What’s the most subversive Christmas scene in movie history? Hint: It provided the world with one of its best, if saddest, Christmas songs.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” is not a Christmas picture per se, though you will usually find Turner Classic Movies airing the film either Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or the day after Christmas. The inclusion of Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” no doubt is responsible for this association.
What sets “Meet Me in St. Louis” apart from other movies that aren’t about Christmas but do include a Christmas song is that the song is essential for the emotional drive and thematic underpinning of the movie. The song also launches a scene of almost unbelievable horror that sets a standard for subversion in glossy Hollywood musicals.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” also includes a Halloween scene in addition to its Christmas scene, but the subversion begins with the Christmas sequence actually winding up more horrific than the admittedly tense and diabolical Halloween scenes. The treatment of both holidays is pretty rough emotionally. Scary rough. The anxiety of a family at odds with the direction of their lives and the very times in which they live comes through loud and clear in the Christmas scene especially.
If you have never watched “Meet Me in St. Louis,” you might be surprised by the raw emotional tenor attached to such a sweetly heartbreaking song. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” falls just short of being as plaintive as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but whereas that ballad precedes a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which everyone gets what they dream of, Garland’s song in “Meet Me in St. Louis” instigates a nightmarish world of repressed Freudian anger bubbling directly to the surface.
Garland’s younger sister decapitates the father figure in snowman form that presides over an entire snowman family representing her siblings, parents, and extended familial members. A Christmas song filled with the dream of a lighthearted escape from troubles that are miles away would ideally result in a scene of family togetherness, perhaps around a roaring fire with yuletide log as everybody raises a glass of eggnog into the air to celebrate the season. That is what you expect.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” delivers something else entirely. The song spurs an act of rage and violence that is incredibly and palpably at odds with the carefully constructed feeling of Christmas cheer that precedes it in an extended Christmas ball sequence. That act of rage is an offense against the patriarchal order that has endowed itself with absolute authority.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas? In this world that becomes not a dream of escape but a command from the central power of family, nation, and world. Have yourself a merry little Christmas! Now!!
Instead, however, that command is transformed into open rebellion. Tootie’s symbolic decapitation extends beyond the representational removal of the head of the father figure to become a Freudian act of castration. That Freudian imagery ultimately mirrors the actual castration of the power base of the father who gives into matriarchal demands and gives up his dream of moving to New York to stay in St. Louis until, in his words, “we rot.”
And with that one single show of force against a snowman, “Meet Me in St. Louis” provides the most subversive Christmas scene in movie history.