Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
This isn’t exactly a Christmas movie, but Christmas does make a spectacular appearance when Judy Garland debuts the now-classic Christmas song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” so it counts.
It’s a beautiful Technicolor musical directed by Vincente Minnelli. This was his first Technicolor film, and his first big movie. It showcases his incredible talents and stylistic flair, and it’s no surprise that he’s now known as one of the most amazing directors of the studio era.
This movie is based on a series of short stories written by Sally Benson and published in the New Yorker in 1941-1942. They were called “5135 Kensington Avenue” and were based on Benson’s childhood in St. Louis, Missouri in the early 1900s. She originally published eight stories, but when they proved popular she wrote four more and published all twelve in a book called Meet Me in St. Louis in 1942.
MGM bought the rights and turned them over to musical-producer-and-songwriter-extraordinaire, Arthur Freed. Freed collected turn-of-the-century songs and new music for the film, got Judy Garland on board, and brought in Minnelli.
Besides bringing together two immense talents, Freed and MGM also played matchmaker on this movie: Garland and Minnelli fell in love during production of Meet Me in St. Louis and were married in 1945! They had a daughter, Liza, and made four more movies together before getting a divorce in 1951.
The movie begins in the summer of 1903, opening on a very Victorian-looking filigreed illustration of an ornate, turreted, gingerbread mansion. The illustration morphs into a sepia-photograph, which in turn morphs into a brilliantly Technicolor-ed moving image.
As is true of many of Minnelli’s later movies, he drew inspiration for this film from the art world. For An American in Paris (1951) he incorporated the style of Renoir, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec, among others. For Gigi (1958) he looked to French caricaturist Sem, Constantin Guys, Boudin, and an explosion of art nouveau. Minnelli said that he wanted this film to look like a Thomas Eakins painting. Here’s one:
I think he achieved his goal pretty well…
Minnelli also fought to have an entire street set built for this film. MGM wanted him to use their pre-existing Andy Hardy street, but Minnelli persevered and they built an entire turn-of-the-century world on the backlot:
This set stood until 1970, when it was destroyed. As is typical for Minnelli, the art direction and the whole look of the movie is highly detailed, stylized, and gorgeous. So keep an eye out for the sets, costumes, and color. For example, this bathroom appears only once in the film for a few moments, but look at how sumptuously striking it is!
Sally Benson, the author of the short stories, was called in to help the filmmakers get the interiors just right. She relied on her memory of what the house at 5135 Kensington Avenue had looked like, so it wasn’t just Minnelli being a stickler for detail!
I’m always amazed at how quickly Mary Astor went from sexy, romantic interest in films like The Palm Beach Story (1942) and Midnight (1939), to the mother in this movie. She was just thirty-eight in 1944, only eleven years older than her “daughter” Lucille Bremer and sixteen years older than Judy Garland. I’m also amazed at how they make ketchup. Who knew?
Anyway, eventually Esther, played by a luminous, grown-up Judy Garland, arrives home in a fetching tennis outfit. Please note the striped socks and long cap.
She begs Katie to serve dinner an hour earlier than normal, as her older sister Rose is expecting an important phone call from her beau, Warren. The telephone is in the dining room, you see, and Esther would hate to have everyone hear Warren propose! She is certain he is going to propose; why else would he call long distance? (For more on why a long distance call is such a huge deal, read my History Through Hollywood: Telephones.)
But back to St. Louis…Dear Rose (Lucille Bremer) arrives home shortly after Esther. She pauses on the front steps to surreptitiously surveil something wonderful next door:
Why, it’s John Truett, their new, handsome neighbor. Esther is completely infatuated with him, even though they haven’t met yet. Rose is a good big sister, so she hurries into the house to alert Esther. They stroll onto their porch for some subtle stalking:
I’m mostly intrigued by the garden gnomes dotting the Truett lawn…but John (Tom Drake) is cute, too. Fun fact: Van Johnson was originally cast as John, but eventually Drake played the part.
Esther’s got it bad, but what a beautiful, soft focus, gauzy shot with the rose!
Liza Minnelli said that her father’s love for Judy Garland shines through in every shot. He does make her look absolutely stunning. And Judy Garland said that this was the first film in which she felt beautiful…She would request the makeup artist, Dotty Ponedel, who worked with her on this film, for every MGM movie she made after this.
