Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Meet Me on 34th Street

While researching the Advent calendar, both Glancy and Restad referred to Meet Me in St. Louis, though in reading about it, I didn’t think it sounded very much like a Christmas film. I had a similar feeling while watching Holiday Inn, which was enjoyable, surprisingly meta-, and very funny. Like Holiday Inn, Meet Me in St. Louis spawned a classic and popular Christmas song, and that is probably the real reason the two are now associated with Christmas. What is even more remarkable is that MMiSL’s song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” is sung by Judy Garland to a crying young girl—how could such a seemingly downbeat song give the movie such fame?

MMiSL was produced, like Holiday Inn, during World War II, and both of them share a true feel-good factor. It must have had something, though, that transcended just a mid-War pick-me-up, as demonstrated by the ovation given by the audience of the BFI Southbank cinema on 29 December 2011, 67 (!!) years after the film was made. While Holiday Inn is about escapism (quite literally—Bing Crosby’s character is so weary of showbiz he escapes to rural Connecticut), MMiSL works an extremely powerful nostalgia that Holiday Inn’s (sort of) sequel, White Christmas, would try to invoke, and which greets us now when we watch It’s a Wonderful Life, though at the time it was too close to the bone.

From the beginning, it’s extremely difficult not to get swept up in the sunny optimism and cheerful tunes, not to mention the incredible costumes and sets, in MMiSL. The Smiths of St. Louis, MO, are an upper middle class family in August 1903. Somewhat unusually (It’s a Wonderful Life follows George Bailey’s life story, not his wife Mary’s domestic story), the film doesn’t follow the escapades of father Alonzo, a big-shot lawyer with a very traditional attitude toward what his home and hearth should do for him, but instead, his immediate family who live in the honking huge house on the hill. There’s young Agnes, who enters the film having gone for a swim and singing “Meet Me in St. Louis,” which her grandpa quickly picks up from her. Her mother and the maid, Katie, are making ketchup in the kitchen. In comes older sister Rose and younger sister Esther, both who are worrying about boyfriends, and little Toohey is helping with the ice deliveries. It says a lot that the first plot obstacle is a phone call from NYC.

With a calculated appeal to the audience of the film (mid-war, most of the audience would be women), as well as the mundane concern of using as few sets as possible, the vast majority of the film takes place inside the house or directly outside it. Though I would not wish to belittle the emotional truth of the problems the Smiths face, to a generation experiencing war, deprivation, separation, and loss, their lives must have seemed incredibly laid-back and charming. For all that we can tell, Rose and Esther spend their time helping their mother, flirting, playing tennis, and taking carriage rides. What kind of schooling they attend is not clear, but compared to the complicated lives of teenagers in the 1940s, much less those of the 2000s, their routines are lackadaisical. Katie and Alonzo are the only ones to earn a wage, and even when Alonzo angrily points out to the family that he supports them all, it never seems to occur to anyone that they could help economically—I’m sure it just wasn’t the done thing at the time, their stations are above that kind of thing (plus, Rose especially but also Esther are probably expected to contribute by marrying well; strangely, their brother Alonzo Jr has little presence at all in the film).

