Arthur Freed’s Meet Me in St Louis
by Michael Koresky
We are all the authors of our own worlds. Whether through action or recession we create the emotional and physical environments in which we want to live. We choose what and who will appear in our orbit, giving our lives aesthetics and meaning. We paint our rooms, curate our soundtracks, choose friends based on the variety and love they bring and how they reflect our best selves back to us. This is our world, everyone else is just milling about until it’s time for their big entrances. And even if other people are directing us—parents, bosses, mentors—we’re still in charge of our own destinies. Looked at this way, we are less artists than producers and moguls, carefully laying the groundwork for others tobuild from.
When it comes to the way we talk about movies, however, producers have been left behind. This is largely thanks to the tenets of auteurism, as laid out in the fifties by the folks at Cahiers, appropriated in the U.S. in the sixties by Andrew Sarris (and momentarily rebuffed by Pauline Kael), and then, gradually, entrenched in the minds of cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike so that by the turn of the 21st century, everyone from Godard and Jane Campion to Frank Darabont and Tom Shadyac is granted the aura of a writer sitting down before a fresh roll of parchment with ink-dipped quill in hand. Yet it was not so uncommon or unreasonable, especially in the brilliantly chugging machine that was the American cinema of the first half of the twentieth century, to attribute a great deal if not the lion’s share of a film’s vision to the producer. Any reader of Neal Gabler’s excellent An Empire of Their Own—a summation of how Jewish entrepreneurs, many recently relocated from Eastern Europe or the children of immigrants, not only established Hollywood as a force but also essentially wrote the text that would become the Hollywood idea, borne out in the aesthetics and philosophies of the films themselves—could hardly consider studio directors, from Frank Capra to George Cukor to William Dieterle, authors any more than Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer, or the brothers Warner, all of them eager and driven to put forth consistent perspectives and visual palettes across their films. Such aesthetic unity—which one could argue exists again, only to a crasser degree, in the absurd mechanism that is the internationally driven machine of Hollywood today—undoubtedly reveals a form of authorship, whether it hails from entire studios or smaller production teams within them, such as the B-picture unit headed by undeniable author-producer Val Lewton, who ensured a striking, atmospheric sensuality across films such as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim, made by various directors in his stable.
Then there’s Arthur Freed, the Tin Pan Alley songwriter turned producer whose famed unit at MGM all but helped reinvent the movie musical in the forties, setting the standard for smoothly crafted, story-driven films with narratively integrated songs. He nurtured talent, not only wunderkind directors like Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen and actors who would become icons for their musical and physical genius, such as Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and Cyd Charisse, but also for those below-the-liners whose craft and skill would help define the visual and aural landscape of the Hollywood movie musical, people snatched up from Broadway like Roger Edens, piano player turned associate producer; Charles Walters, choreographer turned director; Kay Thompson, singer turned movie vocal arranger and coach; Lennie Hayton, composer and conductor turned musical director; and the duo Betty Comden and Adolph Green, stage songwriters turned screenwriters. The list of integral figures goes on: orchestrator and arranger Conrad Salinger; costume designer Irene Sharaff; choreographer Robert Alton. It was an open secret that a high percentage of the men in this bustling microcosm were gay; by all accounts Freed was not, which makes his curating all the more fascinating. He had ideas about what these movies should be, and he knew who to surround himself with to make sure those ideas were translated to film. That such vision resulted in movies like Cabin in the Sky (1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Pirate (1948), On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), and Gigi (1958), should remind us of the malleability of the term authorship in cinema, and that we perhaps need to recalibrate decades of criticism and scholarship for a fairer assessment of what makes a movie, and perhaps what makes a masterpiece.
There’s no better—or trickier—place to start than Meet Me in St. Louis, one of the most naggingly perfect of all American movies, and the film that is generally considered the first true blossoming of director Vincente Minnelli’s genius. It was Freed and Minnelli’s second film together after the prior year’s Cabin in the Sky, a whimsical and moralizing black-and-white musical fable with an all African-American cast that still impresses thanks to its theatrical design and for showcasing such knockout performers as Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Ethel Waters, and Lena Horne. Minnelli, an erstwhile Marshall Field’s window dresser, had been a sensation on Broadway for many years because of his elaborate, eye-popping stage designs, but Freed was the first producer who knew what to do with him, tempting him to return to Hollywood in the early forties after a failed Hollywood venture in the thirties with Paramount. Freed, who had proven his might to the powers that be at MGM as a crucial, if uncredited, creative driving force on The Wizard of Oz—he suggested making the film a musical, and hiring Roger Edens as musical director and Judy Garland as star—was entrusted with a new unit devoted exclusively to musicals, and Minnelli was one of his first gets. It was thus Freed’s idea to join two of his most promising talents, Minnelli and Garland, on a project that would prove the compositional elegance and musical know-how of the former and solidify the graceful maturing of the latter, who was twenty-one and at a turning point in her career when she would have to start headlining adult dramas.
