Don’t Tell Me The Light Are Shining Any Place But There
To me, there is no warmer, more cosy genre than the musical, especially ones from the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. The technical perfection cleaning off all the rough edges and open artifice of the performances, both in the style of acting and the fact they start singing, create a sense of familiarity and distance; a kind of nostalgia. That’s why Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Wizard of Oz (1938) feel like Christmas films even though they really have nothing to do with the season. Because they are films from a time gone by: in the early post-war period musicals made up about a sixth of all Hollywood productions, but now they seldom produce more than two a year. Their escapism is no longer about absorbing you in, sincerity must always be diffused with self-aware humour, pointing to its artifice before the audience can. So it’s not surprising that people’s feelings bursting out into songs is seen as silly. It’s an idea that has clearly taken far too much of a hold when a film like La La Land (2016) thinks that “what if there was a Hollywood musical where the performers couldn’t sing or dance?” is an interesting question to ask. As if some added realism would offset–or at best allow–the genre’s supposed excesses, rather than neuter them with irony. At least Mamma Mia! (2008) and its sequel are straightforward in their boozy sing-along intentions. But both show that the Golden Age of musicals is awfully far away.
Perhaps that’s what makes them more appealing, more nostalgic, but I think there is much that their warmth could bring to a time in Hollywood when textures have become so icy and cold, and fantasy has moved away from emotions and enclosed itself into unrelated universes. I think movies, in general, would be better if they were more like Meet Me in St Louis (1944), perhaps the warmest and greatest musical of its time. Before he became interested in the illusions and the irony of escapist filmmaking, Vincente Minnelli adapted Sally Benson’s sentimental short stories which look back nostalgically at the life of the Missouri-based Smith family over a year at the very beginning of the 20th century. It’s a simple and incidental film, and so the musical numbers expand the emotions of daily life, without ever feeling the urge to explode them out into melodrama. When Esther (Judy Garland) sings longingly about the boy next door (in the fittingly titled “The Boy Next Door”) she takes a moment to look in the mirror and dance with herself, it’s those little moments, those private joys, that the film thinks are most worth capturing. The scene is shot simply, as all the musical numbers are, mostly through the window Esther is looking out of, because Minnelli sees the lives of the women who make up the majority of the family as interesting and valuable in and of themselves.
In another scene, Garland is comically resisting as she’s squeezed into a corset by her sister Rose (Lucille Bremer), and the things off-screen that we have to ignore become all too obvious. Garland is sparkling and brilliant in the film, but she had a terrible time making it, or at least while making it. According to the daily production reports, she was chronically late and occasionally didn’t show up at all, when on set she would delay shooting for any number of reasons. As insecure as she was about her juvenile screen persona, she struggled to see herself as a leading lady next to all the women she had been told were much more beautiful than her, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer called her his “little hunchback”. Maybe some of that insecurity bleeds into the performance, into the way that Esther is desperate to grow up, imitating the kind of way an adult talks, even though underneath she’s already so tender and so strong. But that feels distasteful to say. It doesn’t matter if it’s true at all because it comes far too close to justifying her cruel treatment. At first MGM forced her onto a strict diet and then gave her amphetamines to control her weight. By 1944 she was completely addicted, she had been for years. These addictions would follow her for the rest of her short life. She might have found a brief love on this set, she and Minnelli were married for six years, but ultimately, Hollywood killed her. She died of an accidental overdose at 47.
Old Hollywood movies are designed to make you forget. They were supposed to be escapist after all. Part of what makes Minnelli so interesting is that he made his films in harmony with the system, rather than in opposition to it: in his films art and escapism seem harmonious, even though the studio’s factory line production methods should stand between them. His style is elegant and decorative, but fundamentally simple: he moves the camera as little as possible so that the meaning, the emotion it’s trying to create, is felt but not quite seen. It makes those feelings seem bigger and like they are a totally natural response, rather than something you’re being told, I think that’s the essence of Old Hollywood style and Minnelli was the very best at it. Even the highly specific production design of St Louis–the sets cost $497,000 of the 1.5 million budget–work in a similar way. Every detail of the Smith family’s second empire Victorian house is integrated into the movie, like when Rose is trying to have a private call with her family sitting a few feet away at the dinner table, but she has to shout down the old phone to be heard. Or, when Esther asks the boy next door, John Truett (Tom Drake), if he could help her turn down the lamps, so she can hold close to him in the fading light, the lamps become an inextricable part of the aching romance. It makes the nostalgic memories of this time and place seem like your own, you remember the little things in a way that only someone who lived with them would.
Although both of these are a part of what makes the movie so rich and affecting, the sense of naturalness allows it to carry in other ideas quietly. Think of the scene when the family patriarch (Leon Ames) decides that the whole family is moving to New York. At first, everyone is upset and goes off to their rooms, but when he starts to sing a sentimental song with his wife (Mary Astor) at the piano, they all slowly return. It’s a moving scene perfectly executed, the slow build from the bare sound of just voice and piano to the warm hum of everyone together again, silently forgiving and returning to normal. But nothing has actually changed, the Father’s unfair and arbitrary use of his patriarchal authority still stands. Nostalgia smudges memories, and it softens them. Escapism makes us look away entirely. So perhaps this genre which embodies these things the most, even in a period so defined by them, only serves to convince us to go back downstairs and listen to our father’s voice.
But in many ways Meet Me in St Louis is an exception, even with the exceptional time that it was made. Though the studio system continued into the sixties, as Thomas Schatz argues in The Genius of the System (1988), the decline started as early as 1947, with the introduction of television and the Paramount Agreement amongst other things. Even within this brief boom, no musical was as incidental. Neither a back-stage story nor melodrama, it stands mostly alone. The system can only take so much credit for its exceptions and miracles, as much as it would like to. Even though its surfaces seem so perfect, it’s a complicated and contradictory film, an individual one. Its view of the future isn’t simply sadness that the beautiful past is being left behind, in fact, that sense is mostly brought on by the Father’s active decision. It’s not inevitable at all, it can be undone and is by the end of the film. The future can als be joyous, as in the opening song (“Meet Me in St Louis”) where characters young and old pine for the upcoming St Louis World’s Fair, which even in 1903 was a symbol of the future; “Don’t tell me the rights are shining any place but there” they sing. Minnelli doesn’t feel the need to bridge these contradictions, the future can simply be both.
The modern Hollywood musical can only look back, and to these movies they don’t even take seriously; there is no world’s fair on the horizon, it sees no future for the genre. Meet Me in St Louis is as nostalgic as any of them, but it’s also looking forward, and to find a future for musicals we must follow its gaze. Now that the studio system has fallen, with its control of both production and distribution, there is much more freedom to look outside of it. Now film history doesn’t have to be so linear, we can build on films from far-reaching places and time. Western cinephiles have started to explore the huge amount of musicals coming from India, and there are no doubt other places with as deep of a well, maybe the future is already there. But to find exceptions like St Louis requires a deeper understanding of these cultures, both in terms of filmmaking and politics, which seems awfully far away. Eventually we will get there and find a new place for the musical, hopefully at a faster pace than we’ve looked so far, but until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
- The Genius of the System by Thomas Schatz.
- Get Happy by Gerald Clarke (pg 82).