Has Judy Garland ever looked lovelier than she does in Meet Me in St. Louis? And does my completely unbiased opinion have anything to do with the fact she plays a character whose first name is Esther? Please, I'm not that shallow. Or maybe I am.
It was kind of a cool experience to watch a movie in which my name is featured so prominently. And I don't think I'd ever seen this classic 1944 musical before, other than a brief clip of the "The Trolley Song." It was a revelation - I loved it but it was more serious than I imagined.
On Turner Classic Movies, host Robert Osborne described Meet Me in St. Louis as a holiday film. While it does partly take place during Christmas, I don't know whether I'd really call it a Christmas movie. Some of the scenes and plot twists were a bit dark.
For some reason, I was expecting all lightness and fluff with lots of holiday cheer. I thought it would be more like a Midwestern version of Life with Father: the patriarch who rules the roost with a stern but loving hand and is usually clueless about what's going on, a wise and all-knowing mother, a gaggle of kids and a few quirky, colorful supporting characters. Okay, there's some of that.
Garland plays Esther Smith, one of five high-spirited children - four girls and a boy - in an affluent St. Louis family at the turn of the 20th century. As the movie opens, it's summer and everyone (well almost) is traipsing around singing "Meet Me in St. Louis" as they eagerly anticipate the 1904 World's Fair that will open the next spring.
When their lawyer father, Alonzo, played by Leon Ames, announces that the firm is transferring him to New York and they'll be leaving St. Louis after Christmas - everyone in the family is crushed. They'll leave behind sweethearts and friends and familiar places and most of all - they'll miss the World's Fair.
Garland's character has fallen for the boy who's just moved in next door, John Truett, played by a very sweet and affable Tom Drake. And when I say fall, I mean, she practically throws herself at him. They have a scene together where she asks his help to extinguish the (gas?) lamps in the house that's wow, kind of sexy in a 1940s censorship kind of way.
According to Osborne's introduction, Garland rebelled against MGM's decision to cast her in the movie. At age 22, she didn't want to play another teenage role. But director Vincente Minnelli, who was soon to be Garland's second husband, convinced her that if they did the movie right it would be a big hit for her - and it was.
The first thing that struck me was how absolutely gorgeous this movie looks - even on my 24-inch tv watching a musical shot in glorious Technicolor is amazing. Everything is so lush and the deeply saturated colors jump out at you - from the red and green of the evening gowns worn by Garland and her sister Rose, played by Lucille Bremer, to Garland's voluminous, shiny auburn hair. It just looks so different than most movies you see today.
I really enjoyed the musical numbers - especially the lively way Minnelli films two dance scenes - one at the beginning of the movie during a goodbye party for the girls' brother, who's heading off to Princeton, and one at the end, during the big Christmas ball. And it's a delight to watch Garland sing "The Trolley Song" as she moves among all the other passengers on the car.
I have to admit, though, my 21st-century sensibilities made me cringe at a couple of things. An absolutely adorable 7-year-old Margaret O'Brien plays Tootie, the youngest member of the family, and when we first see her, she's riding around the neighborhood with the ice delivery man. Did that bother anyone else?
And then there's a pretty scary Halloween scene, where Tootie, out trick-or-treating, has to knock on some stranger's door and throw flour in his face when he answers. The night ends with her coming home bloodied and sobbing that John Truett attacked her. (When in reality, he was trying to save her after a dangerous prank.) Maybe it just seems more ominous today, but a 7-year-old knocking on a stranger's door? Falsely accusing someone of attacking you? Whoa.
One of the most famous songs from the movie, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," is sung by Garland to O'Brien and it's very bittersweet, almost mournful. From what I've read, composer Hugh Martin modified the lyrics to make the tune a little more upbeat. But it's hard to feel lighthearted when you watch Esther sing it to her little sister, thinking that this will be their last Christmas in St. Louis.
Still, Meet Me in St. Louis is a Hollywood movie so in the back of my mind, I knew that there was always a chance for one of those happy Hollywood endings.
Meet Me in St. Louis is December's Musical of the Month at the Film Experience Blog, hosted by Nathaniel. So head on over for some different perspectives, or to join the discussion.