During the class screening of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), I heard a number of attendees audibly groan in annoyance at the emergence and re-emergence of the title song in the opening minutes of the film. Perhaps this strong reaction was due to the way the theme was passed-along from one character to another with no clear break between the realism of dialogue and action and fantasy of breaking out into song. Indeed, one of the more peculiar things about this film musical is that so many of the songs have a much more subtle transition between a marked performance in the film’s diegesis and the more robust accompaniment of the orchestration such as the ringing of the bell on the trolley to induct “The Trolley Song” and the music-as-entertainment set-up for “Under The Bamboo Tree.” (Indeed, what sets “The Boy Next Door” apart is that it is one of the few moments that doesn’t transition from realism to fantasy, and instead functions as a musical monologue.)
However, that there was something grating to so many of you in the opening song warrants more scrutiny.
In the minutes before the film provides Judy Garland’s version of the song at the piano (accompanied by her sister Rose), Agnes and Grandpa (and others) sing the song absent-mindedly. They aren’t singing the song for any audience in particular, but rather they sing for themselves as they whistle (outside), trounce around the house, waltz in the hallway, try on different hats (eventually settling on the fez hat*), or return from tennis across the street. This production of the title song is exceptionally self-aware. Grandpa even forgets the lyrics, replacing them with “la la la la,” as he admires himself in the mirror.
Interruptions and forgetting abound in this song. It’s almost as if the characters know that this is the title song and they never give it the break-out status that normally accompanies such songs in movie musicals from this period. Compare “Meet Me in St. Louis” to “Oklahoma!” from Oklahoma! (1955), which was based on the Broadway show from 1943.
Perhaps part of the reason the film uses the song in this way is that it was actually written during the time that the film is set and is loaded with inside jokes and sexual innuendos that only make sense from that time and place. According to Raymond Knapp, it was written in 1904 with many lyrics directly referring to what people would have encountered at the World’s Fair (“hoochie-coochie” referring to the “exotic dance” at the Egypt exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair a decade before that eventually became known as the “striptease”; “tootsey” a reference to prostitutes turning “tootsie-wootsie” into a term of endearment between spouses with sexual undertones) thus leaving the characters without the self-awareness for the song’s references. He says, “beyond the casual hip-thrust from Judy Garland, none of the performances of the title song betrays any awareness of these meanings; indeed, Grandpa can’t even remember the exact words to this part of the song” (97). Even the ways the song is sung sets it apart from the rest of the songs in the film. It is sung straight-ahead slightly afield from the ’40s pop-vocal approach (with more scoops and jazz-influenced vibrato) that abounds throughout the rest of the film. Keep in mind that this film was released at the height of U.S. involvement in World War II. So much of what Hollywood produced in musicals were meant to fulfill two functions: remind the audience why they were sacrificing so much for the war-effort while also providing an escapist nostalgia. That this song was of the period the film portrays in such a “realist” manner (for a musical, of course) made the film feel less like a straight-ahead narrative and more like a series of greeting cards from the past. As it unfolds, the interrupting and forgetting is reminiscent of someone trying to remember something and missing some of the (more uncomfortable) details before being reminded of what actually happened. Perhaps that is what is happening in these opening minutes.
* There was a lively debate from other academics watching the class twitter feed on the meaning of Grandpa’s fez hat. Most agreed that it was a Shriner’s hat with Orientalist undertones. In Jim Buhler’s words, “Shriners=’Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine’ or so says wikipedia, so no argument there.” Sam Baltimore, a specialist in musical theater, tweeted, “homosociality, Orientalism often used as substitutes for homosexuality in film musicals. Shriners hat = both.” Whether or not such coding for grandpa was obvious, there is something peculiar and humorous about him and his hat.