Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
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Films by Fassbinder, Naruse, Scorsese and more screen as part of “Emotion Pictures.”
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Very few current stars could learn the choreography of Busby Berkeley, Jerome Robbins, or Bob Fosse, and adapting a medium developed and most suited for the stage requires innovative direction. In translating the joy of a live musical to the magic of cinema, some things are easily lost in the shuffle.
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If you’re emotionally prepared, the massive 62-film series “Emotion Pictures: International Melodrama” has begun featuring In the Mood for Love, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Housemaid, and more this weekend.
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They don’t get much more timeless than Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me In St. Louis. It’s a musical about the family unit, and fittingly almost all of the numbers take place in the home. Whether in party revelry or the everyday household ubiquity of the title song, music is as much a definitive tradition of the Smith family as anything else. Grandpa may screw up the words, and it may be past the youngest’s bedtime, but music is one of the things that bind them. It also helps when one of the daughters is Judy Garland, I suppose.
Though St. Louis has relatively few musical numbers (unless you count umpteen reprises of that title song), its percentage of classics is nearly as high as its joy levels. “The Trolley Song” is the kind of showstopper
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Those blueprints are a long ago memory for successful
That is, of course, an oversimplification, just as the other charge popularized by the likes of Peter Biskind – i.e. George Lucas’ grand space opera and Steven Spielberg’s personal blockbusters killed Hollywood’s interest in movies for adults – is an oversimplification. In all truth, it isn’t surprising that audiences didn’t go for Sorcerer or New York, New York, two especially challenging-for-the-mainstream features that pushed their creators’ aesthetics to greater extremes than before while tracking in subject matter that was pessimistic even for the time. But while both films and their troubled productions saw directors burned by their ambition, they are also exceptional works showcasing how exhilarating it can be when all commercial sense goes out the window.
Friedkin’s Sorcerer can lay more claim to having been actively harmed by the arrival of Lucas’ megahit, arriving exactly one month later, on June 25, and competing for a thrill-seeking crowd. (One theater reportedly pulled Star Wars for Sorcerer for a week, only to replace it when Friedkin’s film failed to lure an audience.) The film, a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 masterpiece The Wages of Fear, was also hurt by its confusing title — named after one of the trucks transporting dynamite through a dangerous jungle to put out an oil fire — and a budget that ballooned from an initially planned $15 million to $22 million following a difficult production.
Friedkin, hot off the Oscar-winning The French Connection and hugely successful The Exorcist, already had a reputation for his temperament and arrogance. They were in full force on Sorcerer: he clashed with cinematographer Dick Bush, who left halfway through filming, as well as producer David Salven, whom Friedkin fired after fights over the expensive location shoots. Friedkin extensively clashed with Paramount brass, sometimes reasonably (kicking executives off set after perceived interference), sometimes amusingly but questionably (the evil oil execs pictured in the film are actually Gulf & Western’s executive board, and they repaid him by not promoting the film). The jungle shoot itself was hell, with about 50 people quitting following injury or illness while Friedkin himself contracted malaria and lost 50 pounds.
But it’s only appropriate that the making of Sorcerer was so desperate, given the story it tells. Friedkin’s worldview has always been bleak and cynical, and Sorcerer may be the purest expression of that. Its heroes are a hard-bitten New Jersey hood (a spectacularly testy Roy Scheider) hiding out after shooting a mobster’s brother, a crooked French banker (Bruno Cremer) on the run following fraud accusations, a Palestinian terrorist (Amidou) behind a Jerusalem bombing, and a Mexican hitman (Francisco Rabal) who gets in on the job after murdering the fourth driver (Karl John), apparently a fugitive Nazi. The film presents their crimes as facts and without real judgment, their rottenness just another bad part of a burned-out, brutal world.
Where The French Connection and The Exorcist gave viewers visceral thrills early on and some sense of right and wrong (even if it’s fatally compromised), the early action in Sorcerer is more painful, with suicide, terrorism, and the loss of friends and partners forming the four prologues introducing the men at this film’s center. Friedkin then drops us into squalor and despair in a small South American town where the heat and rain are nearly as oppressive as the police state, the work is dangerous and pays little, and the mud seems to soak up any sense of hope. It’s little wonder that they might take up the dangerous assignment of driving through an arduous jungle landscape with unstable explosives that could set off at any moment. When you’ve been driven into no man’s land by your sins, any way out is worth it — no matter how unlikely it is that you’ll survive.
