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Color Taken to the Highest Power: A Blu-Ray Holiday in St. Louis

I never thought I’d say it, but the newly released Blu-ray DVD of Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St Louis (1944) has to be one of the most beautiful motion pictures ever made. Before Blu-ray, the beauty was secondary to the original songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane (“The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), the peerless singing of Judy Garland, and the scene-stealing of Margaret O’Brien as Judy’s little sister Tootie.

When DVDs first came on the scene, people would say, speaking of such-and-such a movie, “You think you’ve seen it, but you haven’t. In DVD, it’s like another film.” David Kehr seems to be saying as much in his recent New York Times review of the Blu-ray Meet Me in St Louis when he celebrates the “pinpoint accuracy that even the original nitrate prints did not possess.” Probably the only way to know if you’re seeing the film in a state true to its original release would be to travel back to November 1944 and see it on the screen at the Astor Theatre.

Depth and Clarity

The colors in the film’s opening sequence showing the stately Victorian homes of a St. Louis neighborhood in the spring before the 1904 World’s Fair have a depth and clarity that make you catch your breath — the effect is so real that it’s almost un-real, and people, seen in motion from a distance, seem to be moving in another dimension. Once you enter the spacious gingerbread residence of the Smith family, the colors are even more stunning; the stained glass window in the grandfather’s room, to name one detail among many, makes you want to hit the pause button and just stare. You have to think that had the film looked this good on its first release, reviewers should have been raving about it. The New York Times’s Bosley Crowther, however, merely refers to “eyefuls of scenic delight” while praising Minnelli for the “period charm” and “rooms lush with golden-oak wainscotting, ormolu decorations, and red-plush chairs.”

In his Nation review, James Agee begins by knocking “the chromium and glucose style” and “colors too perfectly waxen” before going on to admit that he “can’t remember ever having seen studio-sealed Technicolor better used.” He then gives an example that could be describing the Blu-ray effect: a shot “in which a mother and four daughters, all in festal, cake-frosting white, stroll across their lawn in spring sunlight, so properly photographed that the dresses all but become halations.” Later he cites the Halloween scene, where Margaret O’Brien’s acting, “the lovely, simple camera movement,” and “color control” combined to make his hair “stand on end.” As happens when Agee is coming to terms with a film that impresses him, he seems to be contending with the momentum of his own enthusiasm as he suggests: “If the rest of the picture’s autumn section … had lived up to the best things about that shot, and if the rest of the show, for all its prettiness, had been scrapped, Meet Me in St Louis would have been, of all things on earth it can never have intended to be, a great moving picture.” In spite of having effectively rejected everything in the film but that one shot, he takes the implication even farther by suggesting that it would have been “the first great moving picture made in this country” since Modern Times (1936). From a devotee of Chaplin as fervent and outspoken as Agee, that’s a remarkable claim, however much he may qualify it up front.

Even aside from the Blu-ray-brightened and clarified color and the mercurial presence of Margaret O’Brien (“a wholly delightful imp of Satan” croons stuffy Bosley Crowther), Minnelli’s film has a lot going for it. It’s a great family movies, a holiday classic that does full justice to both Christmas and Halloween, a lovesick spring and an ice cream summer; there are no false moves, as each musical number emerges spontaneously from each situation, including the opening title song and an exhilaratingly true-to-life “Skip to My Lou” dance sequence; everyone in the cast is likeable and believable in their own way (Marjorie Main’s tough-talking cook in particular), with none of the MGM goody-goody overkill you might anticipate. What could be cornier, you may wonder, than a boy-next-door theme or a family crisis about the possibility of a suitor calling the eldest sister (Lucille Bremer) long-distance during dinner? Or consider the sentimental potential of a tearful Christmas with Margaret O’Brien’s Tootie in hysterics knocking the heads off snow men after listening to Judy Garland sing her heart-breaking rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a song whose downbeat lyrics had to be revised (“It may be your last/Next year we may all be living in the past” becoming “Let your heart be light/Next year all our troubles will be out of sight”).

