Vincente Minnelli's films are one of my biggest (American) cinematic blindspots: I'm fairly certain I'd only seen two of his pictures before my encounter with this stunningly beautiful print of Meet Me in St Louis at the Brattle Theatre, and neither of them prepared me for this extraordinary film, a deeply moving evocation of family and place on the verge of transformation by the coming of adulthood and economic boom respectively.
Set over the course of a year, with intertitles designating the passage of time, the film dramatizes the idea of a path not taken, as the family patriarch makes a decision on whether or not to move his family from St Louis; indeed, the film reminded me very much of the 1946 It's a Wonderful Life, which makes the forked road proposition more explicit, with the life that has already been led ultimately proving the richer, more meaningful option.
Of course, Minnelli camouflages many of the more adult themes very effectively, using a riot of colour and music - and Judy Garland at the absolute peak of her powers - to conjure up St Louis as a beguiling place to grow up (privileged). Still, it's hard to not to imagine that contemporary audiences must have found other resonances in the film - as Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests, the bonfire sequence, one of the film's most atmospheric and alarming scenes, surely evoked the contemporary spectacle of book-burnings.
Minnelli's recreation of family life is wonderfully appealing too - a crowded dinner table crammed with opinionated and humorous family members, reminiscent of mealtimes in Hitchcock's Young and Innocent - except that mother/wife is firmly in place here in St Louis, where such an absence would cast an unsustainably dark shadow over the flirtatious goings-on.