Classic Musicals #2 – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Meet_Me_in_St._Louis_posterMeet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
Written by: Irving Brecher, Fred F. Finklehoffe (based on Meet Me in St. Louis by Sally Benson)
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Tom Drake, Marjorie Main

In 1944, young starlet Judy Garland could do no wrong.  Coming just five years after tremendous hits like The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms, the now adult Garland was on track for even more success.  Her collaboration with fresh-faced director Vincente Minnelli on Meet Me in St. Louis would result in a marriage between the two eventual icons, and the creation of one of Hollywood’s most revered musical films.  Based on a series of twelve autobiographical short stories called 5135 Kensington by author Sally Benson, which followed the Smith family over a period of twelve months, each story covering one month.  MGM acquired the rights to the stories, renaming the anthology Meet Me in St. Louis, and instead opted to follow the family over four seasons instead of the more ambitious twelve months.  The events of the film are roughly structured around the time of the Louisiana purchase, which author Sally Benson lived through.  Minnelli’s film was also one of the first musicals to naturally and seamlessly implement musical numbers into the story, never awkwardly digressing from the story to fulfill its obligated song and dance numbers.  The Smith’s are portrayed as being a delightful, wholesome, and musically-talented all-American family.  The cast is made up of Judy Garland as Esther, Lucille Bremer as her older sister Rose, Mary Astor and Leon Ames as the matriarch and patriarch of the family, respectively.  Rounding out the cast of family members is the breakout star Margaret O’Brien (who would win a Juvenile Oscar for her breakthrough in the film) as the young Tootie, and Joan Carroll as Agnes.  Meet Me in St. Louis was shot in brilliant technicolor by cinematographer George J. Folsey, who is notable for shooting a number of early Marx brothers comedies, as well as comedies Adam’s Rib and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Minnelli’s early film was a smash hit at the box office, being the fifth highest grossing movie of 1944, and proving to be MGM’s most profitable project since 1939’s Gone with the Wind.  Meet Me in St. Louis established Vincente Minnelli as a colorful and inventive director to watch, set Judy Garland on a path to stardom, earned four Academy Award nominations in the process, and put a number of iconic songs on the map including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, “The Trolley Song”, and “Skip to My Lou”.  Though it left the Oscar ceremony without a single statue, Meet Me in St. Louis has stood the brutal test of time, especially in comparison to other musicals of the era.  The Library of Congress’ National Film Registry honored the film with preservation status in 1994, ensuring that it would be beloved by audiences for decades to come.

Meet Me in St. Louis covers one year in the lives of the Smith family, a wholesome upper-middle class bunch living St. Louis, Missouri in the summer of 1903.  Alonzo (Leon Ames) and Anna (Mary Astor) head the family, guiding their four daughters and young son to success in their comfortable American lives. Rose (Lucille Bremer), the oldest daughter, is expecting to be proposed to by the man she loves, and Esther (Judy Garland) has fallen in love with her neighbor John Truett (Tom Drake).  Their younger siblings Agnes (Joan Carroll), Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), and Lon (Henry H. Daniels Jr.) all lead relatively more carefree lives, enjoying the simplicities of childhood in the comfort of their family and home.  The film is split into four vignettes, each chronicling a single season in the year.  We begin with Summer 1903, where the love lives of young Esther and Rose are detailed, as well as the inner-workings of the Smith family. We see each member going about their usual routines, eating dinner together, hosting parties, singing, dancing, and generally having a lovely time together. Esther vies for John’s affections multiple times, to varying degrees of success, while Rose patiently waits for the call she’s been eagerly awaiting.  In the Fall 1903 vignette, we follow Tootie and Agnes as they go out for Halloween, trick or treating and causing general mischief in their neighborhood.  Tootie returns home injured, falsely claiming she has been struck by the charming John Truett. Esther reacts poorly to the revelation, confronting John before finding out the true story.  Once the air has been cleared, Esther dashes to John’s house and the two share their first kiss.  In Winter 1904, the Smith family are preparing for a move to New York, where Alonzo has found a work promotion.  Each member of the family is upset about the move, but willing to do whatever it takes to see that their family is successful.  Esther attends a Christmas ball, where after a series of misfortunes she finally gets to dance with John.  She returns home to find Tootsie distraught, not wanting to leave the only home she’s ever known.  Will the Smith family uproot and move to the bustling big city, or will they sacrifice the opportunity to stay in the place they love?  Find out in Vincente Minnelli’s iconic film Meet Me in St. Louis!