I doubt very much if Agee’s scrapping of “the rest of the show” would include Tootie’s ecstatic rendition of “I Was Drunk Last Night, Dear Mother” prior to the famous cakewalk routine where she and Judy Garland sing “Under the Bamboo Tree.” Nor is it likely that he’d have given up the seductively directed scene where Garland lures the boy next door into the house to help her “turn out the lights” and leads him through the rooms snuffing the gaslit chandeliers and lamps until she has him and us under her spell. “Beautiful” is the only word for it. Presumably that’s part of the “prettiness” that Agee admires but ultimately sees as the enemy of “truth.”

Vintage Agee 

One of the primary attractions of Meet Me in St Louis is the excuse it gives me to share some vintage James Agee. If you know his work, you know he will have little if any resistance to what Margaret O’Brien does as five-year-old Tootie, whose charm is infused with a sort of irrepressible morbidity. You might think Crime and Punishment or Poe’s Tales were her favorite bedtime stories. This outlandish little creature singlehandedly explodes the city-of-dreadful-joy aspect of MGM and somehow succeeds in being wholesome at the same time. So uncannily delightful is her performance, it makes Mickey Rooney’s manic turn as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream look tame.

Now listen to Agee. After admitting his admiration for “the general intention of the movie, which is to make “the well-heeled middle-class life of some adolescent and little girls in St. Louis seem so beautiful that you can share their anguish when they are doomed to move to New York,” he confesses that he “could have liked it much better still” if the girls in the film had “approached and honored rather than flouted and improved on reality.” This is only a brief summary of the rhetorical maze Agee moves through before he comes to his “childishly blunt point,” which is turned “over and over again, into a heart-piercing sword” by “the incredibly vivid and eloquent Margaret O’Brien.” This may seem a roundabout way of stating that the little girl steals the movie. (She is also the only person in the production who received an Oscar, a special one for the best performance by a child). For Agee, “many of her possibilities and glints of her achievement hypnotize [him] as thoroughly as anything since Garbo.”

It takes Agee two long paragraphs to describe the “glints of her achievement.” After observing the way she manages to “mix stock cuteness with enchantment and with accurate psychology,” he refers to “the scene in which she is lugged in with her lip cut, screaming half-lies and gibberish” as “the most complex and impressive job of crying” he has ever seen.

Reviewing the same film for Time, Agee has to harness his narrative energy. In The Nation he can let go, playfully expanding on the little girl’s “annihilation of the snowmen she can’t take to New York,” which “would have been terrifying if only she had had adequate support from the snowmen and if only the camera could have had the right to dare to move in close.” At this point, the Agee momentum carries him into an inspired delirium no one but the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men could survive: “Being only the well-meant best that adult professionals could design out of cornflakes or pulverized mothballs or heroin or whatever they are making snow out of just now, these statues were embarrassingly handicapped from their birth, and couldn’t even reach you deeply by falling apart.” In his own way, Agee is channeling the free spirit he sees in the child to express what he feels is a fatal artificiality in the movie itself. In the Time review, he states it straight up when he concludes by finding the film finally “too sumptuously, calculatedly handsome to be quite mistaken for the truth.”

And in the context of things artificial and “calculatedly handsome,” what would James Agee make of innovations like Blu-ray? My guess is that he’d have taken an even-handed film-by-film approach. For myself, I’m grateful to the new technology for making all-time favorites like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly look even better than they did when they were first released. Two other Blu-ray enhanced films I saw last week seemed less dramatically transformed. No doubt you need to see Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams in person, in 3-D in an I-MAX theatre, to experience the scale and intensity of detail I was expecting. As for Hitchcock’s black and white The Lady Vanishes, it’s hard to imagine what could have been improved on. How much clearer do you have to see the tweed fabric of the title character’s jacket when you’re already in movie heaven?

I hope the Princeton Public Library will add the Blu-ray version of Meet Me In St. Louis to the collection, so more people can appreciate its beauty. The packaging may make this a challenge for the library, since the DVD is designed as a book with a CD “Soundtrack Sampler,” along with other special features such as an audio commentary that includes Margaret O’Brien; an introduction by Liza Minnelli, and a featurette about the making of the film. Agee’s Nation and Time reviews are available in the Library of America collection, Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism.

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