#321) Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

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#321) Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

OR “Pride and Prejudice – The Musical!”

Directed by Vincente Minnelli

Written by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe. Based on the novel by Sally Benson. Original score by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.

Class of 1994

The Plot:  “Meet Me in St. Louis” is a year in the life of the Smith family at the turn-of-the-century, with the construction of the 1904 World’s Fair as a backdrop. Eldest daughters Rose (Lucille Bremer) and Esther (Judy Garland) are trying to find husbands, while younger daughters Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) are adorable/morbid. As the seasons progress, so do Esther and Rose’s respective budding romances, until the day Father (Leon Ames) announces that the family is moving to New York. How will they have themselves a merry little Christmas now?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “charming” and praises Margaret O’Brien for having “the most memorable performance”. An essay by UCLA Film and TV curator Andrea Alsberg contextualizes the film and its production.

But Does It Really?: This one gets a “minor classic” designation from me. It’s good, but something’s missing. Part of that is the absence of the wartime environment the film was produced in (which the aforementioned Alsberg essay helps illuminate), and part is that the movie assumes you know the basic social etiquettes of the early 1900s. Despite this separation, there’s still a lot going for this film. Not every song is a classic, but the standouts are renowned for a reason. Plus you get a Judy performance more mature than her previous fare. “Meet Me in St. Louis” is still enjoyable, but one wonders if future generations will love it as much.

Everybody Gets One: The daughter of a circus performer and a dancer, Margaret O’Brien made her film debut at age four in “Babes on Broadway” (also starring Judy Garland). In her eight years at MGM, O’Brien made 20 pictures, and was known as one of MGM’s “Best Cryers”, a talent she displays in full-force throughout “St. Louis”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Shoutout to cinematographer George Folsey and the Technicolor process. The film’s vibrant color palette could only exist in the ‘40s.

Take a Shot: The song “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” was written in 1904 for the World’s Fair. It’s also the reason everyone pronounces the city’s name “Loo-ee” as opposed to the correct “Loo-iss”.

Seriously, Oscars?: One of the biggest hits of 1944, “Meet Me in St. Louis” was nominated for four Oscars, but went home empty-handed. Most egregious was “The Trolley Song” losing Best Song to “Swinging on a Star” from “Going My Way”. A great song to be sure, but come on! The Oscars did, however, present a Juvenile Award that year to Margaret O’Brien for her performance in several films, including “Meet Me in St. Louis”.

Other notes

  • The film’s turn-of-the-century setting seems quaint, but keep in mind it was only about 40 years before the film’s release. It would be the equivalent of setting a current film in the late ‘70s.
  • Agnes colorfully describes how she’ll kill the maid? Tootie buries her dolls at the local cemetery? Meet Me in the Child Psychology Ward.
  • This was the first movie where Judy not only got to play someone on the verge of adulthood, but also was allowed to be pretty. Is it any wonder she fell for Vincente Minnelli?
  • Nothing gets a party going like “Skip to My Lou”.
  • Kudos to Judy for not overpowering Margaret O’Brien during their duet. Now that’s a scene partner!
  • “The Trolly Song” is a delight, although I’ll argue it’s not properly built up. The last we saw John (Esther’s prospective steady), he was faux pas-ing all over the place, now we’re supposed to be happy he hopped on the trolley? Judy, of course, nails the song; the majority of which is in a single take.
  • Ah yes, back when Halloween was more trick than treat. Minnelli and Folsey perfectly capture Halloween night from a child’s perspective.
  • There’s a huge chunk of the movie that Esther is absent for. This must have been during one of Judy’s infamous delays in filming.
  • Mary Astor went from leading lady/Oscar winner to a thankless mom role in less than three years. Hollywood has never been kind to women.
  • This movie is the number one entry on my “Meet Me in St. Louis” list of kinda-Christmas movies.
  • The highlight of the film is Esther singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Many have covered the song over the years, but no one will top Judy’s performance. With the actual context to help, Judy’s version highlights the song’s inherent sadness.
  • Wait, was Agnes in her bed the whole time Esther was singing and Tootie was crying? Wow, she can sleep through anything.
  • Highlights of the 1904 World’s Fair included the wireless telephone, the x-ray, and a competition of flying machines, which I think is where that stock footage is from. Sadly, no cigarette-smoking robots or Barney Google at this World’s Fair.

Legacy

  • “Meet Me in St. Louis” was MGM’s biggest hit in 1944, and immediate plans were made to turn the film into another “Andy Hardy”-esque franchise. A proposed sequel, “Meet Me in New York”, never materialized.
  • Several of the film’s songs have become standards, but the real breakout was “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, although the most common version is the one with the Sinatra-mandated altered lyrics.
  • Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli met on the set of “St. Louis” and were married in 1945. They divorced in 1951, but not before collaborating on four other films and one child: Liza (with a Z).
  • There have been a few adaptations/remakes over the years. A 1959 TV movie starring Jane Powell and Patty Duke followed the film’s screenplay, while a 1966 pilot starring Shelley Fabares never got picked up.
  • Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane composed new songs for a stage version of the film that premiered at – where else – the St. Louis Muny in 1966. This version briefly played Broadway in 1989.
  • The making of “St. Louis” is covered in the TV biopic “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows”. Judy is played by the incomparable Judy Davis, while Vincente Minnelli is played by…Hugh Laurie?

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