Much too soon for Esther’s liking, John heads back into his house. Rose and Esther go inside, too, and Esther tells Rose how she has arranged for dinner to be served earlier so that Rose can take her phone call in private. Rose is not as grateful as Esther perhaps thought she would be:
Rather than take these wise words to heart, Esther transitions into a song of unrequited love for “The Boy Next Door.” I adore this performance. She melts into the window, beautifully framed with lace curtains, roses, and plenty of greenery to set off Garland’s blue and white tennis clothes and clown-size bow-tie.
She dances a little, giving us a nice view of her two-layer skirt:
And she closes the lovely song by closing the lovely curtain…
Watch it here, please. And note how Garland sings “I live at 5135 Kensington Avenue, and he lives at 5133!” Remember how the short stories this movie was based on were originally titled “5135 Kensington Avenue?”–nicely done, songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.
So Rose has a beau and Esther has a beau, but Esther’s beau doesn’t know he’s her beau. Ahh, love!
We continue to get lovely snatches of family life in the Smith household. There is a brother, Lon, (Henry Daniels, Jr.) who’s about to go off to college, and two much younger sisters, Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien).
Tootie rides the ice wagon and is disturbingly morbid. As she tells her ice-wagon buddy (Chill Wills, whom Garland would travel west to marry in The Harvey Girls!), her doll has four fatal diseases, but she’s going to have a lovely funeral!
You can watch the scene here. O’Brien is completely charming and terrifying in this role, and she just about steals the movie.
As Tootie delivers ice, Rose and Esther sing in the parlor in their underthings and coordinating dressing gowns. You know, just like all sisters do in the afternoon.
What is is they are singing? Why, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” of course! Sample lyrics: “Meet me in St. Louis, Louis! Meet me at the Fair!” The World’s Fair of 1904 is coming to St. Louis, and they are pretty pumped.
But their lawyer father (Leon Ames) comes home as they belt it out, and he’s hot, tired, and pissy because he lost a case today. He tells them to cut it out, and expresses his desire for a nice, cool bath. This interferes with Esther’s plans for an early dinner, but Mr. Smith refuses to change the dinner time.
So everyone is there when Warren calls Rose:
It’s awkward, plus Warren doesn’t propose! You can watch this amusing scene here.
This movie is made up of little capsule situations, and now that this one is over, it moves quickly to Lon’s going away party. John Truett is invited! And Esther is thrilled.
As she and Rose get ready for the party, Rose initiates a very serious conversation amongst the lacy frills and pale blue/peach lighting:
Then Esther gets wild and tells Rose that she plans to let John kiss her tonight. Her wise older sister is alarmed!
Esther can’t wait to finally meet the love of her life. Her brother Lon, who knows all about her crush, watches, amused. I’m amused by the tiny tassels dangling off of Esther’s dress. I love them.
The costumes for this film were “supervised” by Irene Lentz and several Minnelli films) with work also done by another Irene, Irene Sharaff. They did an incredible job and make the Technicolor pop with shots of hot pink, mustard, and plenty of brights.
Since it’s MGM and we’ve got Judy Garland, there will be songs. I rather wish there was spontaneous yet beautifully choreographed dancing and singing at every house party:
Lucille Bremer was a former Radio City Music Hall Rockette, so she gets in on the action, too. Fun fact: Minnelli thought Bremer was about to become a huge star. This was her first movie, but next she starred in Minnelli’s musical fantasy Yolanda and the Thief (1945) opposite Fred Astaire. Unfortunately, Bremer never made it big the way Minnelli thought she would, and she left the movie industry.
When the dancers notice Agnes and Tootie watching from the stairs, Tootie begs to sing a song with Esther. So begins a completely adorable sororal duet, “Under the Bamboo Tree,” which is one of the turn-of-the-century songs included in the film. You can watch it here.
It’s a perfect night, and Esther even contrives to make John the last guest to leave (she hides his hat.) Then she convinces him to help her turn out the lights…sneaky, Esther, sneaky. She knows what she wants and she’s going for it!
I rather like this photo of Vincente Minnelli rehearsing the scene with Judy Garland:
John compliments her perfume, which leads to an exchange that begins well and then falls flat:
Soon Esther gets another shot. A whole bunch of people are taking a special trolley to the fairgrounds, and John said he’d go. Esther gets all pretty in a black velvet jacket (a bit hot for summer, though, right?), shiny tartan skirt, and blue gloves. Her fellow trolley-travelers get fancy, too. I love costume test images!
