Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Note 2: Lighting and Rhyming in Meet Me Louis

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Each viewing of Meet Me in St. Louis teaches me something new about how this great film achieves the effects that it does, and how it expresses mood, character and feeling so beautifully and so poetically. I’ve previously written on an example of a cut and also on the marvel that is Garland’s acting in the film. Seeing it again on Monday with students, I realised how symmetrical the film is, with ‘The Boy Next Door’ number starting within the first ten minutes of the film, and the ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ ending within the last ten minutes of the film. I had not fully realised how the latter is a response to the former and how it rhymes with it in so many different and subtle ways.

What I remembered of ‘The Boy Next Door’ number is what we can see in the image above: Garland framed in the window in her blue and white striped dress, with the neat cuffs and the prim lace bow at the neck. She’s framed at the window, a portal between indoors and outdoors, the security of the home vs the promise of romantic possibilities just next door. The window is a gateway, but verdant, luxurious, with roses seeming already faded into a pretty Edwardian adornment on the edge of the frame. The frame within the frame of the window offers us lace, their partings secured with heavy tassels. Her song is a song of longing for that which is outside, within her reach but as yet inaccessible. But that longing is anchored, rendered safe, by the richness of the interior that we glimpse, the solid wood of the bannister, the doors, the richly polished brown furniture, the solid home life that prevents that yearning from possibly veering too out of control, too far from custom, community, security.

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What I hadn’t noticed is that that song of yearning for the boy outside and next door is not only shown to us through the gateway portal and framed by the window. The staging of the song starts from the inside, goes to the window, returns inside for the little dance in front of the mirror and then goes back to the edge of outdoors. What I wanted to signal in the gif above is the way that Judy/Esther moves from the shadows and into the light. The light is what’s sought but the movement from inside to outside is shadowed, it’s troubled. I wanted to show a gif rather than a still because that movement across shadows and into a safe gateway from inside to outside is what the film emphasizes.

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This second gif above is from a moment later on in the song and I again wanted to emphasize this move from inside to outside, across the shadows and into the safe gateway of the window giving full if melancholy voice to yearning for he and that who is outside. That play on shadow, that movement through shadow and into the light is no accident.

What became clear on my last viewing is how the ‘Have Yourself a Marry Little Christmas’ scene near the end rhymes with, responds to ‘The Boy Next Door’ number at the beginning; and how in turn the earlier number adds a layer of feeling and meaning to the later one. By the time the film gets to the ‘Have Yourself a Marry Little Christmas’ number, John Truitt, the boy next door, has now proposed to Esther. But that proposal like so many other things is now tainted by the knowledge that the family is leaving St. Louis, that it might all dissipate and vanish before it really comes to be.

Now Esther walks through a darkened house, through Tootie’s room but the window offers no light. As she looks out the window, the melody of the ‘The Boy Next Door’ comes on the soundtrack but the response is now the shutting of the blind by John and the coming of darkness for Esther. The windows are no longer gateways but bars. The house that is on the verge of no longer being there is now not an anchor or a comfort but a prison, a shutting down of what could be, what might have been. Instead of moving to the light through shadows, it’s moving through shadows into a prison of complete darkness. There’s a nice homology in the feeling of the songs as well for if the yearning for ‘The Boy Next Door’ had an under-layer of melancholy, here the desire for a merry if little Christmas is plunged in sadness. The Merry Little Christmas scene, so shadowy as to be Gothic, particularly in its representation of the snow people outside, is the final nadir, the extinguishment of the promise of the earlier scene. Until, of course, the father witnesses this and turns back on the lights, literally and metaphorically.

Tiny things, almost ephemeral, that constitute poetry in film, help make meaning, and beautifully convey a richness of feeling.

José Arroyo