At the time, Meet Me in St. Louis was an unlikely candidate for the movie musical, which was often a format for fantasy worlds or let’s-put-on-a-show narratives featuring songs that stood out as performative to-camera moments rather than as engines for moving along the story. Adapted from semi-autobiographical stories by Sally Benson, first published in the New Yorker in the early forties, about growing up on 5135 Kensington Avenue in the titular city at the turn of the twentieth century, Meet Me in St. Louis could have been little more than a nostalgia-drenched propaganda piece about the innocence of upper-middle-class America tailor-made for a homefront audience looking for positive mirror images during wartime. Instead, it offers the kind of sly, no-nonsense perspicacity about American life and sense of encroaching darkness that marks the greatest Hollywood films, making it more akin to The Magnificent Ambersons than Pollyanna; it’s a film about American history fully attuned to the daily sacrifices and delusions that even the most privileged among us must face. At the same time, being an Arthur Freed film, it’s also as exuberant and eager-to-please as a vaudeville number, with the rises and falls and tonal consistency of a perfect pop song.
It must be said here that, for this author, taking any portion of the artistic onus off of Minnelli is not an easy or natural task, but hopefully a compelling and revealing one that will help me rethink my long-held beliefs and biases. I have long thought of Meet Me in St. Louis as first and foremost a Minnelli masterpiece, a film that was somehow quintessentially his and which laid bare the storytelling genius of a director who would go on to further prove his visual dynamism in An American in Paris and Gigi, his love-hate relationship with American social mores in Some Came Running and Tea and Sympathy, his interest in the lives of women in Undercurrent and Madame Bovary. My imagination has been captured by the fact that Minnelli, who before his Broadway days took courses at Chicago’s Art Institute, envisioned the Technicolor Meet Me in St. Louis as though a series of paintings by Thomas Eakins, and then went on to use Raoul Dufy, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Rousseau, and Georges Serat as inspirations for An American in Paris and Gigi, and even made Lust for Life, a splendid Van Gogh biopic that is one of the most brilliantly shaped American films about an artist’s inner life. Minnelli is clearly an artist, and an unusually mannered one in Hollywood’s golden age, using the system to construct films of uncommon, often subversive beauty. Nevertheless, the artistic temperament of a director working in the studio system can hardly tell the whole story, and my estimation of Minnelli has thus far largely been dictated by the parameters of auteurism. A visionary figure like Arthur Freed—whose films at MGM, from compromised projects like Annie Get Your Gun and Kismet to works of high wit and imagination like American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Band Wagon, are more or less recognizable as Freed films—is a natural candidate to help balance the equation.
A major success when it was released, Meet Me in St. Louis was Freed’s professed personal favorite of all the films he produced. Freed initially wanted to make an adaptation of Clarence Day’s book Life with Father, a domestic drama set in late nineteenth-century New York, but he couldn’t secure the rights. (It was eventually made into a film for Warner Bros. by Michael Curtiz in 1947.) The Sally Benson stories were something of a consolation prize, then, although Freed found the subject matter—the lives and loves of the mostly female Smith clan, who may have to relocate from beloved St. Louis to constricting New York after the patriarch’s law firm gives him a promotion—similarly warm and appealing: having come from a Jewish family and lived in small apartments, he was particularly attracted to the exoticism of tightly knit, all-American families living in sprawling homes. Since Benson’s stories were short and episodic, and it was unclear how they would be combined to form a single coherent feature narrative, Freed brought in multiple writers, one after another, who produced various script incarnations, incorporating different subplots, many of which would be ultimately abandoned when the final scribes, Fred Finklehoffe and Irving Brecher, got the assignment. Once the script was set, Freed then secured the studio’s only available Technicolor camera, dead set on making the film’s turn-of-the-century fashions and Victorian home pop off the screen; he also demanded detailed, fully built exterior streets, bringing in Broadway set designer Lemuel Ayers to oversee their construction, and he set about constructing a score, hiring composers to both create new and adapt traditional songs. In the early stages at least, Meet Me in St. Louis was by any account more Arthur Freed’s than anyone else’s.
What makes it a Freed film as much as a Minnelli film, however, besides the facts of its production? If we used a project’s origin as our main barometer, then the Hollywood producer would be historically seen as a film’s author, with little argument. Freed was more than a moneyman; he was more than an idea man; he was more than an expert gatherer of talent. Unlike so many others in the business, he had an innate understanding of what a screen musical should look, sound, and feel like. (Producers at Paramount and Columbia never quite figured out the right concoction.) There was an Arthur Freed sensibility just as much as there was ever that ineffable thing called the Ernst Lubitsch touch, yet the latter phrase is bandied about exclusively as an identifier of singular auteurism. Freed had a point of view, a joyousness of spirit that naturally extended from his belief in complete collaboration with like-minded souls, and it is apparent throughout his films, finding its first true flowering in Meet Me in St. Louis, a film that is itself an admixture of different emotions, capturing joy and melancholy, sentiment and irony at all times.
