Meet Me In St. Louis is becoming one of the Christmas season’s most popular movies for anyone who treasures American musicals and seeks an authentic family movie. Director Vincent Minelli’s 1944 Technicolor classic is one of MGM’s biggest hits, second only to Gone With the Wind.
A new generation of viewers is rediscovering the delights of Judy Garland’s voice and the charm of child-star Margaret O’Brien, enabled in part by last year’s release of the 60th-anniversary DVD.
The story revolves around the Smiths, an upper-middle-class family in St. Louis in 1903, on the eve of the World’s Fair. They live in a large house at 5135 Kensington Avenue. This is the actual address of Sally Smith Benson, who wrote a dozen stories in several issues of the New Yorker from 1941-1943 which are the basis for the movie. Not many native St. Louisans can tell you where T. S. Eliot lived, but most know that the Smith family lived at 5135 Kensington, in the city’s west end. The Fair and this film part of the city’s collective memory.
The 1904 World’s Fair, known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition since it was a Centennial celebration of that event, was a splendid affair visited by 20 million people. It covered over 1,200 acres of what is now Forest Park, where one can find the city Art Museum, the zoo, and other legacies of the Fair. The park, now some 500 acres larger than New York’s Central Park, was cleared of trees and swamp by 10,000 laborers. Fifteen hundred buildings and a spectacular Observation Wheel, 265 feet high, were erected on the site. The feeling of expectancy is palpable in the Smith household.
The film progresses through four episodes–summer, fall, winter, and spring–and relates the Smith family’s encounters with children, young love, and the imminent move to New York before the actual opening of the Fair. This eminent uprooting injects a poignancy into the Smiths’ emotional life, which includes feelings for boyfriends, the city, and themselves.
The cast is one that only the MGM of that era could assemble. Leon Ames and Mary Astor play the parents. There are four daughters with Judy Garland playing the teenager, Esther, and Margaret O’Brien playing the precocious Tootie (which earned her a Special (miniature) Oscar as the most outstanding child actress of the year). Tom Drake plays John Truett, the boy next door, for whom Esther carries the torch. Harry Davenport, Marjorie Main, and Chill Wills are superb in the comedic roles of Grandpa, Katie (the maid), and Mr. Neely (the iceman). Lucille Bremer plays Rose, the eldest daughter, whose romantic adventures parallels those of her sister Esther. June Lockhart even appears as the New Yorker Lucille Ballard.
Back then, Time opined that Meet Me In St. Louis was “a musical that even the deaf should enjoy.” I am not sure you could get away with saying that today, but it is an accurate sentiment. Two of the films hit songs made it onto the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest Songs in American Film: “The Trolley Song” ranked 26th, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was 72nd. The former received one of the film’s four Academy Awards nominations for the music and lyrics of Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, and there was another nomination for best musical scoring by Goergie Stoll.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is sung beautifully by Judy Garland. It is, no doubt, a big reason why Meet Me In St. Louis is a Christmas favorite. Sung in the midst of World War II, it is susceptible to emotional reactions on several levels. So it may not be surprising that Garland did not want to sing the original version of the opening line, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last” to Tootie in a dramatic scene toward the end of the film. The line was changed to its current version.
Meet Me In St. Louis was unique in that it seamlessly meshed the musical numbers into the storyline, which became the norm for the genre. Previously, musical numbers seemed to erupt from nowhere in the course of a film. A good example of this interweaving of song and story is in the opening number when the film introduces most of the Smith family, all of which are singing or humming the title song as they go about their business in the household. And Esther’s longing for Tom Drake is expressed, winsomely, in “The Boy Next Door” (“I just adore him, so I can’t ignore him / The Boy Next Door”).
The love story between Esther and Tom is carried forward by an amazing five minute musical number on a heaving trolley car on the way to tour the Fair grounds, still under construction. Esther and chorus exuberantly belt out “The Trolley Song”:
Clang, clang, clang went the trolley
Ding, ding, ding went the bell
Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings
As we started for Huntingdon dell.
When they are joined by Tom on the trolley, late from basketball practice, Esther concludes the number:
I went to lose a jolly, hour on the trolley, and lost my heart instead
With his light brown derby and his bright green tie
He was quite the handsomest of men
I started to yen, then I counted to ten, then counted to ten again.
Judy Garland, already 21 years of age, is radiant as Esther. She plays the part with humor and energy. As Rose and Esther are getting ready for a Christmas ball, their last in St. Louis, they engage in a humorous dialogue on the pros and cons of wearing a corset. Esther opines that she doesn’t relish wearing the device, “But pride has come to the rescue. For tonight, I’ll do anything.” As to the time she should spend with her boy next door, John Truett, she tells Rose, “Oh, I’ll devote myself to John. But in between times, I’m going to make my presence felt amongst the others.”
But it is the Judy Garland voice of lore and legend which is simply the best. On a trolley, on the porch, in the parlour–wherever–it dominates everything. When the woman sings, everything is transformed. The excellent sets, the charming script, the commanding cinematography are there just for her entrance.
This film of family and warmth, of romance and love, of separation and homecoming is one worth seeing this Christmas. We are not in the midst of a world war or a great depression. But our fellow citizens are suffering throughout the Gulf coast. Our soldiers are separated from their families and their communities while hazarding death in foreign lands. They pine for the love, affection, and laughter of home. Meet Me In St. Louis prods us to recall the permanent things that matter. As Esther sang to Tootie on that winter’s night in St. Louis:
Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Let your heart be light.
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Make the Yuletide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away
Once again, as in olden days, there’ll be golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us once more
Someday soon, we all will be together, if the fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a Merry Little Christmas now.
–G. Tracy Mehan, III, a native of St. Louis, was assistant administrator of water at the EPA. He is now a consultant in Arlington, Va..