Meet Me in St. Louis (1944): Minnelli’s First Masterpiece (Christmas)

 Warner has released a new DVD edition of “Meet Me in St. Louis”, Vincente Minnelli’s captivating musical of 1944 and a highlight in the musical genre’s history. It’s the first of five Judy Garland musicals that Warner has put out in a collection that includes” Ziegfeld Girl”, “Love Finds Andy Hardy”, “For Me and My Gal”, and “In the Good Old Summer Time”.

John Fricke, one of many Garland’s biographers, provides some astute commentary about the film, which represents the first Minnelli-Garland teaming. There’s also a new interview with Margaret OBrien, who played Tootie, Garland’s youngest sister, and archival footage about other artists who worked on the film. Liza Minnelli, who singles out “Meet Me in St. Louis” as her favorite musical by her daddy, introduces the film in personal and touching manner.

A second disc reuses material from the previous Laserdisc edition, including a 1930 Warner short with Judy Garland as a young girl, and an historical curiosity, a pilot for a TV version of “Meet Me in St.Louis” with Wesley Addy as Mr. Smith, the benevolent patriarch that Leon Ames had memorably originated in the 1944 film.

Commemorating the film’s 60th anniversary with this splendid Technicolor transfer offers many causes for celebration. Based on Sally Benson’s short stories, first published in the New Yorker, “Meet Me in St. Louis” is a proof to the adage that Hollywood doesn’t make such musicals anymore.

Meet “Me in St. Louis” marked a turning point for Minnelli and the Hollywood musical. Though coming out of MGM’s factory machine, it was the first time since Rouben Mamoulian’s “Love Me Tonight” (1932) that a musical film had been filtered through the unified vision of its director. In his third film—and first masterpiece—Minnelli fuses brilliantly all the elements of a musical (songs, performances, cinematography, dcor and costumes) in service of his singular vision. Stylistically, the film demonstrates Minnelli’s fluid camera, relying on swirling movement and smooth dissolves rather than sharp cuts and montage (the Busby Berkeley style).

Minnelli shot the film in Technicolor, rendering glorious color with extreme intensity and brightness, which contributes to his expertly lush mise-en-scene. Notice the strikingly red hair of Rose and Esther. He makes sure that in every sequence, Judy stands out in the crowd, wearing a red gown in Christmas, a black one in the Trolley sequence.

Set in St. Louis at the turn of the century, “Meet Me in St. Louis” is a nostalgic film in which the memory of a harmonious past and the promise of a glorious future lend the present a warm glow. The film unfolds as a family album in which each scene presents an aspect of daily life in an idealized way. The film’s formal organization into seasons is in complete harmony with the family’s life. The concluding act, set in the spring, a period of renewal, shows the family at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Looking at the glittering lights with awe, Judy says: “I didn’t dream anything could be so beautiful! It’s right in out own back yard! I can’ believe it! Right here where we live. Right here in St. Louis!”

Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s songs emerge naturally from the characters’ feelings and situations, never impeding the action. All the songs illustrate personal romances or social gatherings, which co-exist in harmony. With the exception of one song, “You and I,” Judy sings all the songs in solo or as part of the group. However, then as now, audiences mostly remember Judy’s heartfelt renditions of “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and particularly “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” songs which later became a staple in her concerts.

The film shows the Smiths family at times of unity and celebration: Halloween, Christmas. The picture ends with family’s visit at the St. Louis World’s Fair, a confirmation to audiences of 1944 that in staying home nothing had been sacrificed by the Smiths. Though a secular event, in its function, the World Fair becomes another religious holiday.

Every act begins with a similar candy-box title card, then moves in toward the house. The story seldom departs from the home, and when it does, it’s for communal occasions, such as the trolley sequence to see the Fair’s construction or the Christmas dance. Home is a self-sufficient place, making all other institutions peripheral, and even threatening. The ideology of the film is conservative, celebrating a unified three-generational family. Minnelli places the women at the center, as symbols of order and stability. The men, on the other hand, present threat to the family’ unity. Mr. Smith wants to take the family away to New York, and son Lon wishes to attend college in the East; significantly, the grandfather sides with the women and is often seen in the kitchen, women’s domain.

Taking a mythical approach, the film tries to reconcile the dichotomies of art versus reality, stability versus change, small-town America versus the Big City, extended versus nuclear family, East and West, past and present. At the end, the World Fair becomes both a dream image and hometown reality for the Smiths family. But the film can’t really conceal that the family’s unity is in danger and that change is around the corner. The lyrics of Judy’s song, “Someday soon we all will be together, if the Fates allow/Until then well have to muddle through somehow, ” signify that the old way of life will never be the same.

Interestingly, at first, the MGM moguls were reluctant to make the musical, arguing that it’s plotless and there was no real drama or conflict. For her part, Judy didn’t want to make the film, claiming that at 21 she should not be playing adolescents anymore. However, the research for my upcoming biography of Minnelli indicates a more important reason for Judy’s reluctance, her fear that the youngest sister, Tootie, was really the starring role.

Judy was right. The 6-year-old prized juvenile OBrien (MGM’s answer to Fox’s Shirley Temple) stole every scene. Giving the movie’s most extraordinary performance, OBrien won a Special Child Oscar that year. However, initially, Minnelli experienced difficulties in extracting an emotional performance from her. When OBrien was unable to cry in a crucial scene, her mother suggested that Minnelli tell her a horrible story about her dog. Reluctantly, Minnelli manipulated the girl, embellishing the story with graphic details of her dog bleeding and suffering. It worked: OBrien tears began to flow and Minnelli’s camera to roll. After the take, Minnelli felt like a monster, vowing never again to resort to a strategy that by today standards might be considered child abuse.

From first frame to last, “Meet Me” is a delectable, beautifully evoked entertainment. For the first time in musical history, nostalgia was used in the service of art. The industry showed its appreciation with four Oscar nominations, including Irene Sharaff’s costumes and George Folsey’s luminous cinematography.

Minnelli’s favorite sequence, and the reason for doing such a nostalgic picture, was the ominous Halloween sequence. Dressed in grotesque costumes, Tootie says she’s a “horrible ghost who died of a broken heart.” When none of the kids wants to take the local ogre, Mr. Braukoff, Tootie volunteers for the job. After flinging flour in his glowering face, she shouts “I hate you,” then tells her friends, “I killed him. Im the most horrible!” In this impeccably directed scene, Minnelli revisits his own childhood with a matchless view of the demons that lurk in the shadows of sunny childhood.

Revisiting the film 60 years later, the dark tone, particularly Tootie’s obsession with death, stand out. In the course of the film, Tootie buries her dolls which died of mysterious illness; she accuses the boy next door of trying to kill her when he pulls her from the path of an on coming trolley; she “kills” Mr. Braukoff on Halloween, and finally, she destroys all the snowmen rather than leave them behind– “Nobody going to have them.” OBrien is so distraught over her fathers’s imminent job transfer that she literally goes berserk and in an hysterical frenzy demolishes her family of snowmen (who might be standing in for her own family).

Released in fall 1944 to glowing reviews, “Meet Me in St. Louis” became MGM’s second highest-grossing film (after “Gone With the Wind”), even more popular than Judy’s 1939 musical, “The Wizard of Oz”.