The actual drive up to the oil well doesn’t begin until about halfway through and takes on the tone of an unusually fraught funeral march for the protagonists. Friedkin’s immediate, docurealistic style helps ground the proceedings as set-pieces grow more heightened, most memorably when the drivers guide their trucks over a deteriorating bridge as the river beneath it overflows — the most expensive sequence in the film, as well as the most difficult-to-shoot of Friedkin’s career. As Popeye Doyle’s car chase in The French Connection and Regan & Chris MacNeil getting jerked around in The Exorcist evince, Friedkin always had a gift for making scenes that were already dangerous in conception even more tactile and nerve-wracking. Here, his emphasis on the mechanics of the crossing – the snapping rope and wood – as well as the fragility of the bodies attempting to cross (particularly as one rider steps outside to guide the truck and risks getting thrown off or crushed in the process) make the danger of their situation all the more palpable.
Yet there’s a more existential doom permeating the film compared with the nihilism of his earlier efforts, a more complete melding of his hard-bitten style with expressionistic touches that peppered The Exorcist. Part of that comes from Tangerine Dream’s ethereal score, which accentuates a sense that the elements are set against the drivers. But Friedkin also lends the film’s grungy look a sort of otherworldly menace, whether the camera soars through gorgeous greenery while a fire burns in the background or Scheider envisions a stream of blood soaking the dirt. Even the small moments of beauty (e.g. a butterfly hiding from the rain or a woman briefly dancing with Scheider) seem to tease the protagonists and underline their utter hopelessness. By the time we reach a grim conclusion, Friedkin has taken us through a world without mercy or decency, in which fate mocks even the most resilient of us.
Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, released just a few days earlier on June 21, was less plausibly affected by the release of Star Wars, and more likely the victim of critics and audiences being put off by its mix of glossy, Vincente Minnelli-esque musicality and aggressive, John Cassavetes-influenced verisimilitude. Scorsese, with the story of a creative and personal relationship collapsing under the weight of jealousy in a postwar environment, sought to bring to the forefront the unhappiness lurking under the surface of films such as Meet Me in St. Louis and My Dream is Yours.
It, like Sorcerer, had a difficult production, with the director battling a severe cocaine addiction while breaking up with then-wife Julia Cameron and carrying out an affair with lead actress Liza Minnelli. The film’s herky-jerky rhythms and circular intensity seem to take cues from that tension, the big-band musical numbers clashing with deliberately repetitive improvisations and screaming matches. Scorsese had mixed realism with melodrama (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and grit with florid formalism (Taxi Driver) previously, and would go on to marry his classic and New Hollywood interests more palatably in Raging Bull. But New York, New York isn’t a marriage so much as it’s a push-pull war, one that’s sometimes exhausting.
Acknowledging the unattainability of Hollywood fantasies makes it no less vital a love letter. Scorsese opens with an astonishing crane shot on V-j Day as Robert De Niro’s Jimmy gets lost in the excitement of a crowd, only to appear under an arrow that both pinpoints and isolates him. De Niro’s first interactions with Minnelli’s Francine, meanwhile, are less a meet-cute, more an ongoing, insistent harassment that eventually wears down her defenses. The entire opening sequence communicates a sense of spiritual and personal emptiness amid celebration, an early warning that not all is well in the postwar era.
De Niro continues playing Jimmy as a halfway point between his insecure, jealous bruiser in Raging Bull and his relentless, obnoxious pest in The King of Comedy, but Scorsese finds some truth in his and Francine’s romance (even as it’s rotting from the inside out) in their musical performances, with the two finding a better balance and greater chemistry as they perform “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me.” Their partnership flourishes out of a mutual recognition of talent — or, in his case, recognition of greater possible success together. Still, that balance begins to tip whenever Francine asserts herself, as in a scene where she tries to pep up the band following one of Jimmy’s criticisms, only for him to tear her down. And the film’s most gorgeous images undermine any possibility of happiness between the two, with De Niro proposing (badly: “I love you… I mean, I don’t love you. I dig you; I like you a lot”) in front of a fake forest.
Purposefully, the film’s first two hours give more emphasis to Scorsese’s more discursive side, major arguments between Jimmy and Francine getting interrupted by Jimmy’s ability to get into a minor argument with anyone he encounters. It’s in the final third that focus shifts to the director’s inner formalist and New York, New York turns into a proper musical with the remarkably bittersweet “Happy Endings” sequence. Francine’s finally given a chance to flourish as a performer, unhindered by Jimmy’s jealousy, and Scorsese jumps into an unabashedly stagey finale not unlike that of The Band Wagon or An American in Paris.