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The young Margaret O’Brien and Judy Garland performing one of the many iconic musical moments in 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis.

My history with the grand musical films of Oscar-winning director Vincente Minnelli has been rocky to say the least.  His two most successful movies, Best Picture winning An American in Paris and Gigi, both have incredible and ambitious aspects to them, but have always failed to connect with me on any meaningful level.  Meet Me in St. Louis is the first Minnelli film that I’ve absolutely fallen in love with, let alone enjoyed fully and completely.  His direction is inventive and energetic, changing pace for each of the film’s four acts. The Summer 1903 segment is bright, colorful, and positive, Fall 1903 is dark and brooding, with the Halloween scenes being genuinely creepy and atmospheric. From there, Minnelli immediately changes his style for something a little more traditional, portraying a wholesome and somewhat tragic and mostly believable Missouri Christmas.  While it may never seem as grand as some of the bombastic musicals of the 1930’s, the family-friendly nature of Meet Me in St. Louis feels perfect for any movie viewer.  It’s constantly interesting to look at, well-acted with lovable characters to get behind, and incredibly well written, bringing with it relatable family tensions, comedy, and catchy music.  Judy Garland effortlessly holds the film together, taking advantage of her incredible singing voice and wholesome nature.  Garland’s Esther is hopelessly positive, helping to keep her family together even when nothing seems to be going right for the young woman. She’s charming, and the love story told between Esther and Tom Drake’s John Truett is believable and lovely.  Though I haven’t seen Garland’s entire catalog, Garland’s performance in Meet Me in St. Louis is the best I’ve seen from her. Backing up Garland is a great juvenile performance from Margaret O’Brien as the odd but lovable Tootie.  O’Brien’s Tootie goes from a clumsy and lovable little girl in one act, to a creepy and fairly complex character just twenty minutes later. Her performance is rare for somebody of her age, and it absolutely stands the test of time as far as child actors go.

The music in Meet Me in St. Louis was written by the famous Arthur Freed, who worked with Vincente Minnelli on many of his musical pictures.  Freed’s songwriting combined with Garland’s beautiful voice makes for a breezy two hours, and often had me wishing that the movie featured more musical numbers. The singing and dancing sequences are perfectly written into the happenings of the film, never seeming out of place or unnecessary.  The lyrical content is surprisingly dark at times, and relentless optimistic at others.  Memorable songs like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Trolley Song” are absolute ear-worms, and will be stuck in your head for days.  The screenplay, written by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe, feels completely fluid and constantly does it’s best to feel fresh and inventive.  The four season vignettes ensure that we never linger for too long on any one part of the film, and helps to break up the tone from act to act.  Despite the constant change in scenery and events through the film, the themes of the importance of family and unity are never lost.  The most important thing in every scene of Meet Me in St. Louis is family, and no decision is made without considering the repercussions and effects it may have on the rest of the Smith household.  The family values portrayed in the film are relatable and affecting without being over-the-top or obnoxious, instead creating something magical that can be viewed by anybody.   The stand out scene takes place during the Fall 1903 portion of the film, specifically the Halloween sequence starring Tootie and Agnes.  The film’s tone is immediately changed from bright and cheery to dark and moody, with Minnelli’s camera shooting lower and from harsher angles, in order to portray the perspective of the trick or treating children.  Tootie’s true personality is revealed in this scene, and Minnelli’s direction is at its most interesting.  There’s no doubting that it’s slightly out of place in our otherwise fairly standard wholesome 1940’s musical, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

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A still from the Winter 1903/04 portion of Vincente Minnelli’s Oscar-nominated Meet Me in St. Louis.

After three viewings of Meet Me in St. Louis, I feel confident in saying that this is quite possibly one of the greatest musicals I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.  It’s made me a huge fan of Judy Garland, and even has me wanting to revisit Vincente Minnelli’s later famous works and reassess how I feel about them.  Meet Me in St. Louis features incredible songs, a great performance from one of Hollywood’s most beloved actresses, a lovable cast of characters, beautiful cinematography, and daring direction from one of Hollywood’s most revered musical directors.  The themes of family and unity explored throughout are universally relatable and are every bit as relevant now as they were more than seventy years ago.  There’s no way anybody with a heart and a taste for musicals can sit through this film and not be beaming for two straight hours.  Meet Me in St. Louis gets my absolute highest recommendation.  

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Filed under Classic Musicals, Reviews

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