I arrived in this country with my family at the age of five and curiously that’s when my earliest memories start – memories of playing house with pencils. Before I loved the movies, I loved pencils. They were my favorite toys. The biggest was the father, the medium one was the mother and two smaller ones were the kids. My pencil family was average. They worked, played and argued. Although the Pencils entertained me for hours on end, there was really nothing special about them. They had no special talents just like my own family.
Under the leadership of Louis B. Mayer, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), the studio with “more stars than there are in the heavens,” was at the top of its game in the 1940s, the glory years ushered in by a movie the studio had no interest in making. The movie was a musical about an average family that lived in St. Louis at the turn of the last century, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Although on paper Meet Me in St. Louis didn’t seem like anything special it established Vincent Minnelli as one of Hollywood’s great directors, made a star of Margaret O’Brien and allowed one of the screens most beloved and talented stars, a 21-year-old entertainment veteran, to blossom. Not to mention that it remains pure movie magic, a subtle, yet vibrant and lavish, warm, fulfilling magic that embraces you from the moment the film’s title appears on the screen. Then came the accolades.
Meet Me in St. Louis was a box-office smash, grossing more money than any MGM release in the previous 20 years with the exception of David O. Selznick‘s Gone with the Wind (1939). It would go on to receive four competitive Academy Award nominations – Best Cinematography, Color, Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture, Best Music, Song for “The Trolley Song” and Best Writing, Screenplay. Margaret O’Brien received a special Juvenile Academy Award for her work in several movies that year including Meet Me in St. Louis. The film would also prove to be a classic for the ages, deemed “culturally significant” in 1994 by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. In addition, the American Film Institute ranked it 10th on its list of Greatest Movie Musicals and two songs from the film made the 100 Years…100 Songs list – “The Trolley Song” is number 26 and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is number 76.
I sat in front of a television on a cold winter night many moons ago to watch the first color movie I had ever seen. It wasn’t planned, nor did I know the movie that was being shown on the local PBS station that night – a Saturday. I was already super excited because I was staying over at a cousin’s house, a rare sleepover – my father wasn’t too keen on them. In any case, my cousin had a color television set, while the one at my house was an old black-and-white one someone had given us when we’d arrived in the country not long before. The movie began – Meet Me in St. Louis – I was mesmerized. It was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen or heard. I’d never seen people like that. Didn’t know they existed – the Smith family in their house of oil lamps and vibrant colors. Certainly no one I knew was as gorgeous or talented or of a nostalgia I knew nothing about, but could appreciate even then. It was wondrous. And warm. Innocent and happy. It filled my eyes and ears and heart. I hadn’t learned English yet, but that fact didn’t diminish the impact the movie or the family. had on me In short, all that is served by MGM in this production – a neatly packaged cornucopia of divine sentimentality – affected my marrow. It was a wonderful welcome to my new country and a movie that, in hopes of not sounding too mawkish, still represents the best of America to me. My new home just had to be the best place in the world, a place where magic is so casually available. I’m not shy about admitting I was a gifted child because at five I recognized greatness. I heard that night the most astounding thing I would ever hear, the voice of Judy Garland. I thought she was a wondrous talent then and think she was the greatest talent to ever live today. Ever. I can say little else with such certainty.
Told in four acts, each represented by one of the four seasons, Meet Me in St. Louis depicts a year in the life of the Smith family. The story begins in the summer of 1903 and like all other residents of St. Louis, the Smiths are looking forward to the biggest happening the world has ever known, the Louisiana Purchase Expedition also known as The World’s Fair. The Smith children, Alonzo, Jr. or Lon as he’s called, eldest sister, Rose, Esther, Agnes and precocious Tootie who live in a beautiful Victorian home with their parents, Alonzo Sr., Anna, their Grandpa and maid, Katie, can talk and sing about nothing but the Fair. As one season ends and another begins, we are made privy to different family traditions – in summer the Smith children have a house party, in the fall we see a memorable Halloween adventure full of the fears and wonders of childhood, in Winter we see the Smith family Christmas. Finally the Spring serves a new awakening as the family gathers, now larger than when we first met them as the older Smith children have found love just in time for the World’s Fair. But I don’t want to make it seem as if Meet Me in St. Louis is without depth, because it’s not. There is anger and heartbreak, growing pains and painful transitions along the way as the seasons change. One near-catastrophe threatens the world they love when Mr. Smith tells the family his work is transferring him to New York City, meaning the family will have to leave St. Louis. To move into a tenement, no less! The entire family is devastated by the news, particularly Rose and Esther whose lives are blossoming with the prospect of love. Not the least of concerns is the fact the move would take place just as St. Louis is about to be the center of the world with the World’s Fair in their midst. In the end the Smith family stays where they belong. They look over the gorgeous, illuminated pavilions of the World’s Fair – right in their own backyard, “Right here in St. Louis.”
