Most anyone who has ever seen Vincent Minnelli’s 1944 Hollywood musical Meet Me in St. Louis will probably be surprised by my assertion is that is as every bit as violent as a Martin Scorsese film. Of course, the violence contained within this deceptively nostalgic family film is almost entirely of the emotional breed, yet that
emotional violence is every bit the equal of Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Perhaps a better analogy would be a film of an entirely different director. In some ways, Meet Me in St. Louis is best viewed as a precursor to Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining. It is a kind of mirror image, however. Kubrick’s Jack Torrance willingly rejects his implicated role as caretaker, which causes familial disintegration. Interestingly, both films make valuable use of a small child, but whereas Danny Torrance never presents a real threat to his father, Tootie in Meet Me in St. Louis is essentially the agent of castration.
The father of the brood in Meet Me in St. Louis is willing to take on the role of caretaker of the family unit, unlike Jack Torrance. The film begins with a portrait of what appears to be the traditional American patriarchy. The opening sequences are almost self-parodic in their expansive introduction of happy bourgeois security. Since the film was made in 1944 as World War II was winding down, most viewers tend to see these scenes as a commentary on how the war had torn apart families by sending the men overseas; the setting of the film at the turn of the 20th century seems to suggest that when the war is over things will return back to the way they were and everybody will be happy and breaking into songs. But this view is clearly not as cut and dry as it may appear.
Take that famous opening song, “The Trolley Song.” In a highly regarded analysis of Meet Me in St. Louis Robin Wood, the most insightful film critic of all time, asserts that nearly every song in the movie climaxes not with exuberant release, but with frustration. That zing-zing-zing and clang-clang-clang that Judy Garland sings about in her song of meeting a wonderful boy on the train isn’t just an example of onomatopoeia; they are also encoded sexual symbolism.
Garland’s character belongs not to the prim and proper age of innocence at the dawn of the 1900s, but rather looks forward to the sexual awakening of the 1960s. World War II changed sexual dynamics in this country forever, in part because it also changed the family dynamic. “The Trolley Song” may seem like an innocent and nostalgic paean to simpler times, but there is never any question that “Chug, chug, chug went the motor /
Bump, bump, bump went the brake” are not lyrics about the trolley’s engine, but about the unwanted suppression of sexual release. This exuberant scene sets the stage for an epic examination of suppression and the inevitable explosion of pent-up yearnings.
The plot of Meet Me in St. Louis, if you must call it that, revolves around a St. Louis family learning that their patriarch has been offered a promotion that will require the entire family moving to New York. The geographical landscape of the film is thus consistent with its ideological imperative: moving east to New York represents a movement to the past. St. Louis, remember, is famous as the Gateway to the West. In 1904, the year in which the film is set, the West was still mostly untamed and represented the frontier progression forward. New York, by contrast, seems a thing of the past. Nobody in the family is happy about this decision.
What is especially fascinating about Meet Me in St. Louis is that the move back east is predicated upon one thing and only one thing: the furtherance of the father’s career. Why is this interesting? Because other than his role of breadwinner, he plays virtually no role whatever in the shaping of the family. He is purposely kept in the dark about his daughters’ various romantic entanglements and is usually considered little more than a annoyance inside his own home. And yet when he makes the decision to uproot the family, there seems to be absolutely no doubt that it’s a done deal, although vocal opposition to the plan is not suppressed. Already the process of the castration of Mr. Smith has begun, but the finality that surrounds his decision to move the clan to New York suggests that he is still very much the caretaker.
Many have posited the notion that Tootie, the younger member of the family played by Margaret O’Brien, is a precursor of the demon children of horror movies to come, from the creepy kids in Village of the Damned to Regan in The Exorcist and Damien in The Omen. And, as Robin Wood once again points out, it the sudden and unexpected introduction of generic conventions associated with horror films that yanks Meet Me in St. Louis out of its nostalgic assumptions. The first horror sequence foreshadows the second, but it is completely inverted by the follow-up. In a brilliantly directed series of scenes young Tootie is celebrating Halloween along with every other kid in the middle class neighborhood. In an effort to gain acceptance by the older kids, Tootie accepts the challenge of going up the house of the so-called meanest man in the neighborhood and “killing” him by throwing flour into his face and yelling out I hate you. The tension in this long sequence is more unnerving than anything you’ll find in most contemporary horror films. And it also has more depth because what the segment is really about it Tootie’s claim to maturation. The mean old man is at this point a vague, hardly understood symbolism of patriarchy. By killing him, Tootie establishes her credentials so that she makes the move from little girl to big kid.
The second horror sequence takes place during Christmas. Tootie has created a family of snowmen in the yard and has even dressed them in appropriate clothing. A brief bit of horror in a sequence taking place during Halloween seems only to be expected, but the violence displayed during this scene punctuated by the trappings of Christmas and Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a totally jarring experience. That suppression of the larger family’s resistance to give in to the desires of a single member finally erupts. Tootie races into the yard at night and furiously takes a shovel to the icy sculpture of the father snowman.
Watching from high above in his bedroom window, Tootie’s actual father is officially castrated. He almost immediately announces he is going to turn down the promotion and keep the family in St. Louis. Everyone is, of course, excited by this decision, including the father, but it is quite telling that in announcing they will be staying in St. Louis the father adds, “We’ll stay here till we rot.” This kind of language is not normally used by someone expressing excitement and gladness at the thought of remaining some place. The phrase is imbued with a sense of capitulation to the desires of the matriarchy that is poised to slowly take away power reserves for millennia to the male. The real violence enacted in Meet Me in St. Louis is the symbolic destruction of the patriarchic order that invested all authority within the male as the caretaker of family and society.