Many great musicals have plots packed with drama and unlikely coincidences. By contrast, on the surface anyway, Meet Me In St Louis has almost no plot at all. However, there is far more to this holiday classic, starring Judy Garland in one of her best-loved roles, than meets the eye on first viewing. Producer Arthur Freed, director Vincente Minnelli and the team at MGM agonised over the ingredients just as the Smith household’s cook, Katie (Marjorie Main) worries over her homemade ketchup bubbling on the stove in the film’s opening scene.
Katie is afraid the ketchup may be too sweet. MGM’s powers-that-be saw the same danger in this adaptation of writer Sally Benson’s humorous Kensington magazine stories, recalling her girlhood in St Louis at the turn of the 20th century. Various scriptwriters were drafted in and encouraged to add exciting plot twists, such as an unlikely blackmail plot involving a Colonel, to make the mixture a little stronger.
But in the end Freed threw out all this material, discarding the scripts piled on his desk and bringing in Irving Brecher and Fred Finklehoffe to write a simpler story, where the dramas are those stemming from everyday life. This decision proved to be the right one, as the film was one of MGM’s biggest box office successes at the time, while its nostalgic power has since only grown with the years. The greatest pull of the musical is Garland’s performance of its great songs, including The Trolley Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.
However, also central to its appeal are the strong family relationships, between Garland as Esther Smith, her screen brother and sisters, especially Margaret O’Brien as the over-imaginative Tootie, their parents, Mary Astor and Leon Ames, and Grandpa Prophater (Harry Davenport). There is humorous banter between them all and there are plenty of minor conflicts, over things like whether there is time for Lon (Ames) to have a bath before dinner, but what really comes across is how much they all like one another’s company.
The main conflict in this household is caused by Lon’s promotion, meaning a threatened move to New York and a loss of the Smith family’s home. This type of dilemma is of course faced by many families, but it carried even more poignancy for audiences in 1944, when so many people had been uprooted by the Second World War. As Gerald Clarke puts it in his biography of Judy Garland, Get Happy:
“In ‘The Wizard of Oz’ Dorothy had to battle murderous apple trees, flying monkeys and a wicked witch before she could return home. The Smiths are home and they want to stay there, stopping time in one perfect moment, the months leading up to the St Louis World’s Fair. There is no villain but the calendar, time itself, relentless and implacable.”
That moment is certainly made to look and feel perfect – with the music, costumes, George Folsey’s cinematography and a truly glorious Technicolor all working together to create an imagined past every bit as seductive as the Land of Oz. It was only 40 years earlier, but very far removed from everyday life of 1944. Probably few families have ever really had a home quite as full of effortless grace and comfort as the Smiths’ residence, while the beautiful dresses worn by Garland and her screen sisters are also idealised versions of what people actually wore. Liza Minnelli points out in her introduction to the film on the DVD how often Judy Garland is shown framed, in a window or a door. She suggests that this is a testament to how Vincente Minnelli made the camera fall in love with his future wife, but the framing also adds to that feeling of time being frozen for a moment. Even the weather is uncannily perfect, as the seasons move from dazzling sunshine and blue skies to Christmas card snow. Despite war-time austerity, MGM spent a fortune creating the St Louis street used in the film on a backlot, and this was later used for many other films. The period costumes could have proved a problem, as it wasn’t easy to get hold of the fabrics for all those sweeping skirts, but costume designer Irene Sharaff came through and made even cheap lace look lavishly expensive.
The original intention was to use period songs in the film, and a number of these are indeed used, including the title song, which dates from the World’s Fair of 1904, and Under the Bamboo Tree, from 1902. There are also folk songs like Skip to My Lou. However, the highlights of the score are three new songs by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, all unforgettably performed by Judy Garland. This is an early example of an integrated score, with each song playing a role in the story. The Boy Next Door is a wonderful evocation of young love, while The Trolley Song is incredibly catchy and an excuse for a sequence bubbling over with fun. Blane and Martin originally wanted to write an unrelated song for Garland to perform on the streetcar, but Freed insisted it must be “about the trolley” – and in the end they obeyed. The trolley had to be specially built, as no real one had space for Garland’s dance moves.
Then there’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas , which is at the emotional heart of the film, bringing together the love of family and the fear that it will all be taken away. Garland refused to sing the original lyrics for the song, which she said were just too sad (this version began ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last’), and eventually everyone agreed that she was right. Hugh Martin’s reworked lyric is still sad, but with the hope that all the people watching in the cinema were hanging on to in wartime: “Some day soon, we all will be together/If the fates allow/Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
Producer Arthur Freed and his old songwriting partner Nacio Herb Brown provided another song for the film, You and I, deliberately written to sound like an older song – which is performed by the parents at a moment when the family seems to be falling apart because of the threat of the move. As they sing, everybody steals back into the room to sit around the piano. Freed himself dubbed the singing voice of Leon Ames, so here you have the lyricist singing his own words.
