Vincente Minnelli felt that the whole picture of Meet Me in St. Louis should have the look of a Thomas Eakins painting. Art director Preston Ames evoked vividly and nostalgically the city of St. Louis, which was recreated on the back lot. Metro built on Lot number 3 eight imposing Victorian houses, each surrounded by a lush lawn and beds of flowers.
The picture was divided into four seasons. Minnelli introduced each segment by using the Smith’s Gothic house as an illustration, like the greeting cards of that era. Each card dissolves into the live action of the Smith family. Summer introduces the family and the central conflict; Fall contains the Halloween sequence; Winter shows the bittersweet Christmas; and Spring concludes the film with a family celebration at the opening of the World Exposition.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” was the first Metro picture to be shot in Technicolor, for which Minnelli relied on the advice of Natalie Kalmus, the studio’s color consultant, who was ironically color blind.
Minnelli’s juxtaposition of color had been praised in his stage productions, but at Metro, he couldn’t do anything right in Kalmus’s eyes. “You can’t have one sister in a red gown and another in a bright green,” Kalmus said. “The two colors together are wrong. The camera will pick them up as rust and greenish black.” Kalmus based her judgment on trial shots of the swatches, but Minnelli stubbornly held that, under the changing lights, the camera wouldn’t distort the colors. From then on, Minnelli relied entirely on his own instincts.
When the shoot ended, on April 7, 1943, it was clear that, despite the initially embattled production and Judy Garland as as reluctant star, the movie had an extraordinary emotional power. “Meet Me in St. Louis” became the first picture to establish Minnelli’s reputation as a major talent.
Nonetheless, Minnelli was asked to recut “Meet Me in St. Louis” when it proved to be too long. A top Metro executive, instructed by Louis B. Mayer, wanted to excise the Halloween sequence, claiming that, “it’s the only scene that doesn’t have anything to do with the plot.” Minnelli was flabbergasted. That Halloween scene was the reason he wanted to do the picture in the first place. He had worked very hard on that scene, which came off beautifully.
Before shooting the scene, Minnelli took the Metro kids to the costume department and spent a whole day collecting a wild assortment of clothes, the kinds people stored in old attics and closets for some special occasion. Margaret O’Brien’s costume was a man’s coat worn inside out, pajama bottoms, and a derby. Her face was smeared with burnt cork so that she wouldn’t be as visible in the dark night.
When the new assemblage, without the Halloween scene, was run for Minnelli, he decided to keep quiet. After the screening, the lights in the projection room came back on and Freed said, “It’s not the same picture. Let’s put it back.” Relieved, Minnelli considered it a major victory, one achieved without even fighting for.
Instead, Minnelli cut other scenes, such as “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” a song that was dropped from Oklahoma! Originally, Minnelli thought that it would develop Esther and John’s affair, but their romance came through much better with the family as a counterpoint. The scene was easily excised.
Minnelli felt good about “Meet Me in St. Louis,” which was emotional without being sentimental. It was Minnelli’s coming of age film at MGM. Overjoyed, Louis B. Mayer had to concede that his opposition to the picture had been all-wrong. The reviews were equally glowing. Time magazine wrote: “The real love story is between a happy family and a way of living.”
To read more about how Minnelli worked with child star Margaret O’Brien, please go to: