A landmark musical which has long become a holiday classic
Great films are an experience, and “Meet Me in St. Louis” masterfully offers enough heartwarming escapades to transport any viewer to another time and place. A feast for the eyes, ears, and heart, this landmark musical delivers an enchanting look at home and family as only cinema can. Bursting with rich colors, heavenly performances, and catchy songs, it was nominated for four Academy Awards, became the biggest moneymaker for MGM studios (at the time), was the second highest grossing film of 1944 and MGM's most successful musical of the entire 1940’s. One of cinema’s most beloved films, decades later the American Film Institute (AFI) chose it as the 10th Greatest Movie Musical of All-Time. It established Vincente Minnelli as one of Hollywood’s top film directors, took Judy Garland’s career to a new level, made a top star out of Margaret O’Brien, and led the way for the lavish Technicolor MGM movie musicals that followed. If you like captivating feel-good films, you can’t find a better one than this. On top of that, you’ll probably walk away humming a tune or two… or three.
Not your typical musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis” is a nostalgic reflection of turn of the century American life, ruminating on family bonds, childhood, adolescence, and home. It takes place in a simpler time when streets were not yet paved and long-distance phone calls were an event. Told in four parts, this film offers snapshots of events in the year of the life of the “Smith” family, who live in a grand Victorian home in St. Louis, Missouri. Each of the four sections of the film focus on a different season of the year, beginning in the summer of 1903 and ending in the spring of 1904 with the opening of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World's Fair. The Fair colors everything that happens, as the father of the family begrudgingly points out: “The Fair won’t open for seven months but it is all anyone sings about or talks about!”.
The “Smith’s” consist of “Mr. Alonzo Smith”, his wife “Anna”, their four daughters “Rose”, “Esther”, “Agnes”, and “Tootie”, their son “Alonzo”, “Grandpa Joe”, and their live-in maid “Katie”. While there is not one overall storyline, there’s plenty of drama, humor, romance, and songs, as “Esther” pursues the boy next-door, “Rose” wants to get married, little “Tootie” braves Halloween, and most earth shatteringly for the family, “Mr. Smith” announces his promotion and that they will all relocate to New York City three days after Christmas, making for one bittersweet and emotional holiday. The plot description might not sound riveting, but you won't be bored for a second. What makes it gripping is its overflowing artistry, glowing musical numbers, portrayal of everyday emotional conflicts, and its ability as a whole to consistently leave a smile on the face and in the heart.
Also helping make “Meet Me in St. Louis” unique, is how seamlessly it blends songs into the storyline. Take the first song, “Meet Me in St. Louis”, which is nonchalantly sung by “Agnes” just how any child would hum a tune after returning from a swim. The song is continued by “Grandpa”, “Rose” and “Esther”, playfully setting up the excitement everyone feels about the upcoming Fair. All of the songs in the film are about feelings, highlighting the emotions of the characters that sing them. Three original songs were introduced to the world in this film, "The Boy Next Door", "The Trolley Song", and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", all written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, and all of which have since become standards. In addition, Martin and Blane reworked older songs such as “Skip to My Lou", "Under the Bamboo Tree”, and the title song. The songs are so well performed they become emotional highlights for the audience.
The film is perhaps most famous for “The Trolley Song”. Producer Arthur Freed insisted that Martin and Blane write a song about a trolley (somehow Freed’s intuitive genius knew it would work), and it’s sung by “Esther” (played by Judy Garland) as she rides the trolley to the fairgrounds hoping that the boy next-door, “John Truitt” will join her. This jubilant song bursts with the thrill of being in love and was nominated for a Best Original Song Academy Award, and is ranked by AFI as the 26th Greatest Song in American Movies.
Another iconic moment is when “Esther” sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to “Tootie” (Margaret O’Brien) on Christmas Eve, who’s crying because in three days they move to New York. When the song was originally presented to Garland, she told the songwriters to rewrite the lyrics. She insisted she couldn’t sing them to a sobbing O’Brien, because they were too sad and it would make “Esther” look like a monster. The songwriters were reluctant, and Tom Drake (who plays “John Truitt”) stepped in and convinced them Garland was right. The original lyric began like this:
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas”
“It may be your last”
“Next year we may all be living in the past”
If the lyrics hadn’t been changed, the song might not have become one of the most famous holiday songs in history (thank you Judy!). AFI ranked Garland’s performance of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as the 76th Greatest Song in American Movies. The film's score was composed by George Stoll, earning him a Best Original Score Academy Award nomination.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” was conceived, written, and produced during the height of World War II when there was a longing for happier times and the safety and warmth of family life, and this film offered that in spades. It came about because MGM movie musical producer Arthur Freed wanted to make a Technicolor film about family. He bought the rights to the 1942 novel "Meet Me in St. Louis", which was an expanded collection of The New Yorker Magazine short stories titled "5135 Kensington" by Sally Benson reflecting on her childhood. A series of writers (including Benson) were hired to adapt the stories into a screenplay, and in the end Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe put together the final script and earned Best Screenplay Academy Award nominations.
