Vincente Minnelli was not aware that by assigning him to direct Meet Me in St. Louis, Arthur Freed was catapulting him into the major leagues. The film was based on a series of articles that Sally Benson had written for The New Yorker, which were later published as a book. Freed wanted to create a nostalgic mood piece out of Benson’s childhood memoirs.
Freed’s selection of a director was puzzling, since Minnelli had little experience for such a large-scale musical. Freed had originally wanted George Cukor to direct, but Cukor was mobilized into the War effort. Minnelli had volunteered for the army, too, but was rejected, due to advance age and other ailments.
It didn’t take much to persuade Minnelli, who found the book’s evocation of a bygone era affectingly warm, despite its sentimental nature. What appealed to Minnelli about the text was one darkly mischievous sequence, set during Halloween, which had a dark, even malicious tone for a musical. The children, longing for horror, envision the burning of feet and slashing of throats. Far from Hollywood‘s traditionally innocent approach to Halloween, this was the type of fantasy cultivated by children raised on the Brothers Grimm, not MGM, fairy tales.
As an artist, Minnelli saw great possibilities for embedding the story with color and emotion. After a second reading of the script, Minnelli rushed to Freed and told him he’d be glad to direct the picture.
As there was no conventional plot, Minnelli suggested that they get another, stronger version of the narrative with sharper characterization. In deference to his director, Freed hired writers Fred Finklehoffe and Irving Brecher and instructed them to center the tale on Esther Smith, the Judy Garland’s part.
Judy had always been subjected to conflicting advice from the studio executives, who pretended to know what’s best for her. However, this time, Judy was pleased that most of her “well-wishers” concurred with her notion, that Meet Me in St. Louis would be a career setback to the territory of Wizard of Oz.
Minnelli’s first contact with Judy, who he hardly knew, was not encouraging. Informed about Freed and Minnelli’s commitment to do the picture, Judy decided, “to go in and talk to this Mr. Minnelli.” Judy walked into Minnelli’s office with the script in her hands. Since it was difficult for her to confront her director bluntly, she just said, “It isn’t very good, is it?”
“I think it’s fine,” Minnelli contradicted. “I see a lot of great things in it. In fact, it’s magical.”
Minnelli wasn’t aware of Judy’s feelings when he first discussed the role with her, but Judy couldn’t see the magic in the script that he was talking about.
A courtly man, especially when female guests entered into his office, Minnelli would leap from behind his desk, get a chair for his guests and offer them coffee or candies. Once at his presence, taken by his natural charm and generosity, the guests learned how to disregard his nervous fidgety quality and stammer that got worse when he was either anxious or excited.
Judy tried to get her point across, but Minnelli was just as stubborn as she was. Realizing that Meet Me in St. Louis represented his chance to break into the front ranks, Minnelli did his best to change Judy’s mind. Minnelli surprised Judy with his assured response. He didn’t understand why she protested in the first place. No one had told him that Judy had already gone to Louis B., and that there had been several conference calls behind his back.
All along, Freed knew that if staged by one of the studio’s stock directors, Meet Me in St. Louis would be a routine film. Skilled at making everybody around him happy, Freed protected his directors by keeping them in the dark about studio politics. This was Freed’s modus operandi. Freed endeared himself to the artists in his Unit by leaving them to their own devices, and more importantly, defending them against bureaucratic interference from the top.
Louis B. called Freed into his office and told him, “For once, I have to agree with Judy. I’ve read the script and there’s no plot.” Freed stood firm. His track record was so solid that Louis B. was forced to consent. Freed felt that after a long string of successes, the studio owed him a “failure,” if that’s how Meet Me in St. Louis was perceived.
Having gotten nowhere with Minnelli’s soft-spoken yet stubborn approach, Judy remained bewildered. Before a final decision was made, Louis B. consulted his script reader, Lillie Messenger, known for her remarkable abilities and candid talk to the mogul. If Messenger liked a script, she would retell it to Louis B. in an eloquent fashion that stressed its strong potentialities and concealed its weaknesses.
Minnelli was lucky that Louis B. gave the script to Messenger. “O.K.,” the mogul said, “Tell me what you think.” Messenger enthused: “The script is a fine kind of Americana, and it was about the family. Don’t forget that the country is at War.” That’s all Mayer needed to hear. He decided to go ahead right away. It was determined that the picture would expand Judy’s role to become its nominal and real center. Minnelli finally got his desirable, if reluctant, leading lady.