Free Ranging, Old School

Those of you who’ve had the misfortune of getting me on this topic in the last few years know I’m a fan of this.

And those of you who’ve, uh, met me know I like myself a good musical.

So we were watching Meet Me in St. Louis the other night (Y’all should be so glad you’re looking at this on your computer screen far away from me because if I were telling you this story in person, we’d need to take a break at this point so I could sing the title song a couple of times. And, for the none of you who don’t know this – I’m not exactly Judy Garland when it comes to singing.). For those you who have never seen it, first of all, I’m revoking your American citizenship. You may only get it back when you can tell me at least three sounds made by the trolley and its various parts. Second of all, it’s a nice movie about a nice family – the Smiths – and a year of their life in St. Louis as St. Louis gears up for the 1904 World’s Fair, at which just about everything you’ve ever touched was shown to the world for the first time. (Including ice cream cones, which were invented there, though this fun fact is not covered by the movie.) The movie goes in seasons, and Fall (or possibly Autumn) focuses on Halloween. The Smith family has five children, and the two youngest sisters, Tootie and Agnes, are supposed to be about four or five (she says she’s not in school yet) and maybe eight or so. On Halloween, they go out together, without any parents walking behind them, to join all the other children in the neighborhood, who have set up an enormous bonfire in the middle of the street. Instead of trick-or-treating as we know it, the children go off in groups to throw flour in the faces of the adults who answer their doors, which they refer to as “killing” those adults. Only there’s one family all the kids are too scared to take, so Tootie, the one who’s four or five, goes by herself. To the house of a man rumored (although the movie clearly wants us to think the rumors are false) to beat his wife and drink whiskey by the boatload. She successfully “kills” him and then is allowed to take her turn throwing stuff onto the bonfire.

Not only are there no adults supervising the bonfire or accompanying the children, the adults all seem to be giving tacit leeway to this. We see the girls in conversation with their mother beforehand, and she makes it clear that adults leave discarded furniture and other bonfire-friendly items out on their porch for the children to take, and as far as throwing flour in the neighbors’ faces, she merely advises them not to use to much or aim for the eyes. Then their grandfather suggests they wet the flour first, as it will stick better.

Later, Tootie and Agnes get into real trouble when they throw a dress they’ve stuffed to look like a dead body onto the trolley tracks, with the intention of upsetting the trolley car. They don’t, but they do cause a big ruckus. The reaction of the family? That’s horrible. And hilarious. Now eat your ice cream.

Now, I don’t know how accurate this vision of Halloween is. The musical is about 1904, but it was made in 1944, so I don’t know which period’s norms it’s reflecting. But it is based on series of semi-autobiographical short stories, so it might in fact reflect a middle-class kid’s experience of Halloween in 1904.

It sure as hell doesn’t represent anything a kid would experience in 2011.

And that’s a real shame.



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