As well as all the individual songs and musical numbers, there is also a haunting score by associate producer Roger Edens and Conrad Salinger, building the right emotions for each scene, and one option on the Warner DVD is to watch the whole movie with just the background music as an audio track.
The film’s star, Judy Garland, was famously reluctant to take on the part of Esther Smith, because she was trying to break away from “girl next door” roles – and in this film she plays the ultimate such character, actually falling in love with The Boy Next Door. Even when she was coaxed into taking the role, at first she found it hard to get into the part of this young girl and speak her lines without giving them a mocking edge. She did it, though, and made the character so warm, vulnerable and appealing that she can get away with something as apparently flirtatious as asking that boy next door, John Truett (Tom Drake) to go round the house with her and help her switch out all the lights. (This is one of the scenes that sticks in my mind the most from the film, and according to the DVD commentary it caused headaches for the film’s lighting crew.)
Especially refreshing is the way that the four sisters, Garland, Lucille Bremer, Joan Carroll and baby of the family O’Brien, enjoy each other’s successes. There are occasional irritations between them, and the older girls try to make sure the younger ones behave (sometimes difficult in the case of Tootsie), but there is none of the back-stabbing and rivalry that you so often get in films about sisters. Even when Rose (Bremer) and Esther do cook up a slightly bitchy plot against a girl they see as an intruder, filling in her dance card with the names of various local misfits, it all ends up in sisterly understanding, with Esther herself having to dance with the boys who are too tall, too short and too awkward.
The flavour never gets too sweet, all the same. There are some darker notes in the family drama, many of them stemming from the morbid imaginings of the youngest member of the family, Tootie, memorably played by Margaret O’Brien. This is a little girl who plays with dolls, but instead of christening or marrying them she buries them in the garden, after luridly delighting in their imaginary illnesses and deaths.
She is also at the centre of the memorable Halloween sequence, where the children from the neighbourhood have to “kill” adults by dusting them with flour. (The DVD commentary explains that this is an old tradition quite separate from the later Trick or Treat.) I’ve always found this whole sequence rather hard to take, as it doesn’t seem all that realistic – first, the parents leaving children as young as Tootie and Agnes free to cause so much havoc, and then the far-fetched misunderstanding involving John Truett apparently attacking Tootie (a rare example in this film of artificial plotting). However, an article about the film by Phil Hardy in Movie Nostalgia (a collection of pieces from The Movie magazine published in the 1980s), casts a different light on the Halloween section and suggests it shouldn’t be primarily seen in terms of realism:
“The dreams and aspirations of the rest of the family are thoroughly comfortable and conventional, but Tootie’s desires are uncontrollable and chilling (the dominant subject of her conversation is death)… Halloween for Tootie is not an empty social ritual but a deadly desperate venture in which she must overcome her fearful visions of demons. This is underlined by Minnelli’s treatment of it as an almost Expressionstic sequence in contrast to his naturalistic treatment of the film’s musical numbers.”
Tootie’s fears break out again in the great scene near the end of the movie where she rushes weeping out into the garden and starts to knock down and behead the amazing snow people that the family has built. The father watches through the window and takes the decision that they must stay in St Louis after all. This whole scene really crystallises both the apparent perfection of what the family has built together and the threat that it will all be destroyed. It isn’t actually the last scene, but, in the way it dramatises what has been lying under the surface through most of the film, has something in common with the powerful Minnelli final scenes that Joel Bocko discussed in his great piece on An American in Paris.
The actual final scene is the family arriving at the World’s Fair, the thing that the whole film has apparently been building up to. Yet we don’t actually see all the technological innovations on display there – we are left on the threshold. Some critics at the time complained about there being too little of the fair shown. The film did originally have a scene showing the family watching construction work for the fair, but it was removed, one of several cuts made to keep down the running length. Also lost was a song by Rodgers and Hammerstein, bought in to add to the film’s score – Boys and Girls Like You and Me, which had already been cut from the score of Oklahoma! The audio track of Garland singing this survives. (I’ve put a link below). It is a beautiful song and it’s rather sad it was cut, but the film is quite long as it stands, so I suppose something had to give.
Of course, including more of the World’s Fair would have meant building even more expensive sets, but I think in any case the fair probably works better as a dream which is about to be grasped. It’s hard to see how any fair scene could quite live up to the excitement in Garland’s eyes as she prepares to go in and see it all. Also, author Sally Benson never saw the fair. Her family went ahead and moved to New York.
This piece originally appeared on the Wonders in the Dark blog as part of the musical countdown there.