But where is John? Oh, there he is, chasing the trolley!
His (tardy) appearance provides the perfect opportunity for another song. This one is a classic, too: “The Trolley Song.” You’ve probably heard it: “clang, clang, clang, went the trolley!” It’s joyful, exuberant, and Judy Garland at her best.
Fun fact: This song became such a hit that Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer wrote another “vehicle” song for Judy Garland to sing in The Harvey Girls (1946). The later one is “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Sante Fe” about a railroad line.
Garland emotes and belts and makes it all seem so wonderful. Fun fact: she performed the song in one take, though there is a cut about two-thirds of the way through.
I love how Esther is so into her song about sitting with her love and holding his hand that she doesn’t even realize that John has sidled his way next to her. When she does see him, the confident flirting of which she sang falls away into a more realistic awkwardness. It’s perfect.
Definitely watch it here. Fun fact: Garland performed “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Sante Fe” perfectly in one take, too. And it’s a very complicated, huge production number! Apparently, Garland watched her stand-in perform the choreography one time and then just did it! Amazing.
There was originally going to be another number right after this one, set in the fairgrounds. It was called “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” sung by Esther to John. Judy Garland recorded it and they shot the scene and everything (you can listen to it here), but it was cut from the film. Poor song; it was originally intended for Oklahoma! on Broadway in 1942, but it was cut from that, too. And it was also recorded and filmed by Frank Sinatra for Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), though it was eventually cut from that movie, too.
Anyway, now we move to Autumn with another Victorian postcard. It’s not just any fall day, either; it’s Halloween! It’s jarring, since we go from “The Trolley Song” to dark Halloween and talk of poisoned cats (Tootie, of course.) Rose, in a very smart chartreuse dress with a black and white striped tie, even helps her little sisters darken their hands and faces with soot.
So begins an elaborate Halloween storyline featuring Agnes and Tootie. It’s odd, dark, and just weird. Boys are in drag with painted mustaches and boas, girls are dressed as hobos or “drunk ghosts,” and the kids are let loose on the town to throw flour in peoples’ faces. They even have a bonfire in the middle of the street. I’m not sure why the parents are okay with these little children terrorizing their neighbors and throwing chairs and things onto an uncontrolled fire, but it’s not my problem.
Tootie is teased for being too little to help “murder” and “tear down houses,” so she seeks to prove herself by offering to take on the scariest family in town, the Brokhovs! She shows up at the house in a creepy sequence of shadows and wind, and throws flour in poor Mr. Brokhov’s face…
…thus becoming a hero to all the Halloween hooligans. Meanwhile, Rose went to the store for ice cream, because apparently the Smiths celebrate Halloween with a huge cake and ice cream once their out-of-control children return home. And while she was shopping, Rose met a man. A colonel! He drives her home, and Esther is full of questions!
Their giddy conversation and Rose’s amusing admission is interrupted by a scream. It’s Tootie! And wasn’t that the trolley a moment ago?! Panic!
Tootie is hurt, and she says that John Truett is the one who did it. Esther goes Mama Bear on him:
…And only discovers later that Tootie lied, and that Tootie and Agnes were doing something really awful that could have killed a lot of people. (See what I mean about this being a weird section?) Esther is furious.
John forgives Esther when she comes to apologize, although at first he holds her off with a chair as though she was a lion:
Ahh, young love.
When MGM executives first saw the film, many of them wanted the Halloween section cut because it is so different from the rest of the movie. But Minnelli fought to keep it in, since he had only signed on for the film because of the Halloween sequence…
At the end of this Halloween section, just as they cut into this gorgeous cake…
…Mr. Smith announces to the family that his firm has transferred him to New York, and they’ll be moving after Christmas. Everyone freaks out:
How can we move away before the World’s Fair? What about our friends? I’ll have to dig up all of my dead dolls! (Three guesses as to who says that last one.) But then Momma and Poppa sing a song together in the parlor and all is well once again.
Fun fact: The male voice you hear is Arthur Freed’s; Leon Ames’ voice was dubbed by the film’s producer.