Yet the climax still reflects the inherent unhappiness in Francine’s life, telling a story of a relationship ended by success, only to double back and conclude with a wish-fulfillment coda that only makes it more painful. We’ve already seen the truth in the lives of Francine and Jimmy, and no rousing performance of “Theme from ‘New York, New York’” is going to change that. Their final encounter twists the knife further, giving one last tease of possible reconciliation before recognizing that it’s impossible, leaving Jimmy with a final, lonely shot echoing that V-j Day opening.
Audiences and critics largely rejected New York, New York and Sorcerer, with neither film making its budget back or earning the raves their makers had come to expect, but time has been kind to both. They haven’t exactly seen widespread reevaluation as their makers’ best works — Sorcerer wouldn’t be too far off for this writer, and Scorsese’s film has its passionate advocates — but they’ve developed cult followings and at least partly shaken off their previous distinctions as merely ambitious follies. Perhaps it’s appropriate that they’re not as widely cited as Taxi Driver and The Exorcist – they’re pricklier than their more popular predecessors, better suited as advanced viewing than introductory works. They may not generate thousands upon thousands of appreciations 40 years later, but they’re there, waiting for curious viewers to make a discovery.
Columbia Pictures was not interested in placing such limitations on him. The film’s producer, composer Arthur Schwartz, must have known how lucky they were, because they gave Kelly immense control over its production, especially his dance numbers.
Vincente Minnelli’s famous musicals—among them Meet Me In St. Louis and An American In Paris—tend to eclipse his 1948 Technicolor flop The Pirate, one of his richest and strangest works. One of his kinkiest, too. Minnelli himself considered it a surrealist film. Judy Garland, to whom he was married at the time, plays Manuela, a virginal orphan who has been arranged to marry the middle-aged Don Pedro (Walter Slezak) but fantasizes about being kidnapped and ravished by the legendary murderous pirate Macoco. Gene Kelly plays Serafin, a horny, vain actor who gets the hots for Manuela, learns of her unladylike desires by way of a hypnosis-induced song-and-dance number, and proceeds to masquerade as the infamous criminal by ...
It’s a granular, educational examination for musical buffs, although the “stolen
“Whatever musicals come next will have to be good. That’s the test,” says Justin Paul, one of the Oscar-nominated lyricists for “La La Land.” “I have to believe that other studios, other producers, would only be encouraged by the impact of ‘La La Land,’ both critically and at the box office.”
Adds fellow “La La Land” lyricist Benj Pasek: “We feel like our generation has been so primed for musical content. We grew up with the resurgence of Disney animation and all that followed from that. In hindsight, it makes sense that people would be receptive; so many of us grew up with our first stories being told through song.
By her side throughout the young star’s life were her five husbands, who each witnessed her struggle with her inner demons.
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David Rose (1941–1944)
David Rose was already a successful composer and orchestra leader when he first met Garland
Carroll died Nov. 16 near her home in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, her son, Joe Krack, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Carroll played Garland's younger sister Agnes, who pulls a dangerous prank with the youngest sister, Tootie (Margaret O'Brien), in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). The actress was sidelined for a few days during filming after she needed an emergency appendectomy.
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Though we last left Judy Garland in 1944 crooning from a trolley and cementing a (troubled) place in Hollywood history, this week we must catapult two years into the future to rejoin our musical heroine. The reason has to do with the odd nature of the Studio System in general and this series in specific. Judy Garland actually shot two movies between 1944 and 1945, but because one was delayed due to reshoots (therefore getting bumped to next week) and the other was a straight drama (therefore not fitting a series focused on musical numbers), we must travel through the end of WW2 and the beginning of Judy Garland's marriage to Vincente Minnelli. Thus, in 1946 we arrive in... the Old West?
The Movie: The Harvey Girls (1946)
The Songwriters: Johnny Mercer (lyrics), Harry Warren (music)
The Players: Judy Garland, Angela Lansbury, Ray Bolger,
It's difficult to overstate the importance of Meet Me in St. Louis to the myth that is Judy Garland. The Wizard of Oz guaranteed Judy immortality at age 17, but the 1944 Freed musical would be the first Garland product to assemble the pieces of her myth beyond her larger-than-life talent. Though Meet Me in St. Louis is usually known as arguably the best "adult" performance by Judy Garland in an MGM musical, this time the alternately exciting and exhausting events offscreen would be as important to her image as her sparkling turn in Technicolor as Esther Smith.
The Movie: Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)
The Songwriters: Hugh Martin (lyrics), Ralph Blane (music)
The Players: Judy Garland, Mary Astor, Margaret O'Brien, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, directed by Vincente Minnelli
The Story: Long after the completion of Meet Me In St. Louis,
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