Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

2010 #106
Vincente Minnelli | 108 mins | TV | U

Someone (who exactly is long lost to the depths of my memory) once observed that, though a lot of people claim to not like musicals, they’re quite happy to acknowledge their love for The Sound of Music, or Grease, or Disney films, or (these days) Mamma Mia, apparently unaware that all those bits where people start singing make those films musicals. I expect such a person’s defence would run along the lines of affirming they like those musicals, but don’t like musicals on the whole. Despite its occasional fair placing on lists of great musicals — or even great films, sometimes — I think Meet Me in St. Louis would fall into that second group.

The film is based on Sally Benson’s autobiographical stories, collected as 5135 Kensington, though at times it reminded me of Pride & Prejudice — a family of daughters seeking marriage — albeit a version of Pride & Prejudice with much of the dramatic tension removed. For instance, Austen’s tale spends a long time creating a bad impression of Mr Darcy, only to eventually reveal his (mostly) good intentions. St. Louis, on the other hand, manages all of five minutes (if that) in which John Truett (the Darcy-ish character) is suspected of having done something dastardly before the truth is revealed.

Garland and O'BrienJudy Garland is fine in the lead role — still playing a teen, despite being 21, but suitably distant from Dorothy. Margaret O’Brien receives prominent second billing in the role of ‘Tootie’, despite being just seven years old. She was, I learn, something of a star at the time, in spite of her young age, which perhaps explains the (arguably) undue prominence in both the credits and the film itself. That said, she’s a rather good actress, and picked up an Oscar for her performance here (and other roles she played in 1944).

Most of the time Meet Me in St. Louis ambles along agreeably enough, throwing in a few nice songs — including well-known numbers like The Trolley Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas — before (spoilers!) everything turns out alright in the end. It’s all perfectly pleasant, but I’m not sure I could offer it any higher praise than that.

3 out of 5

Meet Me in St. Louis is on Film4 today, Wednesday 17th December 2014, at 4:10pm.

The Band Wagon (1953)

2010 #91
Vincente Minnelli | 108 mins | TV (HD) | U

The Band WagonIn this behind-the-scenes musical, Fred Astaire plays Tony Hunter, a slightly washed-up star of stage and screen. One can’t help but wonder if his performance has an autobiographical edge. It’s of no concern to the viewer though, because he’s as wonderful as ever.

The plot sees respected musical writers the Martons (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant) penning a new production for Hunter to star in. They hire famed Theatre director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who slowly turns the production into a rather serious version of Faust, starring ballet star Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse). She doesn’t get on with Hunter (thanks, of course, to a series of silly misunderstandings), while his role is slowly squeezed away. No one is happy. On the bright side, hilarity ensues. Everything turns out OK in the end, naturally, but along the way we get plenty of comedy and plenty of song & dance.

There are several great numbers: Astaire dancing his way around an amusement arcade; That’s Entertainment, written for the film and easily demonstrating why it quickly became a standard; a bizarre number with Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan dressed up as babies, dancing around on their knees (memorable, if nothing else); and a big closing dance routine… that I actually liked! It’s a hard-boiled crime thriller told through the medium of dance (obviously; plus voiceover). It’s different to the norm — the voiceover adds a discernible story, and rather than showcase ballet it reinterprets noir-ish tropes — and it works marvellously.

Minnelli shoots the dances in wide shots with long takes, using few if any cuts mid-sequence, which is of course the perfect way to watch Astaire in action. Every frame shows everything he’s doing, which is frequently essential, and there are no cuts to spoil his natural rhythm or shatter the illusion of a seamless routine.

I always feel like a four-star review should justify why there’s no fifth star — there must be something at fault, otherwise why not full marks? Perhaps this is a simplistic philosophy though, because I’ve not got a bad word to say about The Band Wagon, but it’s still:

4 out of 5

Gigi (1958)

2010 #95
Vincente Minnelli | 111 mins | TV (HD) | PG / G

GigiGigi is a film about largely horrid people doing morally dubious things. But of course it’s a musical from the ’50s, so it all has a veneer of loveliness and respectability.

It begins with an elder gentleman singing Thank Heaven for Little Girls; not because, say, they bring a youthful joy to old age, but because they’re a constant source of new young ladies for him to have affairs with — and not chaste, romantic affairs either. Actor Maurice Chevalier may have a twinkle in his eye and a conspiratorial tone with the audience, speaking directly to camera, but he’s playing a dirty old man really. Most of the film’s characters share his moral compass.

There are two exceptions, more or less. Gigi herself (Leslie Caron) is one, an innocent teen who isn’t as wise as her years, despite her grandmother (Hermione Gingold) and great aunt (Isabel Jeans) schooling her in preparation to be, essentially, a serial mistress. If one were to be unkind, you might say courtesan — the majority of women in the film are or were in the business of going out with men for money, status, etc; one man at a time (mostly), but on a serial basis. Gigi isn’t a simpering romantic, though, she just wants to have fun, and in her delightfully clumsy way can’t cope with her great aunt’s rules and restrictions.

The other decent character is Gaston (Louis Jourdan), although it takes him some time to get there. He’s super-rich, bored with everything, egged on and tutored in ‘relationships’ by the aforementioned dirty old man. Gaston would rather spend his time playing cards or larking about with Gigi; they may be related, I’m not sure. I hope not, because (spoilers!) Dirty old man with woodeventually Gaston realises he loves Gigi and her training is stepped up so she can become his latest conquest. I won’t go into the details of the ending, but their part of the story ends well.

