Greetings again from the darkness. There are, even amongst otherwise intelligent movie lovers, those who proudly proclaim “I don’t like musicals“. It’s a somewhat understandable stance since so many of this genre are simply a group of songs linked together by a thin story with uninteresting characters. However, when done well, the musical can be a most enjoyable, emotional and entertaining ride. One of the best and most beloved is director Vincente Minnelli‘s Meet Me in St. Louis.
If you were making a musical in 1944, your dream cast would certainly include Judy Garland. She was 22 years old at the time, just a few years removed from her iconic role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Ms. Garland was desperately trying to break free of her “Oz” and “Andy Hardy” teenage ingénue image and transition to adult roles. In fact, she pushed back hard at MGM against being cast in this film. Because of this, she initially struggled with the character of Esther until finally grasping the tone that director Minnelli was after. The result is clearly one of her best performances, and maybe her most beautiful look ever on screen (probably due in part to the director’s attraction to her).
The story is broken into four sections … the four seasons leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair to be held in St. Louis. The Smith family lives in a charming upper middle class Victorian home that serves as the centerpiece for most scenes … especially the intricate, winding mahogany staircase, and the elaborate gaslight fixtures throughout. Mr. and Mrs Smith are played by Leon Ames and Mary Astor (known best for The Maltese Falcon). They are joined in the house by a son Lon (Henry H Daniels, Jr), four daughters (Rose – Lucille Bremer, Esther – Judy Garland, Agnes – Joan Carroll, Tootie – Margaret O’Brien), a spry grandfather (Harry Davenport), and wise-cracking housekeeper (Marjorie Main). The family dynamics are such that multiple sub-stories are constantly being juggled.
There are numerous pieces and tidbits associated with this film, so let’s discuss just a few. While audiences today may find 7 year old Margaret O’Brien’s performance as the youngest daughter Tootie to be a bit over the top, she won an Oscar that year as the Best Juvenile Actor (no longer awarded). Two sequences in particular stand out: the quite dark and harsh Halloween portion which accurately displays the dangerous activities of that era (making today’s trick or treat seem quite tame), and the song and dance routine performed in the parlor while wearing a nightgown. A few years later, Ms. O’Brien would star in the classic Little Women (1949). This is also the film where director Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland first met. They were married the following year and of course had a daughter, Liza Minnelli. All three were Oscar winners: Judy in 1940 for Best Juvenile Actor, Vincente for directing Gigi (1958), and Liza for Best Actress in Cabaret (1972).
Sally Benson’s series of short stories published in the “New Yorker” magazine inspired the film. The stories were based on Ms. Benson’s childhood in St. Louis and she consulted on the script and set. In the movie, the Smith house is located at 1935 Kensington. For filming, the house was built on the MGM backlot on what became known as St. Louis Street. The street was used for many films, and the same house was used for the original Cheaper By the Dozen (1950). Sadly, the street and houses fell into disrepair and was later destroyed and sold off by MGM (it’s now condos and office buildings).
Of course, this is a musical so the songs deserve mention. Many were original compositions for the film, including “The Trolley Song” (nominated for a Best Song Oscar, and one of the few songs ever to utilize the word clang multiple times) and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, the latter showcasing Ms. Garland in peak singing voice. The film was a huge box office success and was nominated for four Oscars (no wins). The set design and costumes are extraordinary, and the story is quite affecting as it focuses on family and what makes a home so special. This is a wonderfully sentimental taste of Americana at the turn of the century. And a bit of advice to all the gentlemen out there … should the object of your desire ever suggest the two of you dim the lights and watch this one together, immediately say YES with a smile! It’s one of the best examples of how effective a musical can be in telling a story and connecting an audience to the characters … and it’s still pretty effective at connecting viewers to each other as well!
**NOTE: TV buffs will notice a small, but important role for June Lockhart, who became a TV mainstay for 50 plus years. She was best known for “Lassie” and “Lost in Space“, and still works today at age 88.
**NOTE: The beautiful curved brass bed in Judy Garland’s bedroom was also used in Gaslight, another classic film from 1944.
Rather than include the trailer for this film, below you will find the scene where Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Her voice is gorgeous and it may be her best ever vocal performance from a movie: