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.