I love everything about this movie. I love that what causes the biggest strife for the Smith family is the prospect of moving to a foreign place (wonder why) and that the response to that, the protest, if you will, is loss of appetite and a refusal to eat cake. I love that moments later the family comes together by way of song, a gorgeous melody “You and I” that the parents sing together, which results in everyone gathering to listen, reflecting on how much they have together – family comes first despite adversity. I love the nostalgia. I love that their snowmen and snowwomen are adorned with fur coats and fashionable hats. I love seven-year-old Tootie’s obsession with death and burial ascribing to her favorite doll no less than four fatal diseases. I love the contrived ritual Esther shares with John Truett, the boy next door she’s trying to romance, by asking him to assist her in turning off all the gas lamps in the house after the party. Obviously taken by her his clumsiness is endearing as he admires her perfume by telling her it reminds him of his grandmother. AND THOSE SONGS! The heartfelt “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the energy of the now iconic, “The Trolley Song.” Even the title song that’s sung throughout much of the beginning of the movie, which sets the stage beautifully for the World’s Fair and its importance in the lives of the characters. On that point I must mention the wonderful sequence whereby we meet Grandpa as he picks up the song from Agnes as he steps out of the washroom. Just beautifully done – members of all generations are looking forward to the Fair.
While I was lucky to have enjoyed all manner of film from an early age – murder mysteries because my parents preferred them, Universal monster fare because my brother favored them – it is the musical, particularly the MGM musical that was most special to me. Those were and remain exclusively mine. And when I think back on how that possessiveness took hold it was on the night I watched Meet Me in St. Louis, when as a child I realized that everything old can be new again and my heart would open forever to the gifts of classic film.
So, I arrived in this country with my family at the age of five. Before I loved movies, I loved pencils. They were my favorite toys. I would play house with them. My pencil family was average. They worked, played and argued. And after a sleepover on a cold, winter night they also danced, sang and looked forward to the Louisiana Purchase Expedition.
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS
Screen play by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe; based on the book by Sally Benson; songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane; beautifully directed by Vincente Minnelli; produced by Arthur Freed for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 1944
The outstanding cast:
Esther Smith . . . . . Judy Garland
Tootie Smith . . . . . Margaret O’Brien
Mrs. Anna Smith . . . . . Mary Astor
Rose Smith . . . . . Lucille Bremer
John Truett . . . . . Tom Drake
Katie . . . . . Marjorie Main
Mr. Alonzo Smith . . . . . Leon Ames
Grandpa . . . . . Harry Davenport
Lucille Ballard . . . . . June Lockhart
Lon Smith Jr. . . . . . Henry H. Daniels Jr.
Agnes Smith . . . . . Joan Carroll
Colonel Darly . . . . . Hugh Marlowe
Warren Sheffield . . . . . Robert Sully
Mr. Neely . . . . . Chill Wills
“Lux Radio Theater” broadcast a 60 minute radio adaptation of the movie on December 2, 1946 with Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien and Tom Drake reprising their film roles. You can listen to that broadcast here.
This post is my contribution to the Film Passion 101 Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Please visit the CMBA site to read many more write-ups dedicated to the classic films that transformed mere mortals into cinephiles.
A huge THANK YOU to the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA) for voting this article “Best Film Review (comedy/musical) 2014″ – it’s beyond thrilling.
MMISL is always a delightful fun film. You did it supreme justice, my dear. But the pencil story- that’s absolutely adorable!
I cried thinking of my pencil family. Thanks, Kellee! SO glad you liked this.
Brilliant! I nearly cried over your pencil family and how that special glow of American nostalgia touched your heart. Your post touched my heart, too.
Beautiful post, reminded me why I need to rewatch this and soon. Such an ordinary story but one develops into one of the best films ever. Thanks for writing this.
Love it! I too was taken with that movie, although it was at a much later time that I got to see it in color, and thanks to my dad for making sure we saw all the great musicals/classics such as this. I am not surprised though, that you enjoyed playing with pencils, since you have a special way with putting words together. Who would have known they would be the tool of expression. (BTW I agree. You were a gifted child! )
Thanks so much for your sweet post! I too loved your pencil story. Thanks for sharing what made your first color movie experience so magical.
