By Paul J. Bradley
A likeable young woman lives with her family in a small American town, has fallen in love with the boy next door, has a death-obsessed kid sister and dreads a family move to the big city.
This may be an odd premise for a movie, but it works wonderfully well in the fondly remembered Technicolor musical film Meet Me in St. Louis, which was released by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1944.
Adapted by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe, from the short stories by Sally Benson, Meet Me in St. Louis focuses on the four sisters of an affluent Midwest family, who are looking forward to the 1904 World’s Fair.
The film is divided into four seasonal vignettes beginning with Summer 1903, a momentous year for the Smith family and for the city of St. Louis.
The eldest child, Lon, is preparing to go to college. Alonzo Smith (Leon Aimes) and his wife Anna (Mary Astor) live in their comfortable home with their daughters Rose (Lucille Bremer), Esther (Judy Garland), Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien); and their son Lon, Jr. (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.), along with Grandpa (Harry Davenport) and Katie the Maid (Marjorie Main).
Alonzo announces that he is going to take up a new job at New York City and plans to relocate the family there after Christmas.
His decision has an emotional effect on the family members, especially his daughter Esther’s plans for romance with neighbor John Truett (Tom Drake) and Rose’s hopes for marriage to Warren Shepherd (Robert Sully).
Romance does not run smoothly for the Smith sisters. John does not even notice Esther at first and when they eventually meet at a party, all does not go according to plan. John spoils the romantic possibilities by telling Esther that her perfume reminds him of his grandmother.
Rose is expecting a very important phone call from Warren, whom she expects will ask her hand in marriage. When Warren does call, it interrupts the family dinner and he embarrasses her by not proposing.
Little Tootie is obsessed with death and murder; she buries her dolls, throws flour at a man’s face for a dare and when hearing the plan to move to New York, begins to demolish the snowmen in the garden.
So, their idyllic life and problems are shaken when their father reveals his intentions. What will happen to the Smith sisters and can they muddle through somehow?
Meet Me in St. Louis ranks among the finest productions of the forties. It captures perfectly, and lovingly, the lifestyle of middle-class Americans in a small city before The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, or St. Louis World Fair, at the beginning of the century.
It was the breakthrough movie for director Vincent Minnelli, who was universally acclaimed for his stylish and meticulous direction. Minnelli consulted author Sally Benson on how the interiors would look and he received praise for his attention to detail within each scene, enhanced by the superb Technicolor cinematography by George J. Folsey.
Judy Garland is perfectly cast as Esther. It goes without saying that Garland’s singing voice is sensational, but her overall performance is also memorable. Margaret O’Brien is particularly good as the seven-year-old Tootie. The talented child star had such a great emotional range that she was given a special Academy Award for her impressive performance.
Meet Me in St. Louis is the first great movie from Arthur Freed, who would become one of the most lauded of all musical film producers.
The film is comprised of splendid songs written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, such as The Trolley Song, Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas and The Boy Next Door, all which were originally introduced in the film. Some older is included too, such as Meet Me in St. Louis, Skip to my Lou and Under the Bamboo Tree.
The film was a huge hit with the war worn audiences, who yearned for a more simple and normal life. Although sometimes associated with Christmas, Meet Me in St. Louis received general release in February 1945 and went on to earn more a then-massive five million dollars in the USA alone. The film was also a huge critical success and is still very popular.
In these uncertain times, it is always worth a re-visit to the Smith household, to sip Katie’s ketchup, to hear Esther yearn about the boy next door and wait patiently for the World’s Fair. As Tootie reminds Esther, you can’t do anything like you do in St. Louis.