Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Christmas Garland

Tomorrow night, TCM is airing a pair of Judy Garland films back-to-back. I don't know whether they're advertising this with the pun I've made above, but I sincerely hope they are. From the schedule:
    8:00 PM Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)
    Young love and childish fears highlight a year in the life of a turn-of-the-century family. Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, Mary Astor. Dir: Vincente Minnelli. C-113 mins

    10:00 PM Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)
    A small-town boy tries to juggle two girlfriends at once. Cast: Mickey Rooney, Lewis Stone, Judy Garland. Dir: George B. Seitz. BW-91 mins
I manage to catch a little of Meet Me in St. Louis nearly every time it airs. Like A Christmas Story, it has an episodic structure, so once you've seen it start-to-finish, you can tune in any time and catch your favorite scene. In fact, one of these years I think TCM should just do a 24-hour Meet Me... marathon. Instead, they seem to show it on or around every major holiday -- the movie is built around a year's worth of events in the Smith family home, and Christmas is only one of those events. But it's especially worth watching at this time of year. Once you've heard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in its original context, with its original lyrics, you'll never again be satisfied with "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough."

I confess that I've been waiting for this movie to come up in TCM's rotation since the last time I watched it, because while I love it dearly, there are a few things about it that bug me every time. Finally, a chance to complain!

The first one comes very early in the movie, when little Tootie (the fantastic Margaret O'Brien) tells the ice man that her ailing doll -- the one with four fatal diseases -- will be buried in "a cigar box" her father gave her. It's a sweet period detail, but I'm always distracted by the fact that the doll she's holding is much too big to fit in a cigar box. A milk crate would do the job, but not a cigar box, unless she plans to feed it through a wood-chipper first (and I wouldn't put that past Tootie). Shouldn't someone have noticed this discrepancy during shooting?

My other, larger objection is that the girls' Halloween prank and its fallout are confusing and convoluted. I've seen the movie many times, and I still have trouble following the whole sequence of events. Let me see if I have it right: Agnes and Tootie left a dress, stuffed to look like a dead body, on the streetcar tracks and then hid to watch the crash they hoped would result. When the car went off its cable and the police showed up to investigate, John Truitt pulled the girls into a side street so the police wouldn't catch them. But they struggled to get away from him -- why? So they wouldn't miss the excitement? And John somehow managed to belt Tootie in the mouth in his attempt to hold her back? The movie is completely caught up in Tootie's dramatization of the event ("He tried to kill me!") and Esther's overreaction ("If there's anything I hate, loathe, despise and abominate, it's a bully!") -- and I love all of that. But the explanation of what really happened is rushed, and the audience is left to put together a timeline without many details. Even if you can follow it all as it unfolds, you still have to wonder: Why aren't Agnes and Tootie punished for their attempt to derail a streetcar? Rose likes to exaggerate, yes, but when she tells them they "might have killed dozens of people," she's absolutely right. Esther denounces them, but then she runs off to make up with John, and never gives Tootie the scolding she deserves for lying about his role in the proceedings. And why doesn't Mrs. Smith tell Mr. Smith about the girls' little joke? If Tootie gets a spanking for leaving her roller skate where Papa might trip over it, surely she ought to get a cross word when she leaves a faux corpse in the path of a streetcar.

Wow, I feel much better now that I've gotten all that off my chest. The follow-up flick, Love Finds Andy Hardy, is nowhere near as good -- as you can easily guess if you've ever seen any of the Hardy films. But it's still entertaining for Judy fans, as long as you're not expecting it to make sense. The plot is so ragged, it seems like they must have been making it up as they went along; one crisis after another is played up way beyond its actual significance, with everyone stressing over a completely solvable problem, and then it's dropped suddenly with no real resolution. It's like they took several traditional sitcom plots and smashed them together, and forgot to write actual endings for any of them. Even the title is inaccurate: there is nothing like "love" in this movie. The teenage couples actually model pretty unhealthy relationships, if you ask me: the girls are demanding, dull and not very affectionate, and the boys, burdened by the task of having to entertain these difficult females, respond with near-constant prevaricating. Why the boys are so extremely invested in pursuing and protecting these unhealthy relationships is a total mystery, since not even the most innocent whiff of sexual attraction is permitted.

Most disorientingly, the audience is expected to be just as invested as Andy in the survival of his "relationship" with the shrewish, charmless Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford), in spite of his obviously greater chemistry with Betsy Booth, played adorably by the young Judy Garland. The one truly clever thing the screenwriters did was to introduce Betsy Booth as a young girl with an enormous crush on Andy Hardy -- the explanation for this ("My grandmother writes about him in her letters -- she says he's the nicest boy in the neighborhood!") is utter nonsense, but since Mickey Rooney was the Michael J. Fox of his day, creating a character who was Andy-crazy was an ingenious way to draw the Mickey-crazy audience into the film. Or so I thought, until I learned that Betsy doesn't actually end up with Andy -- Polly does, through no merit of her own (except perhaps her willingness to put up with his lying and cheating). In light of this fact, I am sorry to report that the tagline on the cover of the DVD edition -- "Mickey's in love and Judy's his girl!" -- is an outright lie. Still, it's totally fun to see Judy in the early years of her fame -- this was her first pairing with Rooney, I believe, and in 1938 she was still regarded as a novelty act: the little girl with the freakishly adult voice. Her delivery of the priceless line, "I sing, you know," is worth watching the movie for all by itself.

I think this movie should have been titled Progress Finds Judge Hardy, since every other scene finds the venerable Lewis Stone exclaiming over this or that newfangled development (automobiles, aeroplanes, telegrams, ham radio!). He also wins the prize for most unintentionally grim line when he remarks, in the presence of Andy and one of Andy's friends, "Heaven knows what this generation has coming!" They're teenage boys; it's 1938... Let's put it this way: there will be airplanes and telegrams involved.

That, of course, is exactly why I love to watch these old movies, even the shoddily constructed ones; they're time capsules of not-so-ancient cultural history. Not that I'd hold up the Hardy Family as an accurate portrait of American family life in the 1930s and 40s -- nor do I believe the St. Louis Smiths are representative of turn-of-the-century living. But the movies are a portrait of popular entertainment in the 30s and 40s, and I find that deeply fascinating. For example, you can get a taste of how things have changed when you discover that one of Andy's many insurmountable (but actually eminently solvable) problems is his desire to purchase a car, for which he needs to raise... twenty dollars. Twenty bucks! For a car! (He does get the money, of course, and it is a testament to how bad the plot was that I can't recall how he actually did it.) And I don't know of any film that captures the national mood in 1945 quite as evocatively as Meet Me in St. Louis, despite its being set in 1904. You don't have to work hard to guess what "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is really about, and what "troubles" everyone was longing to be "miles away" from by next year. If you have troubles you'd like to be miles away from, I don't think there's any better escape than TCM!

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