My pencil family! Thinking about them made me misty. Thanks, Fritzi!
Where were you born? I never realized you came from someplace else.
Lol. that sounded funny, Rich. yes. From Cuba. 🙂
First of all, I’m also dying to know where your family emigrated from…?
Secondly, this is a wonderful tribute to “Meet Me In St. Louis”. I like how you described America as “a place where magic is so casually available.” This movie certainly captures that. (I nearly cry every time I see Judy Garland sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.)
Thirdly, your pencil story is quite touching.
Lastly, thanks for sharing these memories. I think we readers feel we know you much better now. 🙂
We’re from Cuba. 🙂 As i think back to the earliest memories i have of movies they are all equated to this country in my mind. They’re part of what made me American. I had never seen a movie at all before i came to this country. I don’t believe we even had a television in Cuba. So the images i saw were something else. And to see this in such vibrant colors was truly amazing.
What a lovely memory, Aurora. And you touch on something important about the great classic films, that their stories transcend spoken language. I adore “Meet Me in St. Louis,” too, though I first saw it as an adult. Now it’s one I watch every year at this time.
I’ve never seen this movie, but you can bet I’ll find it and watch it this week after this. I’m still speechless over this post and the memories you’ve woven into it. It’s perfect. And I love it. I don’t think I’ve ever had tears from reading any blog post! I do now.
Thank you so much, Sarah. I’m thrilled you’ll be watching this soon. I didn’t mention in the post this is also one of my favorite holiday movies. If you like musicals especially I can’t imagine you won’t adore this one. Let me know what you think.
One of the sweetest post I have ever read. MMISL is a great musical and Garland’s version of HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS gets to me emotionally every time I hear it. Thanks for sharing the wonderful memories.
Thank YOU, John. Yes, wonderful song and Judy kicks it!! What a talent! 🙂
Great post and pictures. glad you love Judy. Leon Ames and Mary Astor singing “You And I” is always a highlight for me, plus “Under The Bamboo Tree”
You have got to stop this! I’m sitting at the computer crying. You’d think I just watched Tootie smash the snowmen.
The way you captured the thrill of that first encounter with the Smiths made it very real. “…a place where magic is so casually available.” must be wonderful.
Awww. You’re sweet. It was wonderful. 🙂
A truly heartfelt, charming post that perfectly captures how movies affect–and reflect–our lives. MEET IN ST. LOUIS is a wonderful film, but–like John–the singe scene that gets me every time is Judy singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Nooooooooooooo!!! She Who Must Not Be Named!
Well, after reading your piece, Aurora I’m glad that Meet Me in St. Louis had at least one benefit: introducing you to a love of classic movies. What more could one ask for? Great write-up!
WAIT! Am I to understand “Judy Garland” is a name that shall not be mentioned? OK. We agree on Shirley Temple but…HONESTLY!!!
Thanks, Ivan. I’ll try to get over this.
No,,,it’s Garland’s little sister that gives me the hives (I cannot say her name for fear of summoning a demon). Judy is amazing; I can’t get enough of her!
OH, right! PHEW! You really scared me there!
1. You tell your story so well I feel as though I’m there with you playing with pencils and going to a sleepover.
My parents didn’t like us going out for sleepovers much either, so they hosted a few sleepovers instead.
2. Isn’t it kind of odd that no one in her family thinks twice about Tootie’s death obsessions and lying? That is a pretty big fib she tells about John trying to kill her. He could have been arrested!
3. “My new home just had to be the best place in the world, a place where magic is so casually available.” That’s my favorite sentence.
Thank you for sharing your story.
Thanks so much, Java!
Yeah, my father was NOT into letting go to sleepovers even at my relatives’ house and I ended up having most at my house too. This particular time musta been in the cards just so I can watch this gem!
About Tootie – YES! It is very strange. It always gets me when the mother asks “where’s Tootie” and then says, “oh, she must be on Mr. Nealy’s ice truck” Um, HELLO??
A sweet girl, fell in love with classic cinema due to one of the sweetest films ever made. It fits perfectly with what I would have imagined for you during your first experiences with this era. : )
You made me smile several times while reading this and I learn such fun things about you.
Thank you, Page! 🙂
I loved this post, Aurora. Brava!
Gee willikers, thanks! 🙂