Prior to now I’d only ever seen Judy Garland in Wizard of Oz. I don’t just yet know enough about Garland’s downfall into addiction (sparked, I’ve read, by the provision of amphetamines by producers who worried about her weight) and a succession of toxic marriages and insecurity at the waning of fame as she drifted into middle age, but that doesn’t stop me from watching Meet Me in St. Louis — her first appearance on the List following her star-making turn in Oz — with an eye toward some kind of foreshadowing. Like was she a little too skinny or too energized or was her talent flagging.
It’s a pointless and suspect and disrespectful inclination but I can’t pretend it’s not on my mind. I think the actor whose work I most allow it to ruin, I guess cuz he was something of a childhood idol, is Chris Farley: I’ll watch his coke-fueled tornadic appearances on latenight talk shows or his gymnastics in Black Sheep and Tommy Boy and Beverly Hills Ninja and after a few initial moments of amusement, I get sad. I start thinking about his work not in terms of how talented he was, how great it is that he was able to put some of himself on film, but focus instead on how he was burning himself out for his art and audience.
But is that how he’d have wanted us to watch it? Is that how he’d want to be remembered? How would he feel to know that my curiosity draws me back, every couple years, toward Googling that picture of him splayed dead on a rug somewhere and his mouth all flooded with foam and blood and bile?
He wouldn’t be thrilled. He’d want us to celebrate his memory by enjoying what he gave. He’d want to be remembered as he was at his best.
I feel bad that, if pitted against each other, my morbid curiosity will prevail over willful optimism just about every time. I can make a concerted effort, though, to favor appreciation over brooding.
So let’s look at Judy Garland’s work here — which is an upgrade from what she was doing in Wizard of Oz where, though undoubtedly the hero and star, she scared the screen with fantastical and iconic personalities that could, at times, steal the show. Here, just a few years later, it seems her tremendous talent as a singer and actor have prevailed and, though she’s again just one person among a cast of many, she’s got top billing. And earns it.
But I also wanna talk about hoe tragic her story is. Or at least mention it. The aforementioned misfortunes that culminated in her early death at 47. Knowing that her life turned out so dark, I turn to her work and see it, morbidly, as something like happiness trapped in amber. It’s a vibe I get in lotsa movies. I can’t laugh with To Be or Not to Be as much as I did the first time, now that I know Carol Lombard, the luminous star, died in a plane crash two months before the premiere. But maybe that’ll change with time. It’s like how I’ll sometimes watch one of those 1930s or ’40s movies with a friend, or my brother, and they’ll muse, randomly, on the fact that every person we’re watching on screen right now, dancing and emoting and making of themselves a spectacle of human life, is dead. Everybody behind the camera, everybody involved in the production and the financing and promotion. There’s something touching about the way that it strikes them out of the blue, forty minutes in. Something precious about the fact that we know, with a quick Google search, that these almighty stars could never have known: when and how they’d die, the fizzling of romance after romance, the drugs. You watch them prance about and think, “He has no idea what the next few years will have in store for him…”
But to watch those jolly happiness-in-amber movies in such a way as to let them steep you in weary introspection really is a disservice to both the creators and yourself. Especailly with something like Meet Me in St. Louis. I’d group it with Wizard of Oz, obviously, but also Gone with the Wind, and Citizen Kane. Not that I think they’re all of equal quality (though I do think each one is a masterpiece), but because of their ability to absorb and transport the audience — two verbs that appear in this Project way too fucking often, and I’ll work on cutting that back, but in this case it’s really applicable. Huge sets, huge personalities, large narrative scope.
At the heart of it is the love story between Judy Garland, who plays Esther Smith, and the boy next door, played by Tom Drake; the romance is chaste by today’s standards but, here’s the thing: shortly after watching this movie I read an essay by Pauline Kael wherein she cites somebody else’s idea that when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced together on screen, it was a metaphor for sex. Kael disagrees with that, and I’m on her side, but there’s a scene here in Meet Me, early on, where Garland is getting ready for a big party and says to her sister, “I’m gonna let whatshisface kiss me tonight,” referring to the boy next door, whereupon her sister tells Esther she’ll be a broken woman or some shit — basically tells her that she won’t get a husband if she picks up a reputation for letting dudes kiss her. Esther’s like, psh, fuck that noise.
But so the camera takes us downstairs where, as the party commences, Esther makes an exaggeratedly defiant point of “partnering” with boy after boy after boy on the dance floor.
And she’s glowing.
So in this case I think the dancing might be sex.
One of the standout performances here is by Margaret O’Brien, who defies my earlier notion about everybody from the cast being dead because she’s currently 80 years old and looks pretty healthy. She plays Tootie Smith, Garland’s little sister, and has her own little episode in the film, taking place on Halloween, which seems like a total digression from everything else int he movie but is also one of the most charming and memorable bits from any movie of the past dozen. She’s challenged to ring the doorbell of the scariest man int own and throw flower in his face. I don’t wanna say more about it, it’s worth at least watching that segment on YouTube if you’re not down for the whole movie, but it shows some of the most powerful acting by a child on the Project up to this point.
And it functions as one of so many moving parts that make it as enchanting a movie (and maybe as perfect a holiday movie) as just about any I can remember.