A rich and colourful Technicolor musical, Meet Me in St. Louis is a healthy dose of Americana with a rather sharp and sometimes sinister edge. Directed by Vincente Minelli with Arthur Freed serving as producer, this 1944 film was adapted by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe from Sally Benson’s series of short stories in The New Yorker.
One of MGM’s greatest successes, Meet Me in St. Louis has a bit of a reputation as a Christmas movie. There is one Christmas sequence, featuring the debut of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but there’s also an extended Halloween yarn and some summertime fun.
The film opens in the summer of 1903 as St. Louis is preparing for the 1904 World’s Fair. The Smith family, led by patriarch Alonzo (Leon Ames) and matriarch Anna (Mary Astor), live an affluent existence in a fine home. The eldest daughter Rose (Lucille Bremer) is awaiting a marriage proposal from New York, while the second eldest Esther (Judy Garland) has fallen for the neighbour John (Tom Drake).
The seasons roll by for the Smiths, with various entanglements and events. Esther tries to get closer to John, but is thwarted by his clumsy compliments and a complicated Halloween situation involving the youngest daughters Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) and Agnes (Joan Caroll). Later Alonzo announces that he’s accepted a job offer in New York and the family may have to uproot from their Missouri home.
The music is clearly one of the major highlights of Meet Me in St. Louis, with Garland commanding the screen whenever she bursts into song. She sings such now-familiar pieces as “The Boy Next Door” and the aforementioned “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” plus there’s a rousing rendition of “The Trolley Song” that features an extravagant production number.
Another terrific musical number is delivered after Alonzo announces his plans to move the family to New York City. Anna begins to play “You and I,” as written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed and dubbed by Freed and Denny Markas, as the family gathers for cake. It’s a scene to represent the Smith family unity and it’s largely effective.
But Meet Me in St. Louis isn’t without its weirder moments, some of which are more rewarding than anything the music ever delivers. The character of Tootie is a divine highlight, with her death obsession and generally dark demeanour. She’s introduced correcting Mr. Neely (Chill Wills) after he “mispronounces” the name of her favourite city.
Tootie really takes off on Halloween, which is her favourite holiday. Dressed as a horrible ghost, she participates in the tradition of “killing” mean neighbours and hits Mr. Braukoff with a fistful of flour. But things take an ominous turn when she’s heard shrieking and found beaten, complete with a missing tooth and the need for stitches.
In a sense, the Halloween scene underlines the togetherness of the Smith family. Believing John to have beaten her little sister, Esther heads to his house and punches him in the jaw. She calls him a bully. Somehow, their relationship is rescued from this alarming miscue.
Meet Me in St. Louis is fascinating because it refuses to pin down a tone. On one hand, it’s a charming Technicolor musical. On the other hand, it’s a morose tale of family intimacy that features two little girls attempting to derail a trolley. And on the other hand of this peculiar three-handed figure of speech, it’s a story of an ambiguous Esther as she desires her neighbour but only to a certain extent.
Consider the Christmas Ball. The family is obsessed with their “last dance in St. Louis” to the point that everything else comes second. John can’t get at his tuxedo and Esther is crushed by the news, but she seems more concerned about being without a date than actually being without John specifically. This is emphasized after Grandpa Smith (Harry Davenport) comes to her rescue.
There are interesting tonal shifts and some less-than-convincing moments of emotional resonance, but for the most part Meet Me in St. Louis is a commendable musical. It carries enough delights to satisfy many tastes, plus there are a few spectral surprises tucked in. Garland proves herself a quintessential performer, too, but it’s Tootie who steals the show – decapitated snowmen and all.