Arthur Freed was the king of the movie musical, having already produced such classics as "The Wizard of Oz" (though not credited), "Babes in Arms", "For Me and My Gal", and "Cabin in the Sky”. As such, he was given control over which films he wanted to make and could hire his own talent in front and behind the camera. He chose Vincente Minnelli to direct, and when the two presented the film to MGM head Louis B. Mayer, Mayer was concerned there was no story. But because of his faith in Freed, he green lit the film. Everyone but Freed and Minnelli thought this film would fail. Freed was one of MGM’s preeminent songwriters before becoming a producer, and he wrote the song “You and I” for the film (with his frequent collaborator Nacio Herb Brown), which is played on the piano by "Mrs. Smith" and sung by "Mr. Smith”. The song touchingly galvanizes the family back into a state of unity. Although Leon Ames (who plays "Mr. Smith”) is seen singing the song, the voice we hear is not Ames but actually that of Freed. I give more insight into Freed, Minnelli, and MGM musicals in my post on “An American in Paris”. Be sure to read it to learn more.
Freed allowed the talent he hired to express their artistry, and a major reason “Meet Me in St. Louis” is filled with such magic is because of director Vincente Minnelli. Let us not forget that the director chooses how to tell a story, and this one exquisitely unfolds. Perhaps America's greatest director with using color (and one of the world’s foremost), “Meet Me in St. Louis” was the first color film he directed. You can look at any frame and find alluring hues and accents – from the deep tones of the dining room to the bold rainbow shades on the trolley. If you focus on the colors in the film you’ll be astounded by their beauty. Minnelli’s trademark flowing camera moves are also at play, best seen when “Esther” asks “John” to help her turn out the lights. Minnelli captures much of the scene with one extended shot that contains extraordinary camera movements that feel like we are floating on air (just like “Esther” and “John”). Minnelli's camera moves, lighting and colors transform a simple scene of turning out lights into a hypnotizing, highly romantic dalliance. His gifts as a director can’t get clearer than that.
Beginning his career as a window dresser, photographer, set designer and painter, Minnelli had an astute visual style, and he played a major part in the look of his films. He convinced the studio to spend just over $200,000 to build a turn of the century street on the backlot, which includes the “Smith’s” 5135 Kensington Avenue home. It paid off, for the street was used in many subsequent MGM films and other studios rented it for filming as well. For accuracy, Minnelli also consulted with Benson about the look of her childhood home. For the interiors, he insisted on building continuous rooms as if in a real house, rather than the usual separate sets for separate rooms. His keen visual sense keeps an audience glued to the screen and all of his artful work in this film creates a completely beguiling look at an era gone by. As mentioned above, you can read more about Vincente Minnelli’s life and career in my “An American in Paris” post.
Freed intended “Meet Me in St. Louis” as a vehicle for MGM’s musical star, Judy Garland, and as “Esther Smith”, she lights up the screen in what is commonly regarded as one of her best performances and films. Moving, funny, dramatic, and always truthful, Garland emotionally elevates every scene in which she appears – whether longingly singing “The Boy Next Door” or subtlety displaying her wonderful sense of humor while putting on a corset. Her acting and singing are flawlessly underplayed, brimming with vulnerability, confidence, and warmth. Having been a child star for nearly a decade and already married (and soon to be divorced), Garland was twenty-one years old at the time, and had just started to play adult roles. When Freed presented her with the film and role, she rejected both, feeling that playing another teenager would set her career backwards and that the storyline was somewhat banal. But Freed convinced her to take the role. Known for playing plain, girl-next-door parts, she was given a makeover by makeup artist Dottie Ponedel, who altered her hairline, eyebrow shape, and lip line. It was Judy Garland’s first truly glamorous, leading lady role, and she certainly looks her best in this film. Ponedel became Garland’s personal makeup artist for every one of her subsequent MGM films.
