Monday, December 21, 2009

12 Days of Christmas: "Meet Me in St. Louis," a Holiday from Beginning to End

One of the most charming and potent portrayals of Americana to ever grace the screen, Meet Me in St. Louis tugs at the heartstrings as powerfully today as it did 65 years ago when it was first crafted by MGM's "Freed Unit" and released in 1944.

The film's wondrous perfection is the work of producer Arthur Freed, director Vincente Minnelli, a bravura ensemble cast, an ace artistic and technical team, songwriters Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin and...Technicolor.

This is one of my all-time favorites...

Meet Me in St. Louis was adapted from a series of reminiscences by Sally Benson that first appeared in The New Yorker in early 1942. Told from the perspective of five-year-old 'Tootie' Smith, Benson's memory pieces, though rich in warmth and humor, were light on plot and conflict. A more defined storyline was developed, the characters were strengthened and 17-year-old Esther Smith (played by Judy Garland) became the pivotal character. The story evolved into a "year in the life" of an idealized American family and was comprised of vignettes set in each of the four seasons with its dramatic climax, a family crisis, set at Christmastime.

The Smith family home at 5135 Kensington Avenue was the film's central interior and Minnelli made the decision to build a continuous set with interconnecting rooms, just like an a actual house. He reportedly wanted the entire picture to have the look of a painting by Thomas Eakins (1844 - 1916, above is his Baby at Play) and art director Preston Ames' assignment was to recreate a St. Louis neighborhood, circa 1904, as evocatively as possible. Ames did so spectacularly, creating a full block of Kensington Avenue (at a cost of $200,000) on Metro's back lot.

Focused on the film's visual look and intent on accurate period detail, Minnelli supervised every aspect of set and production design. He brought in top Broadway set decorator Lemuel Ayres and, in addition, spent time with Sally Benson who described to him every feature of her girlhood home in St. Louis. To handle costume design, he turned to Irene Sharaff, another recent Broadway-to-Hollywood transplant. Sharaff researched the historic era carefully, even using a 1904 Sears & Roebuck catalog as a reference.

Minnelli and cinematographer George Folsey, a master of fluid camera work, took such pains with the film's colors and textures that many scenes do resemble period paintings. This was the first MGM film to be fully shot in Technicolor, and Folsey and Minnelli proved to be adept at the use of color, even managing to capture subtle changes in seasonal light.

The songwriting team of Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin composed three very special songs for Judy Garland: "The Boy Next Door," "The Trolley Song," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Each became a standard in Garland's later repertoire and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" remains a holiday classic today. To add more period flavor, Blane and Martin also reworked popular tunes from the turn of the century - "Meet Me in St. Louis," "Skip to My Lou" and "Under the Bamboo Tree." Up to this time, most films had music inserted arbitrarily, but the songs in Meet Me in St. Louis were integrated into the action and dialogue to help advance the plot.

With such meticulous preparation and skilled collaboration, Vincente Minnelli's genius for utilizing and showcasing light, color, form and movement was able to soar.

Meet Me in St. Louis was an immediate hit, the highest grossing film of 1944. It turned out to be just the tonic a country at war needed to lift its spirits. The film firmly established Minnelli's reputation as a top director, provided Judy Garland with a solid push to the next plateau of her career and toward her ultimate status as a legend, and it ushered in a golden age of Hollywood musicals.

There is much to love about Meet Me in St. Louis. For me its charm is that, though nostalgic, the sentiment isn't heavy-handed. The film beguiles gently, taking one on a fanciful, many-faceted trip back...into a golden epoch. The turn of the century in America is depicted as a languid time before the World Wars and the Great Depression, an era when multi-generational families lived under the same roof...when mothers made vats of ketchup every summer in large, window-filled kitchens...when horse-drawn ice wagons regularly clattered down neighborhood streets...and when a young lady might easily fall in love with and dream of marrying a boy who lived right next door...

As Esther Smith, Judy Garland glows as the film's heart and soul. She is at her best - wistful and endearing, spunky and warm, her voice at an early peak.

Margaret O'Brien, as the high-spirited young 'Tootie,' adds a delightful dimension of childhood mischief and carries the imaginative Halloween sequence almost entirely on her own. She takes another precocious star turn during the climactic Christmas scenes with Judy Garland.

Leon Ames blusters as the bombastic but good-hearted family patriarch, Alonzo Smith. Mary Astor effortlessly inhabits the genteel yet womanly 'Mrs. Anna Smith.' Lucille Bremer is winning as Esther's demure older sister, Rose. Harry Davenport shines as crusty but lovable 'Grandpa' Smith. Marjorie Main adds spice as the cantankerous maid, Katie. Tom Drake is affecting as awkwardly appealing 'boy next door' John Truett. Very fine in fleeting roles are Chill Wills as Mr. Neely and a young June Lockhart as Lucille Ballard.

As I write, an image of Judy Garland drifts through my's a wintry night...she and Margaret O'Brien lean together, framed by a bedroom window...and Judy sings...

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light,
From now on
Our troubles will be out of sight.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on
Our troubles will be miles away.

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.

Through the years
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow,
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.


  1. Eve , Thank you for a wonderful post about a great film . Every thing comes together in this film. BTW did you know that at the recording session for the Trolly Song, Judy" nailed it " on the first take .and that is what you hear on the film. One of my favorite Judy films along with Easter Parade, Girl Crazy, Oz, A Star Is Born,and The Harvey Girls

  2. Lovely post about a sweet movie, Eve! TCM showed this last Saturday and I happened to tune in five seconds before Judy started singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." No one sings it as she does, bringing out a touch of melancholy to enhance the beautiful melody and heartfelt lyrics. As you pointed out, it's a great scene for little Margaret O'Brien (one of the most natural of all child performers). By the way, I never built snow people that looked that good!

  3. Paul, I read in a Minnelli bio that he actually had to work with Margaret O'Brient to tone her performance down some, she'd been used to acting "big"...this is my favorite of hers...and Rick, I always notice how perfect the snow people are, too.

  4. Wonderful movie with beautiful songs. The cast shines, and I wholeheartedly agree that Lucille Bremer as Rose is "winning." I was in a high school production of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (sans musical numbers), and I played Rose's boyfriend, so I always liked the idea of dating her. Thanks for a well written and thoroughly enjoyable review, Eve!

  5. Excellent review, Eve, filled with information that I didn't know about, and a wonderful tribute to a great movie.

  6. Eve, I feel like I just ate a slice of Americana pie. What an extraordinary, informative tribute you have penned! I was instantly transported back in time, into this lovely home and caring family. What a beautiful selection to conclude the 12 Days of Christmas. Thank you so very much!

  7. "A slice of Americana pie"...great description, toto. And Becky, you wouldn't believe the load of info I left out! Sark, I imagine you were a "winning" Warren Sheffield, too. Just want to add that including the lyrics to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was my way of saying 'Merry Christmas' to everyone here at the cafe...

  8. Theladyeve, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is one of the first movies I added to my DVD collection. Judy Garland gives one of her finest performances in one of my favorite period musicals. Awesome review... Merry Christmas.

  9. Eve, This is an excellent post! A wonderful tribute to a wonderful film, at Christmas or any time of year. You're content was as informative as it was fluid. Garland's original rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is my favourite version of my favourite holiday song.

    Rupert@Classic Movies Digest

  10. Thank you, Dawn, it was an early DVD purchase of mine, too...and thank you Rupert for dropping by - I'm so glad you enjoyed my post and thank you for your comments.