There’s a rosy-cheeked directness to the film that registers in every sequence, each of which has a distinct tonal register. Summer is Anxiety: Judy Garland’s Esther Smith fumbling through meetings with her neighbor crush, John Truitt; Lucille Bremer’s older sister, Rose, awaiting an assumed long-distance marriage proposal on that blasted invention known as the telephone. Autumn is Fear: little Margaret O’Brien’s “Tootie” nervously wreaking havoc on a surreally realized Halloween night, which is followed by the family discovering they’ll have to move to New York by New Year’s. Winter is Sadness: Esther finding out her beloved John cannot accompany her to the Christmas ball; she and the family knowing it will be their last holiday in St. Louis, leading to Tootie’s devastating destruction of the snowman family. Spring is Joy: the family, miraculously staying put after the father’s change of heart, embarking to see the city’s newly opened World’s Fair. Taken together, these discrete, finely calibrated chapters add up to something that feels like a family’s natural annual life cycle.
That Vincente Minnelli can be felt throughout Meet Me in St. Louis is perhaps only further indication that this is indeed an Arthur Freed film. Freed so believed in Minnelli as a cinematic visionary that even in this early film of the director’s, he was given a long leash to experiment. There’s no question that the two most visually lustrous scenes in the film exist because of Minnelli’s imagination and technical savvy. In the first, John Truitt escorts Esther around the house, turning down the gaslights before bed, most of it captured in a gorgeous single-take crane shot; accompanied by a wistful violin score anticipating Garland’s aching rendition of “Over the Bannister,” the scene is pure, gossamer rhapsody while at the same time it captures something tactile and earthbound about the feel of a quieting house after dark. Then there’s the rightly lauded Halloween sequence, locating a disturbing, otherworldly nighttime in suburban America the atmospheric likes of which wouldn’t be seen again until John Carpenter turned his camera on Haddonfield, Illinois, more than thirty years later. One technical reason why the film’s take on Halloween remains so vivid and authentic, and looks so unlike other films of the period, is that it was the rare instance of Golden Age of Hollywood Technicolor being used in low light, which made small patches of illumination and shards of colors stand out all the more sharply. It’s worth noting here that because of its jarring oddness and the film’s lengthy running time, Freed threatened to cut the Halloween sequence from the film before the first preview, which Minnelli fought desperately. Should this anecdote further fuel arguments that Minnelli is the true author of the film, standing up for his vision? Or does it only serve to remind us that films are often, ultimately, in the hands of their producers? Imagine all the good decisions that have been made over the last century of cinema by those who only had the audience in mind.
Meet Me in St. Louis is so explicitly a film about American living and an idea of Americanness, and is so ambiguous in how it views those central ideas, that one cannot possibly come to any strict conclusions about its having a clear auteurist point of view. One may leave the film feeling elated, but its final catharsis is all the more acute because much it is shot through with such ambivalence. One could effectively make the claim that the structure, literally the edifice, of the film is Freed’s—its undeniable brightness and apparent optimism and love of family—while Minnelli’s contributions served to coolly poison that construction, emphasizing the dark under the brightness, the sorrow peeking out behind all that seeming optimism, the awareness that a family is a frighteningly fragile construct that can be torn asunder as easily as those poor destroyed snowpeople. But then we’d have to be sure of presumptive binaries that position Freed as naïve/patriotic and Minnelli as sly/subversive. That Minnelli never was able or willing to articulate on matters of politics, aesthetics, or theme has long fueled doubts about his status as a true auteur in the Hollywood system, as Joe McElhaney outlines in his introduction to his 2009 essay collection Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment, stating that writings by critics like Andrew Sarris and Donald Knox led to the “notion that Minnelli was not much more than a decorative metteur en scène.” Nevertheless, ironically, Meet Me in St. Louis, with its sharply contradictory impulses (its simultaneously reassuring and discomfiting take on American life), is probably the film that could best be used to make the case for Minnelli as an auteur, while also clearly being an Arthur Freed product—and a watershed one at that.
Perhaps all this simply reveals are the limits, rather than the falsenesses, of auteurism. These matters have been debated for years, and even this specific case of Minnelli and Freed came up in a November 1965 round-table about the politique des auteurs published in Cahiers du Cinéma, where Jean-André Fieschi wrote during an overall defense of the producer as auteur, “The contribution of Arthur Freed, who chose the scripts, choreographers, actors, designers, and directors, is more important than that of the director in question.” Fieschi may be far too aggressive and definitive, but his clear desire to reject the dogma of auteurism reflects a need to see cinema holistically. Meet Me in St. Louis itself may be more eloquent than Fieschi on this matter. The film begins with a fairly robust metaphor for the collaborative nature of the moviemaking process, getting us acquainted with all of the Smiths—save the father—by monitoring their responses to a fresh batch of homemade ketchup being whipped up by matriarch Anna (Mary Astor) and the family’s wiseacre cook Katie (Marjorie Main). Different family members want to add different ingredients to thicken, sweeten, or sour the mixture. It’s a flavorsome and funny introduction to the simultaneous annoyances and felicities of family, showing how nothing would be possible, or even preferable, without a little disagreement. But it’s also cheering to think that this is basically how the movie came to be, with various members of Freed’s professional family seasoning the sauce.