Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) featured image

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). 112 minutes. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Starring Judy Garland (as Esther Smith), Margaret O’Brien (as “Tootie” Smith), Mary Astor (as Anna Smith), Leon Ames (as Alonzo Smith, Sr.), Tom Drake (as John Truett), Marjorie Main (as Katie), Harry Davenport (as Grandpa Smith), Lucille Bremer (as Rose Smith), Henry H. Daniels, Jr. (as Alonzo Smith, Jr.), Joan Carroll (as Agnes Smith), June Lockhart (as Lucille Ballard), and Robert Sully (as Warren Sheffield). Produced by Arthur Freed. Music by Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane, and others.

Meet Me in St. Louis is widely regarded as one of the greatest of the Arthur Freed musicals produced at MGM from the late 1930s through the early 1960s. The movie is a portrait of a Missouri family circa 1903 as their hometown of St. Louis prepares to host the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (also known as the World’s Fair). The events unfold over the course of a year, with the result that there is both a Halloween sequence and a Christmas sequence, the latter of which debuts the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” For this reason and for many people, Meet Me in St. Louis has become a holiday favorite, even though it is not a holiday movie per se. Viewed at any time of the year, it stands out as an enthusiastic love letter to its star, to large families, and to the city in which it is set.

The movie begins as the Smith family is preparing for dinner. A long-distance phone call for daughter Rose is scheduled to occur during the usual family mealtime, and her sister Esther schemes with the family’s cook to serve dinner early so that Rose can be left in privacy to talk on the dining room phone—the only one in the house—when her beau Warren calls. Rose and Esther’s father, Alonzo, Sr., who does not know about the call, is offended at the prospect of eating his dinner an hour early and steadfastly refuses to reschedule. As a result, Rose takes the call with Warren in front of the family during dinner, and he does not propose to her as she had hoped. A disappointed Rose nevertheless helps Esther win the heart of a recent arrival in the neighborhood: boy-next-door John Truett. They throw a party and John attends; Esther gets to know him better when he stays afterwards to help her turn off the house lights. The next day John joins Esther and her friends on a trolley to see the construction site of the World’s Fair.

On Halloween evening, the youngest Smith daughter Tootie gets into some mischief on the trolley tracks and blames John for her injuries. An enraged Esther attacks John physically, then apologizes when she learns that Tootie is lying. The family recovers and resumes its celebration of the holiday, but just as spirits are high, the father announces that his firm has asked him to move with them all to New York, and they are to leave right after Christmas. The family is devastated. On Christmas Eve, Esther and Rose attend a holiday ball, and after the party John proposes to Esther, who happily accepts but cannot see how their relationship will work out given that she is leaving. Back at the house that evening, Alonzo realizes how painful the move will be for his family. He calls everyone together in the parlor and announces that they will be staying in St. Louis after all. The final scene is of the Smiths at the World’s Fair in the new year, marveling at the beauty of the city as it is lit up in a spectacular evening display.

This movie offers some of the sweetest and most affectionate photography of Judy Garland that I have seen. Garland’s relationship with director Vincente Minnelli blossomed on set into a romance that eventually led to marriage, and it is easy to interpret the film’s staging as a sign of the director’s feelings for his star. During the musical numbers, Minnelli films her through a window (the “Boy Next Door” sequence), a doorway (the “Under the Bamboo Tree” cake walk sequence), and another window (the “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sequence). This flattering staging focuses our attention on Garland, with the result that her moving image, caught in the space of the windows and door, resembles a painting come to life. Garland was often cast as a girl-next-door type, and here in one song she is literally singing about her next-door neighbor; yet through staging she is elevated from typical juvenile to exceptional beauty.

In compliment to the framed shots of Garland, each season of the story is introduced with a still of the Smith house as a framed postcard with an ornate border. The scene in the frame then comes to life in Technicolor and the film proceeds.  The effect works in part to remind us that we are looking at a story from another time, a narrative that seems to step out of an old-fashioned Courier and Ives postcard. Yet the movie is not quaint, nor does it pass off cheap and easy nostalgia for period storytelling. During the postcard transitions, and also during the architectural shots of Garland, Meet Me in St. Louis makes the claim that it is not merely another trip through turn-of-the-century America: the frequent frames remind us that the film is a masterly creative work in its own right. This is not, in other words, just a disposable popular movie but rather is a work of art.

On that note, the art direction and costuming of this movie are very accomplished, which should come as no surprise given that this is one of Arthur Freed’s high-profile MGM musicals. The women’s clothing (created by Irene Sharaff) is some of my favorite in any movie. Garland in particular is exceedingly striking-looking in this picture. Her hair is long, straight, and auburn, with severe bangs, and her clothing is very theatrical for a teenage girl in 1903: her tennis ensemble is a striped dress with a stocking hat that resembles a sleeping cap, and her outfit for the Smith household party is a blue tasseled affair. The white dress that she wears to the World’s Fair at the movie’s conclusion, along with all of the white dresses that the adult Smith women wear on that occasion, has many delicious layers and frills. Even the bathrobes that Esther and Rose don in the scene where they wash their hair and are lounging about the house are beautiful; I would wear them in public if I owned them. The film’s Technicolor process maximizes the color elements of Garland’s and the other women’s clothing with the result that the film is exceedingly bright and celebratory.