Garland and Minnelli met for the first time on the set. The beginning of the shoot was a bit rocky, and Garland was unsure of Minnelli’s approach. Uncomfortable with the role, she was not quite sure how to play a teenager at this stage in her life. Minnelli told her to play it serious, and the part clicked. With her giant insecurity, health issues, and insomnia, Garland was often late and sometimes didn’t even show up. Cast and crew were plagued with illness which minimized her actions, but all of this made the film run over schedule and over budget. By all accounts, everyone involved seems to remember the shoot as feeling like one big happy family, which is certainly the way it appears on-screen. During filming, Garland was separated from her first husband, David Rose, and they agreed to date others. What began as adversarial soon turned into a romance, and Garland and Minnelli began a relationship during the shoot, marrying just over a year after filming wrapped. They worked together on four additional films including "The Clock” and "The Pirate”. Garland later said “Esther” was one of her favorite roles and “Meet Me in St. Louis” was among her favorites of her own films. She and Minnelli remained married for just shy of six years. They had one child, singer/actress/dancer Liza Minnelli, who became a legend in her own right (whom I wrote about in my “Cabaret” post). Arguably the greatest talent of the 20th century, you can read more about the legendary Judy Garland in my post on, “The Wizard of Oz”. Please check it out for more.
Margaret O'Brien is a standout as “Tootie Smith”, the youngest of the “Smith” clan. Just six years old (turning seven during the shoot), O’Brien emits an air well beyond her years. Combine that with her distinct way of speaking, innocence, vulnerability, and charisma, and she is overwhelmingly endearing. “Tootie” is at the center of the film’s two most dramatic scenes, the first being when she joins her sister “Agnes” and the older neighborhood kids on Halloween. In the scene, O’Brien shows genuine jitters, longing, and joy, conjuring images of childhood fears, being left out, and a wide-eyed bravery that everyone undoubtedly can relate to in some way. She is heartbreakingly real in the scene with her snowmen on Christmas Eve, and even gets to sing and dance with Garland in the incredibly charming “Under the Bamboo Tree” number. Already a star, “Meet Me in St. Louis” made her one of the most popular child stars in movies, and earned her an honorary miniature Academy Award for Outstanding Child Actress of 1944 (the same award Garland won five years before for “The Wizard of Oz”). O’Brien has stated many times that it was great working with Garland, who acted like a big sister. Garland reportedly felt compassion for O’Brien, knowing how difficult it was to be a child star (though unlike the formerly overworked and exploited Garland, O'Brien was protected by 1938's US child labor laws).
In 1931, Margaret O'Brien appeared in a WWII civil defense film which led to a contract with MGM. After her first MGM film (an appearance in 1941’s "Babes on Broadway") she appeared in 1942’s "Journey to Margaret" in which she gave such a mature performance it made her a star at the age of five. More films followed (including "Thousands Cheer" and "Jane Eyre"), but "Meet Me in St. Louis" made O'Brien a top ten box office star. The number one child star of the 1940s (and one of the biggest in cinema history), she appeared in films the entire decade, including "Our Vines Have Tender Grapes", "Bad Bascomb”, "Secret Garden", and the 1949 version of "Little Women”. She became known for being able to cry real, heartfelt tears on cue. According to Minnelli (and quotes by Garland), to make her cry, O’Brien’s mother would tell her that someone was going to kidnap and kill her dog. O’Brien refutes that and says her mother would threaten to get the makeup person to give her fake tears (and since she was in competition with June Allyson as the best crier on the MGM lot, that was all she needed to shed a tear). As O’Brien reached adolescence, Hollywood was leery of giving her adult roles, so she turned to television and stage, with the occasional film. Some of her other films include "Heller in Pink Tights", "Sunset After Dark”, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in 2107, and her last appearance as of the writing of this post, the 2018 film, "Impact Event”. She married twice (currently married to her second husband with whom she has a daughter). I met her a couple of times and she was always very interesting and nice. As of the writing of this post, Margaret O’Brien is 84 years old, turning 85 on January 15, 2022. She is one of the few remaining major stars of the 1940s.
