This Thursday, the bright lights of Tinseltown shine on the Tivoli Theatre as TCM Backlot presents a free screening of 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis, hosted by the network’s Ben Mankiewicz with a live Q-and-A with special guest Margaret O’Brien, who played Tootie Smith in the film.
Celebrating its 75th anniversary, Meet Me in St. Louis is a musical deeply connected to our city’s history and culture. Directed by Vincent Minelli and starring Judy Garland, the timeless movie is beloved by generations. Set in Gilded Age St. Louis, the film centers on the Smith family, whose hopes and dreams are interrupted when they learn that their father has been promoted and dispatched to New York. Fortunately, they have the 1904 World’s Fair to celebrate before they move away.
One of those helping to bring a piece of Hollywood to St. Louis is Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. Formerly a news reporter, Mankiewicz began his current gig presenting films for TCM in 2003. Since then, his historical knowledge of films, combined with snarky wisecracks, has made him the face of the network.
Mankiewicz is the son of Frank Mankiewicz, who served in the Kennedy administrationas the Latin American director for the Peace Corps. He later served as press secretary for Robert Kennedy and helped run George McGovern’s campaign for president.
Despite his pedigree for politics, Mankiewicz’s deep love of film prevailed. This passion for the silver screen comes as no surprise, since classic Hollywood genes run in his family. His grandfather, Herman J. Mankiewicz, wrote many classic films, most notably Citizen Kane and another work of local interest, Pride of St. Louis. His great uncle, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, established a career as an Academy Award-winning writer and director. His cousin, Tom Mankiewicz, wrote several films in the James Bond franchise.
Mankiewicz spoke with Maximize St. Louis about his connections to St. Louis, working at TCM, and why Meet Me in St. Louis remains such a special movie.
Despite living in Los Angeles, you have some roots here in St. Louis. Can you talk about that?
My wife was living in St. Louis when she moved out here to see if we had a future together. It turns out that we did. So, I went there a few times to see her and help her move. Also, my dad was a lifelong Cardinals fan and the president of the Stan Musial Society of Washington, D.C., so there were a few years where we came out every year to see ball games. We also had a TCM event there a few years ago with Tippi Hedren for a screening of The Birds.
Can you talk about growing up in a family that is so associated with Hollywood elite?
I didn’t pay a lick of attention to my family’s Hollywood history until I was in my 20s. I wasn’t unaware of it, but it was just in the background to me. Both of my parents were from California but moved to D.C. right before I was born. My dad was a big deal in the city. We couldn’t go out into public without him being recognized. He would get mobbed, but it wasn’t like Mick Jagger or anything. He worked on the Kennedy and McGovern campaigns and he wrote one of the first Watergate books and was on Nixon’s enemies list. He also was the president of National Public Radio in 1977. So, I thought politics was the family business. My brother was 12 years older and he became a television reporter so, to me, it felt like journalism and politics was the family business and, oh yeah, my grandfather wrote this film that people like. I talked to Joe on the phone sometimes, but I didn’t see him all that often. I did become fully aware of our Hollywood past when I went to Los Angeles when I was in college. My cousin invited me to a party and introduced me to the host, who asked if I was a member of the Hollywood Mankiewiczes. I said “yes,” and he then put his feet together and bowed and said, “Hollywood royalty.” I just remember thinking I didn’t know there were so many people who held my grandfather and my great uncle with such reverence.
When did you become a fan of classic films?
It took me a while to develop a real love for classic movies. I was a big movie fan growing up and I’d go see everything with my friends. However, my real love began in my senior year of college.
In this age of new technology and streaming, do you think that film criticism is becoming a lost art?
No. I think film criticism is really strong. There are a lot of people doing it in print and online. It has been hurt somewhat by the oppressive corporate hand that is doing all that it can to eradicate local journalism around the country. I don’t think that is necessarily the intent, but it certainly is the result as newspapers have gotten smaller and folded. Newspapers were the primary source of film criticism for so long, so those jobs have gone away. But there are still a lot of jobs online and there are a lot of outlets for it there.
TCM has done a lot to foster film appreciation. Can you speak to that?
TCM is about appreciating movies. Even if they are not very good. We are about understanding both the historical context and the Hollywood context in which they were made. I think it is really vital, and I think it is so great that TCM, in the mid-1990s, along with Robert Osbourne, understood that this was a manner of storytelling about movies that the public would respond to. They have done this well, and I am honored to continue that legacy. It is not just a platitude, I really am. This channel means a lot to me, and I’m so grateful to be a part of something on television that matters. It’s not easy to find one of those jobs.
What is it about classic movies that fascinates people?
Because we are desperate for a connection for where we came from. Our desire to understand our legacies and families, no matter where we come from, is important to people. I am convinced that, in talking to our fans, they will watch a movie like Meet Me in St. Louis and then talk about it or share memories about it. But other times, they will think, “My mom and my grandmother loved Judy Garland and really loved this movie.” They feel connected and are having an experience that they know their parents or grandparents did. That means something. It also serves as a real timestamp of history. How did people dress in 1944? How did they talk? What kinds of cars did they drive? What did the buildings look like and how were the neighborhoods laid out? Movies provide all of that. Nostalgia matters. It is a real form of connection to our past. I think that the stories I tell before the movies connects with people, and that is our goal.
What prep do you do for introducing movies on TCM?
Sometimes, I’ll rewatch a movie beforehand. Whenever I have an interview with someone, I will definitely watch the film more in depth. The scripts take a long time. We have writers who create them, and then I rewrite them and put them in my voice. That takes 20 to 30 minutes per script, at least. Sometimes, I’ll do a hundred in a shoot, so that’s a lot of time writing. You want it to be engaging, and that’s my goal. We’re storytellers, and I want to tell a good story. We also never repeat any scripts. All the lead-ins you see by our five hosts are shot fresh. We are very proud of that.
Is the snark all you?
The snark is definitely me. The historical context is usually all me, and the snark is all me too, as well as the politics. Speaking of politics, one of things that I really believe in my soul is that in these incredibly tense times we have now, this network is a place to let that all go and realize how much we have in common.
You are coming to town to introduce “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Why do you think that film is so special?
Don’t overlook the fact that it is a really good story. It’s really well told and executed. You have this talented cast and this great director in Vincent Minelli who was good before, but really found his voice here. You also have Arthur Freed, who knew how to make great musicals. There also is MGM, who realized they could make these musicals better than anyone else. We talked about nostalgia earlier; this movie is really nostalgic. It was nostalgic in 1944 for the turn of the century in America. So, that, again, is part of the reason why these films still matter. Audiences connect with the family, and the fact that Judy Garland doesn’t want to leave the family is important. But, one of the things I think is undervalued about the film is that there is no clear first, second or third act. The tension is all about a guy who gets a promotion and whether or not his family moves to New York and lives in a fancy apartment. What are we talking about here? But it is so incredibly simple that I am sure family after family after family in America resonated with the Smiths and the difficult decision they had in managing these kids of wildly different ages. It did well and people responded to it. Critics liked it then and still do. It just totally holds up as this beautiful story about a family that starts the movie loving each other, continues loving each other and then ends the movie loving each other. Louis B. Mayer was right, there isn’t much story there. But that’s perfect.
The sold-out screening of Meet Me in St Louis is at the Tivoli at 8 p.m. this Thursday, Sept. 26.