by Logan Gion
Meet Me in St. Louis
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer
Upon its release, Meet Me in St. Louis made five times its budget, was the second-highest grossing picture of the year, and was the second-highest grossing film ever for MGM Studios (behind only The Wizard of Oz). On set, Judy Garland met her future husband Vincente on set. Shortly after this movie’s release, the Broadway megastar Liza Minnelli was born. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, sits at the number 10 slot on “AFI’s Best Musicals” and holds two rankings on “AFI’s Best Movie Songs.” It holds a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, a 94/100 on Metacritic, and a 7.5/10 on IMDb.
…but none of that matters to contemporary viewers because Meet Me in St. Louis‘ most notable accomplishment is the debut of the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
While I knew the melancholy Christmas song came from Meet Me in St. Louis, I’d never heard the original recording. That is, until Starbucks played it a month ago while I was attending my writer’s group there. A colleague of mine, trying to complete a cheery romance story about lovers on a beach, looked up at the speaker, withered, and practically hissed. Garland voices the tune with such forlornness, it threatens to drown its singer in misery if you don’t pay attention. Personally, I found the song delightfully bleak. What on Earth, I thought, could make a Christmas song sound so desolate?
I thought the movie was worth investigating, and felt it a perfect closer to this month’s theme:
It’s Summer 1903, and the Smith sisters are anxiously awaiting a call from Warren Sheffield. The oldest sister, Rose, is expecting a proposal from him, and Esther (Judy Garland) wants her older sister’s future secured so that Esther can court the neighbor boy, John, without distraction.
Unfortunately, most of the men in this film are thicker than an overstocked tomato soup, so Rose ends up shouting at Warren over a long-distance telephone call, and Esther sings a charming ballad from the entry window about how the neighbor boy (who is in earshot) is too dumb to notice her.
The film makes clear that these young women will have plenty of courtship chances over the coming year, so there’s plenty of time for them to find dates to The World’s Fair next spring.
The rest of the film covers the various seasons of the year, introducing them with quaint, rococo title cards. Naturally, the “Winter” chapter of the film covers Christmas, and within that section is Garland’s original rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
The song sounds so sad because the Smith family is leaving for New York on New Year’s Day due to their Father’s job. As a result, they’ll likely miss The World’s Fair and start their social lives from scratch. Meanwhile, Esther has FINALLY made some headway with the neighbor boy, and will have to make a choice: stay in the city she loves with the boy she loves or go with her family and leave her life in the past.
Her younger sister’s been eavesdropping, however, and is the only other member of the family to see the whole dilemma. As Esther sings the ferociously emotional showstopper, both she and her sister realize that, after Christmas, they’ll be apart, likely for years, so they need to have themselves “a merry little Christmas now.”
The flood of complex emotions present between Esther and her sister is breathtaking, especially for a film that’d been so light until just a few moments prior. Brilliantly, Meet Me in St. Louis uses those sweet moments to underscore just how much the Smith family is leaving behind.
Of course, because this is a musical comedy, the plot is resolved, everyone gets to stay, and three of the five siblings get engaged on the same night. The Smith family’s hearts are full and their hats fuller as they head off next spring to The World’s Fair.
For the second time this month, I’ve chosen a famous Christmas movie that isn’t actually holiday themed–the yuletide segment just happens to be the most famous part. In fact, the longest and most entertaining section of the movie is the Halloween sequence, in which the youngest Smith sister, Tootie, “kills” a wicked neighbor, then plays a “harmless” prank that legitimately comes close to actually killing dozens of citizens.
My inky black sense of humor roared in delight at Tootie’s antics in the film, from her funerals for her dolls in a real cemetery to bizarre stories about townsfolk using dead cats in occult rituals, climaxing with her gory massacre of the snow people. This obsidian streak of comedy sucker punched me, a viewer who expected Meet Me in St. Louis to be as inconsequential as films like The Music Man or Hello, Dolly!
Thankfully, Margaret O’Brien, who played Tootie (and is still alive today!), was rewarded by the Academy of the time, receiving a miniature Oscar statue. She remains one of the youngest people awarded, older than Shirley Temple by only a year.
Judy Garland, of course, nearly burns through the screen with her star wattage. I’m sure one arched eyebrow from her had audiences of her day rolling in the theater aisles, while her warm, swallowed tone still turns listeners to putty. The cherry atop this Halloween ice cream (I don’t know; apparently, that was a thing back then) is Mary Astor’s caught-in-the-middle performance of Mrs. Smith. Astor easily vacillates between stern maternal figure to co-petitioner of her daughters’ wishes. The fact that Astor played one of the most infamous femme fatales of all time in The Maltese Falcon a mere three years prior speaks volumes about her range.
Overall, this film still charms and disarms 80 years later.
This is the perfect film for kids and teens to watch with their grandparents as they kill an afternoon over Christmas break. The swift “Trolley Song” will have viewers bopping along while audiences of all ages will laugh at Esther Smith’s Christmas dance partners. Those reluctant to watch an old black-and-white film needn’t worry, either. Meet Me in St. Louis is rendered in breezy, pastel-laden Technicolor so oversaturated that the colors nearly bleed past the objects they hue.
That said, this movie is 80 years old. Some of the attitudes and actions of the characters are dated, especially young women’s obsession with marriage and corsets. Similarly, there’s a song called “Under the Bamboo Tree” about Zulu courtship rituals that is… cringe-inducing at best. Though the number is fairly ugly, its racist lyrics are far from the worst of its time. Thankfully, it has no bearing on the plot and can be easily skipped. It’s merely a stray bread crumb in an otherwise pristine skimmer hat.