Friday, August 29, 2003

Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, 1944) B/B- Midnight (Leisen, 1939) A-/B+ Pillow Talk (Gordon, 1959) C

Meet Me in St. Louis has some great moments -- the Halloween sequence, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", Tootie attacking the snowman, a beautiful zoom in to the ball -- so I can see why it's considered a canonical musical. But it's also a sappy celebration of cornball Americana that fills the frame with fussy pastels that seemed to come straight out of a Fragonard painting. Gimme The Band Wagon any day of the week.

Now Midnight I can get behind. The unflappable Claudette Colbert stars as a superhumanly poised Cinderella-type who finds her way into a lavish salon-party thrown by Mary Astor and the mugging John Barrymore. A rather predictable impersonation farce follows, but what distinguishes this underrated screwball comedy is the sparkling aristocratic wit, penned by the remarkable Brackett/Wilder team, and Mitchell Leisen's smooth direction of a terrific cast (including a hilarious Queer Eye turn by the forgotten Rex O'Malley). Is it realistic that a "normal" girl can just waltz into the elegant world of the Parisian aristocracy and trade Wildean zingers with rich layabouts without breaking a sweat? Does it matter when that girl is played with such knowing, playful sophistication by the graceful Miss Colbert?

But how did we get from Colbert to Doris Day as a popular romantic comedy lead? (Answer: Charm, wit, and sass are optional for big female stars by the late Fifties.) In the fluffy romantic comedy Pillow Talk, Day violates the first and second rules of the genre: (1) the audience needs to find the romantic leads attractive, or absent that, (2) we must at least be convinced that the romantic leads would find each other appealing. Bearing my rules in mind, imagine your pal's pinched-up Orange County soccer mom having sex. Not exactly palatable, right? Well, that's what it's like to see Day as the object of Rock Hudson's amourous advances. With Colbert, you always feel like she's in on the joke with you. With Day, you get the feeling that she'll purse her lips and reprimand you once you tell her what the joke is. Day's sexless persona sinks this intermittenly amusing but confused romantic trifle, which is far more interesting when it's viewed as the template for Down with Love, and perhaps for its summation of Eisenhowerian zeitgeist (in the way that Pretty Woman is a summation of the Reagan Era). And as a coup de grace, the rococo set design is downright repellent, ironic considering that Day's supposed to be a top interior designer