It doesn’t for the others. Not that it ends badly, but no one else changes their ways, despite the occasional hint they might. This is probably a good thing — it wouldn’t be particularly realistic if everyone reformed to the ways of Goodness and Honour. And there’s nothing wrong with a musical that tackles subjects outside the expected soppy romanticism — in fairness, many stage musicals are more risque, in part if not whole, but it gets removed for the film versions — and Gigi seems no exception, because while many of these activities and attitudes are quite amoral, it’s all given a lovely sheen. I’d excuse anyone who thought Gigi and Gaston were engaged when she agrees to be his whore (in fact — spoilers! — it’s only later he sees the error of his ways and proposes).

Part of the tonal clash — between the characters’ behaviour and the film’s ’50s niceness — comes in the musical numbers, most of which are very funny. Thank Heaven for Little Girls may be sullied, but It’s a Bore, The Parisians, The Night They Invented Champagne, and particularly I Remember It Well, are all very enjoyable with wonderful lyrics. In the red roomI’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore is also a nice change of pace, celebrating old age for a change.

The film also looks the part, exquisitely detailed sets and costumes supported by genuine Paris locations, all shot vibrantly. It leaps off the screen, especially in HD — in particular, the home of Gigi’s grandmother, which must be the reddest room ever seen.

Gigi scored a then-record-breaking nine Oscars in 1959 (only to be beaten the next year), including many I’m certain it deserved — partly because I’ve not even heard of most of the films it was up against, but also because it is an entertaining musical, just one with, I would say, uncertain morals. Whether this makes a welcome change for the genre or is an unpleasant undermining of it is surely down to each viewer’s preference.

4 out of 5

Brigadoon (1954)

2010 #93
Vincente Minnelli | 104 mins | TV (HD) | U / G

“Oh dear,” is surely the initial reaction to Brigadoon. The Scottish accents are appalling, the costumes and setting gratingly twee, the Highlands recreated entirely on a soundstage. I wonder if many Americans visited Scotland in the wake of this film expecting to find such things? If they did, I imagine they were sorely disappointed.

But, importantly — and thankfully — it does grow on you as it goes on. The ill-conceived cast, costumes and studio-bound setting begin to pale under the charm of Gene Kelly and the machinations of the plot. Even the Scottish accents, though consistently dreadful, eventually become less irritating. The casting of Kelly and Cyd Charisse resulted in several musical numbers being dropped and a greater emphasis placed on dance. As I think has become apparent in some previous reviews, I’m not the biggest dance fan, but luckily Brigadoon contains no extended sequence to rival those I dislike in An American in Paris or Oklahoma!. Instead, the routines remain at the kind of length where I can still afford them some appreciation, and they are worthy of that.

The reveal that Brigadoon is a village stuck in time, only emerging from the fog for a single day every hundred years, is saved for the halfway point. It’s one of those occasions where, as a modern viewer, you know the twist and almost wonder why it takes so long to be revealed; equally, it doesn’t hamper proceedings in any meaningful way. In fact, the shock when (spoiler!) the film suddenly cuts to a busy, noisy New York for the final ten minutes is a bigger one. There’s a neat conclusion though, working its way around the film’s self-established rules without destroying them.

If you go doon to the woods today...I think it’s fair to say this isn’t the greatest of musicals (though I know some might disagree). The poor realisation of Scotland takes some getting used to — and remains either irritating or amusing, depending on your mileage for such things — and generally there’s a dearth of particularly memorable songs or dances. But it’s not bad either, once things get underway.

My ultimate verdict is stuck somewhere between a 3 and a 4. I’ve erred on the generous side, again, because I liked it more than An American in Paris (which I also gave a 4) and I’m soft. I really need to stop giving every film I sort-of-quite-like a 4 though — a better scale/spread of ratings is needed on here, I feel.

4 out of 5

An American in Paris (1951)

2009 #93
Vincente Minnelli | 109 mins | DVD | U

An American in ParisIf anyone is interested in An American in Paris and has found this alleged-review in search of something interesting to read, I’m afraid you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Not because I didn’t like the film, but because I’ve not got anything to say about it.

The main reason for such an oversight is that, getting round to this review a month or so since I watched it, I can’t remember enough of it well enough to provide anything close to meaningful criticism. This could sound like a criticism in itself — designating the film unmemorable — but the sad truth is it’s not all that uncommon for me. This is why I usually write notes (like this (just in case you don’t know what notes might look like)), so that when I do get to a review (inevitably late) I can translate said notes into something passably resembling a review. Viewing An American in Paris over the Christmas/New Year period, however, there was no time for note-taking.

But enough on my lackadaisical reviewing habits, what can I say about the film? Well, it’s got a Gershwin score, and I always like that; particularly memorable is I Got Rhythm being performed by Gene Kelly and a group of young kids who can’t speak English. It’s a different take on a familiar number that’s thoroughly entertaining. The dancing is all great, of course, and Leslie Caron — last-minute replacement for a pregnant Cyd Charisse — shines in her debut role. The film ends with a lengthy ballet which, to be frank, isn’t really to my taste; dance fans of a certain type will undoubtedly love it though.

And that’s your lot, I’m afraid. I can only apologise to you, dear reader, and to all involved with this perfectly lovely film for not being able to offer a more appropriate set of thoughts.

4 out of 5