Now it’s winter, and there’s a Christmas Eve ball, and Warren is taking Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart), some trollop from the East, instead of Rose. Lon is sad because he likes Lucille, and Katie is mad that the brother and sister won’t just take each other. She scolds Rose with a pair of frozen bloomers.
Things get resolved. Esther is laced into a corset by Rose, who insists that Esther wear one so that they can compete with Lucille. Esther is not happy, and holds onto that swan-head bed for dear life.
It’s quite an elaborate, ruffled bedroom, isn’t it?
Poor Esther can barely sit down, never mind breathe, but she and Rose are determined to upstage Lucille.
The red tights Esther is wearing will certainly help. You can watch the corset-lacing scene here.
Mary Astor remembered what a joy it was to finally take off her corset and tight lace-up shoes after finishing the day’s filming…here she is getting laced in as Margaret O’Brien watches:
Esther gets some bad news (basketball+a tailor with early hours) just as she’s about to put on her brilliantly scarlet ball gown, but she rallies when her grandfather (Harry Davenport, who plays the editor in Foreign Correspondent) volunteers to escort her to the dance.
The Smith sisters plan to ruin Lucille’s evening, but it turns out that Lucille is actually a darling, though her pale yellow dress is unexciting. So Esther takes Lucille’s rigged dance card, instead. Rose looks a little like a Christmas tree in that green gown and hair ornament, but no one could compete with Esther’s glorious red dress.
Esther is having a terrible evening, until in a really lovely bit of choreography and camera movement, Esther’s grandfather dances her behind a Christmas tree. When she comes out the other side a moment later, she’s waltzing with her love! I love this moment, though I’m confused by Esther’s white hair wreath.
Good things happen, and Esther cries, and kisses. Garland and Drake do that great Old Hollywood thing where they kiss and then smush their faces together to face the camera.
I can’t imagine that Esther’s sparkly, beaded headscarf offered any warmth whatsoever, but it sure looks pretty in the moonlight.
When Esther returns from her romantic interlude with John, she finds Tootie awake and staring at the snow-people in the yard from her window.
Tootie is worried about moving to New York, and Esther tries to comfort her. She sings “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” which I’m sure you know, but this was the song’s premiere. And these were not the original words. In fact, there have been several iterations of the lyrics.
Lyricist Hugh Martin originally wrote the song with WWII soldiers in mind, so it had a darker tone. For example: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past.” Garland, Minnelli, and Drake thought it was too depressing, and Garland especially didn’t think it would be appropriate to sing to O’Brien.
Though at first he was reluctant, Garland finally convinced Martin to change the lyrics. The “last/past” rhyme became: “Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.” It’s a wonderful song and Garland’s performance is magical. Chills.
In 1957, Frank Sinatra wanted to record the song for his Christmas album, but he asked Martin to change the lyrics again. Sinatra thought the “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” line was too melancholy. Martin changed it to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” which is the version of the song that most artists record. No one can touch Garland’s version, though.
Instead of cheering Tootie, the song makes her cry and sends her into a frenzy of destruction. She flees from the room and sobs hysterically as she hits the snow people with a stick. She can’t stand to leave them behind, so she’s going to kill them. It’s Esther to the rescue again.
I know it’s a bit late to start caring about spoilers, but I’ll try to be vague. There’s some good news:
…some romantic entanglements (the good kind), and the World’s Fair! Everyone puts on their whitest ruffles, and Mary Astor finally gets to look glamorous:
It’s off to the Fair, and happy days:
This film was the second-highest grossing movie of 1944, behind the Bing Crosby movie Going My Way. It was nominated for Best Cinematography (Color), Best Score, Best Song (“The Trolley Song,” which was also #26 of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs list), and Best Screenplay. Margaret O’Brien received rave reviews, and she won an Academy Juvenile Award for her various performances that year. She was only seven-years-old!
In 1959 Jane Powell starred in a CBS broadcast version of the movie, with Walter Pidgeon and Myrna Loy, and there was a sitcom in 1966, but it wasn’t picked up. Meet Me in St. Louis also became a Broadway musical in 1989 and ran for 252 performances.
It’s a lovely, weird movie, so if you like musicals, or Judy Garland, or Vincente Minnelli, or strange Halloween interludes, or 1940s versions of turn-of-the-century garb, this is the film for you. Here’s the trailer–enjoy!