Just as the art and costume design bring richness to the physical look of the film, the physical location of the story (the Smith household) brings richness to the daily lives of the characters and to the story overall. The Smith residence is a splendid old house that has enough space for each of its family members to live and thrive in their eccentricities. Young Tootie has ample yard space to stage elaborate funerals for her dolls. Esther and Rose can spread out in the parlor in their kimono robes and sing songs at their leisure as family members tramp in and out of the room. The house even affords enough privacy that the banal process of turning down the numerous gaslights downstairs at the end of a party can become an opportunity for a romantic encounter.

In particular, the kitchen is especially warm and complex, with the fabulous Marjorie Main as the cook Katie. The film opens on Anna Smith and Katie making a batch of ketchup and preparing dinner. There is a special detail that I always like: Mrs. Smith is shown trimming celery to be passed at the table. The movie reserves the celery for Alonzo, Sr. to bite into noisily and at just the wrong moment at the table. His obstructive celery biting underscores the fact that this movie is not nostalgic in a cloying way: something as nice as cool celery on a hot day in the beautiful Missouri of the past can also draw attention to the selfish need of a character to eat his dinner while his daughter takes an important phone call in the dining room. The ketchup-making scene also avoids sentimentality by being very specific. The characters passing through the kitchen taste the ketchup that Katie and Anna have made, with one determining that it is too sweet, another that it is too sour, and still another that it is too thick. While this may seem a small point related to turn-of-the-century cuisine, the characters’ differing perspectives discourage us from thinking that 1903 Missouri was enveloped in a warm saccharine glow. People were fussy and dissatisfied then, too—about issues as inconsequential as ketchup recipes and as important as which city to live in.

Alonzo reminds me a great deal of the father Clarence Day, Sr. in the weakly titled but nevertheless wonderful Life with Father, a 1947 film starring William Powell as the cantankerous patriarch. Life with Father is set in 1880s New York City and affectionately chronicles the escapades of another large family, whose striking red hair reminds me of Esther and Rose’s in Meet Me in St. Louis. Unlike Life with Father, Meet Me in St. Louis is a paean to the Midwest and to St. Louis in particular. All throughout the movie we find references to the beloved hometown of these characters. I think particularly of the scene where Tootie corrects the ice man’s pronunciation of the city’s name: she chides him for incorrectly saying “Loo-ee” instead of “Loo-is”—a strange complaint to lodge indeed in a movie that takes its name from a 1903 song that also mispronounces “Louis.” The family’s passion for St. Louis becomes especially clear on Halloween where Alonzo announces his plans to move the family to New York. Whereas for many twenty-first-century people, this move might seem like a tremendous opportunity, for the Smiths it means losing all of the richness of their life in Missouri. It is refreshing to watch a movie that takes place in between the coasts and not see its characters depicted as inadequate because of their affection for where they come from. Instead, the story works hard to make us want to live there as much as they do.

Meet Me in St. Louis is also notable for debuting two songs: “The Trolley Song” and the aforementioned “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The lyrics for the latter were originally much darker than the version sung in the film. Some of the first draft lyrics were:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas—
It may be your last.
Next year we may all be living in the past.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Pop that champagne cork—
Next year we may all be living in New York.

Garland complained that the lyrics were too dark and said she could not sing them to the young Tootie character; thankfully they were changed:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light.
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the yuletide gay.
Next year all our troubles will be miles away.

The new lyrics were an improvement in part because they moved the song from specifics into a more general territory that seems timeless. But even the modified version that Garland sings in the movie was changed when Frank Sinatra recorded the song soon thereafter; his objection was that even what Garland sang was too negative. The dark nature of the song remains even in the perkier lyrics initiated by Sinatra that we hear today, in part owing to the inherently somber tone of the melody and the pathetic idea of wishing someone a merry “little” holiday.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is the perfect Christmas song for this movie to debut, as Meet Me in St. Louis is really at its heart about a group of people who must come to terms for a while with the sad fact that the place they love will not be a permanent part of their lives or long in the public eye. The World’s Fair is, after all, ephemeral, and the early 1900s would not last forever. Instead St. Louis, like all things that we love and adore, is something that, in spite of the characters’ devotion to it, can be taken away from them, and rather suddenly, too. It is a sad and very grown-up movie for at least that reason. Although Meet Me in St. Louis offers us a sweet snapshot of the past to affectionately revel in, it nevertheless reminds us that learning to part with the things we love is a sad aspect of becoming an adult.