Mary Astor is wonderful as “Mrs. Anna Smith”, the mother and wife of the family. It’s been said that this film either evokes memories of one’s happy childhood and family, or presents what one wishes they had. I’d argue that a large reason for either is Astor’s performance as “Anna”. Loving and firm, Astor delicately plays the role, keeping “Anna’s” priority her family’s happiness and wellbeing. Like several other cast members, Astor was a veteran, and had already appeared in just over 100 films. After recently playing some of the best roles in her career (along with winning a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for the 1941 film, "The Great Lie”), Astor signed with MGM in 1941, and sadly found herself almost exclusively playing unexciting mothers to such stars as Kathryn Grayson, Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalban, Elizabeth Taylor, and Margaret O’Brien. Mary Astor appeared in many classics, and if you’re watching the films on this site you’ve already seen her in “Red Dust” and “The Maltese Falcon”, and can read more about her life and career in both those posts.
Just as Astor personifies the perfect mother, Leon Ames as “Mr. Alonzo Smith” portrays the ideal father. As the head of the family, “Alonzo” is strong and a bit quick-tempered, but always comes around to being understanding and caring. An MGM contract player at the time of this film, he became known mostly for playing patriarchs, including father to Doris Day in "By the Light of the Silvery Moon”, and working again as father to O’Brien and husband to Astor in 1949’s “Little Women”. He famously played “Clarence Day, Sr." in the 1950's TV series, "Life with Father”, and "Stanley Banks" in the 1960's TV series "Father of the Bride". An actor of film, theater, TV, and radio for approximately six decades, his other films include "The Postman Always Rings Twice", "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo", "They Were Expendable”, "Peyton Place", "The Absent-Minded Professor", "Tora! Tora! Tora!", and his final appearance in the 1986 film, "Peggy Sue Got Married". From the 1950s on, he mostly worked on television, was a cast member on the classic series, "Mister Ed", and had recurring roles on "My Three Sons" and "The Beverly Hillbillies”. He was married once for over fifty years, until his death. Leon Ames died in 1993 at the age of 91.
Marjorie Main plays “Katie” the “Smith’s” cantankerous live-in cook and maid. Bringing a dry, tough humor to the screen, Main always stands out no matter how small her part. After studying and then teaching acting in Kentucky, Indiana-born Marjorie Main pursued an acting career, touring in stock companies, vaudeville, the Chautauqua circuit, and Broadway. Always looking older than her age, Main often played mothers, including that of Mae West (who was less than three years younger) in the 1928 stage production, "The Wicked Age". Main made her first film appearance in the 1929 short film, "Harry Fox and His Six American Beauties", followed by another short and small parts in features. Her first notable film role came in 1934’s “Music in the Air”. In 1935 she found acclaim on Broadway playing the mother of gangster "Baby Face Martin” in "Dead End", a role she reprised in the 1937 film version. Her raspy voice and sassy attitude made her a popular and recognizable character actress, appearing in such films as “The Women”, "Stella Dallas”, "Another Thin Man", "Heaven Can Wait", "The Harvey Girls", and "Summer Stock”. In 1947, Main earned her only Academy Award nomination playing a character named "Ma Kettle" in "The Egg and I". She and Percy Kilbride (who played "Pa Kettle") were so popular as a hillbilly duo, a series of nine "Ma and Pa Kettle" films followed starring Main and Kilbride (who co-starred in all but the final two). Main also appeared opposite Wallace Beery in seven films, including "Bad Bascomb" which also starred O’Brien. Her final film was 1957’s "The Kettles on Old MacDonald's Farm", followed by her first and only television appearances on two episodes of "Wagon Train” in 1958, after which she retired. She was married once, until her husband's death in 1935. It was said their marriage was more platonic than romantic, and in interviews late in her life Main came out as a lesbian (including in her interview with Boze Hadleigh in his book, “Hollywood Lesbians: From Garbo to Foster”). It was reported she had a long relationship with actress Spring Byington (whom I wrote about in my “Mutiny on the Bounty” and "You Can't Take It with You" posts), until Byington’s death in 1971. Marjorie Main died in 1975 at the age of 85.
