Over the years, I have had three close friends who were so devoted to Vincente Minnelli (1903–1986) that they wrote extensively about the Meet Me in St. Louis director. Out of respect for their judgment, I have worked hard to treat Minnelli with due respect, in spite of some niggling doubts. Part of the problem is that (as you may have ascertained from my 97 previous posts) I take my movies seriously, and it tends to bother me when the plot is abruptly halted, my emotional engagement is temporarily interrupted, and characters in Minnelli’s films go off into some musical production number, which may be spectacularly executed but is, nonetheless, intrusive. I have never been a big fan of opera or musical theater, but I am more willing to accept their conventions as some artifice, not to be confused with the reality-based truth of cinema. (That said, as always, there are exceptions—like Joseph Losey’s film of Don Giovanni or Ingmar Bergman’s Zauberflute.) My own musical/movie tastes tend to run toward Lubitsch-ian operettas (The Merry Widow, Love Me Tonight, etc.) or dramas about cabaret performers where the music is incidental to the plot (The Blue Angel, Morocco, Ma Vie En Rose, etc.) One of my unfunny but quasi-true jokes is that my favorite musical is John Ford’s cavalry Western, Rio Grande, with its soundtrack dominated by the Sons of the Pioneers.Anyway, my three Minnelli Musketeers have been Stephen Harvey, David Gerstner, and Mark Griffin. Stephen died, tragically young, of AIDS in 1993. His Directed By Vincente Minnelli was published by MoMA in 1989. Stephen highlighted Meet Me in St. Louis’s appeal to me, when he deemed it “Minnelli’s least stylized musical.” Even the musical numbers generally retain a naturalistic/believable quality, and if you removed those numbers, you still have an enduring and endearing chunk of Americana, not totally foreign to a John Ford or D. W. Griffith historical recreation. But there are wonderful musical numbers, and I have never found Judy Garland more accessible, at least until her vulnerability overflowed in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born a decade later. Of the intense Margaret O’Brien scene in the snow, Stephen wrote, “Once again, Minnelli has allowed the placid surface of the Metro musical to be shattered by naked emotion.” That’s my kind of movie.
David Gerstner is a professor at the College of Staten Island who has published extensively on Minnelli, with an emphasis on “gender study”—a product of the director’s somewhat ambiguous sexuality. David’s collection of essays, Manly Arts, includes a piece on Minnelli wherein he quotes from James Agee’s review of Meet Me in St. Louis: “too sumptuously, calculatedly handsome to be quite mistakable for the truth.” A view I sympathize with.
We featured Mark Griffin’s A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life of Vincent Minnelli in an Auteurist History of Film special event last year. Mark’s book is scrupulously scholarly, but he confesses his devotion to Minnelli on the first page, based on his first viewing of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever at the impressionable age of 16. Regarding Meet Me in St. Louis, Mark presents a reasonable appraisal of Garland: “Freed from Andy Hardy, Busby Berkeley, and her outmoded ugly duckling image, a new Judy Garland emerges…and she’s a beauty.” Mark also quotes Minnelli’s own assessment of the film: “It’s magical.” So, I’ll buy into that and hold my ambiguity and qualms in check at least for Meet Me in St. Louis, The Pirate, An American in Paris, and The Band Wagon. Musicals are supposed to be magical.