Review: “Meet Me in St. Louis”
Produced by: Arthur Freed
Written by: Irving Brecher & Fred F. Finklehoffe (screenplay), Sally Benson (story)
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Tom Drake, Marjorie Main
Music by: Roger Edens (score) Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane, Arthur Freed, et al. (songs)
Based on the stories of Sally Benson
While not strictly a Christmas movie in itself, Meet Me in St. Louis is often cited as one and, nonetheless, definitely teaches us to be in the holiday spirit all year round, as it centers around a lot of the traditional themes of mainstream Christmas: family, friends, love, and togetherness. Of course, despite featuring many other events over the course of a year, the film does ultimately feature its emotional climax around the Christmas season, and it is here that the film earns its status as a true holiday classic, if only because of what is arguably the film’s most lasting and famous contribution to the holiday, the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Set in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri and primarily in the year 1903, the film follows the Smith family as they anticipate along with everyone else the coming year’s World’s Fair. But unlike the characters in the song that’s on everyone’s lips, the centennial celebration of the Louisiana Purchase isn’t all that the family is focusing on. With three older kids heading out the doors and into their own lives and two younger daughters still getting the hang of childhood, Alonzo and Anna Smith (Ames and Astor, respectively) really have their hands full in this, admittedly, somewhat dated but ultimately entertaining Hollywood musical classic from the golden era of such movies.
Of course, with Judy Garland in the film, it’s no wonder that the former little girl with a big voice (who also happened to be one of MGM’s most bankable stars at the time) takes center stage here as Esther Smith. While the role itself is not nearly as iconic as Garland’s earlier performance as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, Garland still infuses the character with a great deal of spirit and appealing personality. Having spent most of her life up to this point portraying eager teenage girls, Garland feared the role would continue to be an exercise in typecasting and resented the fact that she was made to portray yet another one.
Director Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland met each other as a result of this film (making Meet Me in St. Louis directly responsible for their daughter, Liza Minnelli). At first, they clashed on the set, with Garland reportedly even performing a comedy routine on the set when the director wasn’t around, playing the part of the perfectionist director. However, as time wore on, Garland learned to trust Minnelli, who worked to keep Garland from being typecast.
As Liza Minnelli points out in the special edition DVD’s introduction, her father was so enamored with Garland that he often framed her within the scenery when she was singing (scroll down to see this), effectively distinguishing her from the otherwise fine cast of supporting characters. To her surprise, and likely to audiences’ at the time, the role was, indeed, not the typical naive little girl roles MGM had been giving her, but rather a relatively well rounded young woman coming into her own, much like Garland at the time.
And, of course, there’s the inarguable fact that Judy Garland had an amazing voice. While there are plenty of songs to be had here, including the title song (that, oddly, seems to have been written the year following the film’s beginning, but we’ll ignore that little anachronism), I didn’t entirely find myself enamored with them. They’re all fine, but Garland’s exuberant performance of the Oscar-nominated tribute to “The Trolley Song” and, of course, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” are the true highlights of this film, especially the latter more than the former.
Often covered by later artists to broad, soaring levels of over-performance, I’ve often felt that the song was rarely understood by even some the showboating artists who have performed it, possibly due to the at first cheerful title. Within the context of the film, however, the song’s solemn and sad message of perseverance in times of heartbreak is highlighted. Esther sings the song to her tearful youngest sister, the precocious and death-obsessed Tootie (Margaret O’Brien, who, despite her character’s precociousness, is amusing enough to get away with it) after they have learned that they will soon be relocating to New York — away from friends, away from family, away from the long-anticipated World’s Fair, and just as soon as each of the Smith siblings are moving on to the next stages of their lives
The song’s lyrics were originally a lot more melancholy and, honestly, just a little too morbid, possibly to put it in line with Tootie’s odd obsessions. At director Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland, and others’ insistence, the lyrics were changed to their current state (I’d say with stronger lyrics, too), and Judy Garland’s performance of the re-written, more hopeful song still evokes the sad overtones of the original lyrics, but in a subtler, more effective way. And did I mention just how spectacular her voice is?
The film itself is a highlight of the strengths of the Technicolor process, with colors popping from the screen — daylight scenes coming out in pretty pastels and nighttime scenes having a warm, colorful glow. The song and dance numbers are relatively organic in the context of the film’s story, used to project emotions, meaning, and personalities out to the audience rather than just being mere spectacle to keep audiences in the seats, which is one of the reasons why I have a hard time watching many other musicals.
(If you’re not familiar with musicals, the best analogy I could give you to illustrate this is action movies. Compare an awful action movie like Crank, where the action is the entire point, to Die Hard, where the action is a highlight, but also serves to develop John McClane as one of Hollywood’s quintessential action heroes. Meet Me in St. Louis is Die Hard and the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney team-up movies that Garland herself began to resent are Crank.)
While I cannot say that Meet Me in St. Louis is a movie I will hold up with the same high esteem that most others seem to (it was chosen for preservation by the National Film Registry), I can honestly say that I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who does. It’s an entertaining musical with two incredible, classic songs, one very strong performance by one of classic Hollywood’s greatest talents, a very fun supporting cast, and that lovely Technicolor look about it that I still love, and I wouldn’t mind revisiting St. Louis again in the future.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5