical material and then suddenly varying it to allow her to reach out for a high note of throbbing intensity. He spent a lot of his career as a rehearsal pianist – perhaps gave him an insight into what singers like. His lyricist partner, Ralph Blane, is equally unsung. Even more than Johnny Mercer, he is able to encapsulate the humdrum. The words seem natural, no forced rhymes, no devices that draw attention to the lyric qua lyric. It is fluent like the style of P.G. Wodehouse at his best. They mould without any effort to the musical lines of Hugh Martin.
Perhaps the most famous song and sequence in the film is “The Trolley Song“. This is another exquisitely constructed Martin-Blane concoction: 86 bars of controlled but ever-gathering enthusiasm, as counted by Alec Wilder. And yet, does the actual sequence convey the meaning you hear in the words? It is a riot of colour and movement. I suppose that after making his name in the 20s for his subtle black and white photography, George Folsey might have enjoyed the garish spectacle but did St Louis girls really wear such astonishingly contrasted primary colours in 1903? The song seems to talk about a romance that springs up on a tram journey. Yet, at the outset, John Truett is not aboard the tram and Esther is anxiously looking out for him. The chorus starts up without her. She sees John racing behind the tram, trying to catch it up, and launches into her solo. She sings the song without making any reference to him. He makes his way to the bench on which she is sitting. She makes room for him but ignores him: so much for the “hand holding mine to the end of the line”. It is quite curious, turning the sequence into a kind of fantasy for what is going through her mind.
Here is Hugh Martin playing”The Girl Next Door” while Michael Feinstein sings. Notice how, as the composer, he highlights the structural beauties of the melody rather than the emotional potential of the lyric.