MMiSL revels in presenting technology that would have been new(ish) in 1903. The trolley gets its own song; the electric light gets its own scene. The telephone is, as I said above, the first plot obstacle. The reason for the setting is the St Louis World’s Fair of 1904, which, as Alonzo points out, people are already touting in August 1903. And yet, these new technologies don’t interfere with the depiction of the family as sacred. Each section of the story has deliberately selected the most heart-warming middle-American memories for each season. The hot summer is abuzz with swimming, tennis, sitting out on the porch, delivering ice, taking cold baths, a gentrified barn dance—the only thing that’s missing is the Fourth of July (which is notable by its absence, especially considering it was a focal point of Holiday Inn). My favorite sequence took place on Halloween, which again is significant given that it was chosen rather than Thanksgiving (though in a sense it makes sense, as the feast of misrule, because that’s when Alonzo brings home the news that will break up the family). Halloween is glorified, all the way from the genteel parlor of the adults (that cake and ice cream scene, my God!), to Toohey’s epic trick-or-treat. The traditions of the present-day Halloween are subsumed by true mischief-making, and it almost feels anthropological. The section ends with a heartfelt duet by Alonzo and his wife on the piano.
The representation of Christmas is surprisingly minimal, due partly to plot considerations but partly to an Edwardian American Christmas that differs from the Dickensian norm we have all associated with the period. The emphasis isn’t on children; in fact, the characters are so busy on Christmas morning they almost forget their presents. The emphasis is on Esther, Rose, and their brother at a Christmas Eve dance. There is a melodramatic scene outside in the snow which results in Esther’s engagement, but indeed, more emphasis is placed on snowy pursuits like building snowmen than spiritual or secular Christmas.

This is because the Christmas scene is the climax, the moment for redemption, as Alonzo decides not to move the family to NYC even if he has to lose his job. To call such a spontaneous act unconsidered would be heartless, but the most dated thing about MMiSL is the perfectly resolved ending. Rose and Esther can marry their beaus without losing them in NYC; Toohey, Agnes, Grandpa, Katie, and Mrs Smith won’t lose their friends and be unhappy in a tiny apartment with no yard. Alonzo is the only one who seems to be sacrificing anything, although how the family will survive financially is left both open and seems insignificant when, by spring 1904, the whole family is benefiting from living in St Louis. Although the film is so anchored with nostalgia, I was enjoying the characters so much that a cop-out like this was only slightly preferable to tragedy.
Miracle on 34th Street was another Christmas classic that I watched for the first time this year, and its subject was much more tied to Christmas—nevertheless, it wasn’t quite as Christmas-y as I was expecting. I wondered why Alfred in the film hadn’t been more touted as the hero. Kris Kringle, of course, gets his dues for being a kind and caring jolly old elf; Brian Gailey, the semi-suave hero who isn’t afraid to don an apron and help out in the kitchen, gets his dues for being a pinnacle of the law profession. But I wanted to know more about Alfred, the Macy’s janitor who gets a sense of humanity by playing Santa Claus at the YMCA. What a great character.

Before there was Mulder and Scully, there was Brian Gailey and Doris Walker. Brian plays the believer, Doris is the realist. On the surface, this would seem like a triumph for feminism; Doris is a self-sufficient divorcée successfully balancing a high-powered job with a conventional household and raising her young daughter. However, by default she is the one to be proven wrong, and therefore if her attitudes towards realism are misguided, how difficult is it to make the jump that the filmmakers at least might consider her other self-reliant traits to be likewise misguided? The upshot of the film is that she and Brian are going to get married; Susan, Doris’ daughter, will get a father-figure. Will Doris continue working once she is married? Or will she bow to convention and become a stay-at-home mom? Besides, any notion that Doris is fully liberated is tainted by the obvious suggestion that the reason for her disillusionment is because Susan’s father broke her heart. Therefore, the film feels a tad antifeminist.

It’s also sort of anti-psychologist, like its counterpart The Santa Clause, which lambasted psychology in the guise of Neil, the child’s ultra-realist step-father. In that film, Neil took on Doris’ role and ended it believing in the reality of Santa; a much less positive fate was in store for the Macy’s psychologist. Here was such a case of unstinting villainy you really had to wonder why. Obviously the man’s insecurities were piqued by Kris Kringle’s attempts to psychoanalyze him back, but by making him the real villain, in proxy for Doris who was not really a villain, an undeniable point had been made: magic and science cannot coexist, and the modern world has too much of the latter.

On the eve of the US postal service’s demise, it is important to reflect that Kris Kringle’s salvation was found in the form of children’s letters delivered to the jolly old elf while on trial. (Personally I preferred the coup de grace from the remake; the argument is made, swiftly, that if the US can print legal tender with the words “In God We Trust” then faith in something invisible can be sanctioned.)

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