Harry Davenport is a joy as “Grandpa Joe”, doing what he can to keep the family happy. If you’ve seen the films on this site, you will probably recognize this prolific character actor, as he memorably played "Dr. Meade" in "Gone with the Wind” and the "Court Judge" in "You Can't Take It with You”. Born to a long line of theater actors, Harry Davenport made his stage debut at five years old. He began an impressive Broadway career in 1903's "The Voyage of Suzette", and by 1935 had appeared in thirty-seven Broadway shows. His equally remarkable film career began with silent short films in 1913 at the age of 47, and ended with “Riding High” in 1950. Davenport also directed and starred in eighteen "Jarr Family” silent comedy short films. A very talented character actor, some other classics from his 165 film credits include "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", "Foreign Correspondent", "Meet John Doe", "Kings Row", "The Ox-Bow Incident”, "The Life of Emile Zola", "All This, and Heaven Too", "Kismet", "The Farmer's Daughter", "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer", and “Little Women” (alongside O'Brien, Astor, and Ames). He was married twice, including his first marriage to silent film actress Alice Davenport. Harry Davenport died in 1949 at the age of 83.
June Lockhart plays “Lucille Ballard”, the east coast girl who accompanies “Warren” to the dance. Classic TV watchers might recognize this major TV star from several classic series of the 1950s and 1960s: as "Ruth Martin", the mother in “Lassie” (for which she earned one of two Best Actress Emmy Award nominations); as "Maureen Robinson" in "Lost in Space”; or as "Dr. Janet Craig" in "Petticoat Junction”. The daughter of actor Gene Lockhart (who I wrote about in my "His Girl Friday" post) and actress Kathleen Lockhart, June made her first film appearance in the 1938 film "A Christmas Carol”, which starred both her parents. She continued working in films through most of the 1940s, in classics such as "Sergeant York", "Son of Lassie", and "The Yearling", before turning almost exclusively to television. Other films from her 170 film and TV credits include the 1998 film version of "Lost in Space", "One Night at McCool's", and her final appearance in 2019's "Bongee Bear and the Kingdom of Rhythm". Lockhart also had recurring roles on the TV shows, "Family Affair", "General Hospital", and "Beverly Hills, 90210". She appeared in two Broadway shows, winning a Tony Award as Outstanding Performance By a Newcomer for the 1948 show, "For Love or Money". She was married and divorced twice. I met her briefly at a fundraiser several years ago and she was very gracious. As of the writing of this post, June Lockhart is 96 years old.
Lastly, I want to mention costume designer Irene Sharaff, credited in the film as “Sharaff” (not to be confused with the film's costume supervisor, Irene). Sharaff designed the film’s glorious costumes, whose lush fabrics, textures, robust colors and patterns help make this portrait of the days of America’s past idyllic. She also helped transform Garland into a leading lady, designing costumes to accent her figure like never before. A former fashion illustrator for magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, Irene Sharaff began as an assistant set and costume designer for Broadway productions beginning in 1928, and on her own beginning with the 1932 production of Eva Le Gallienne’s "Alice in Wonderland”, which brought her attention. Designing costumes for over seventy Broadway shows, Sharaff earned ten Best Costume Tony Award nominations, winning one for the original 1952 production of "The King and I". In 1935 she became the first American to design for Ballets Russes, and in 1937 she began designing for George Balanchine’s ballets. Sharaff caught the attention of Hollywood, and first worked as part of the Freed Unit of talent from 1943 until 1945, beginning as an associate costume designer with "I Dood It". "Meet Me in St. Louis" was her first film as costume designer and she quickly became one of the tops in the field. Designing for over thirty films, she earned sixteen Academy Award nominations (fifteen for costume design and one for art direction), and won five Oscars (for "An American in Paris", "The King and I", "West Side Story", "Cleopatra", and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"). Along with Garland’s outfits in this film, her other iconic dresses include Deborah Kerr's silk gowns in "The King and I" (Sharaff also suggested Yul Brynner shave his head for the role); Elizabeth Taylor's "Cleopatra" garb, and Barbra Streisand's "Funny Girl" and "Hello Dolly" dresses. Sharaff never married, and had a devoted relationship beginning in the 1930s with the female Chinese-American painter and writer, Yuen Tsung Sze, known professionally as Mai-mai Sze, who would often accompany Sharaff to filming locations. Irene Sharaff died in 1993 at the age of 83, eleven months after the death of Mai-mai Sze.
As a family tries to preserve their bonds and way of life, true emotions arise from joy to sorrow, indelible songs burst forth, and glorious Technicolor dazzles, making this week’s enchanting classic a prime example of how films can captivate and lift the spirit. It’s no wonder this film has long become a holiday favorite for many. Happy holidays no matter which ones you celebrate. Enjoy, "Meet Me in St. Louis”!
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