Friday, January 4, 2019

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

(This post is part of the "The Year After Year Blogathon" hosted by MovieMovieBlogBlog)

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) remains one of Judy Garland's most popular films. In fact, it was the highest grossing movie she ever made, raking in even more money than The Wizard of Oz (1939). What is more, it was well received upon its initial release. It was nominated for the Oscars for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Colour; Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture; and Best Music, Song (for "The Trolley Song"). In the American Film Institute's list of Greatest Movie Musicals it was ranked 10th, although I have no doubt there are those who would rank it higher.

Meet Me in St. Louis was based on the novel of the same title by Sally Benson. The novel itself originated as a series of eight vignettes based on Miss Benson's experiences growing up in St. Louis in 1903 and 1904. The vignettes were published in The New Yorker from June 14 1941 to May 23 1942 under the title 5135 Kensington (the title coming from the address of her family's home in St. Louis, 5135 Kensington Avenue). Sally Benson added four new stories to the original eight vignettes to create the book Meet Me in St. Louis, with each story representing a month from 1903 to 1904. MGM bought the film rights to Meet Me in St. Louis in January 1942, before the book was even published later in the year.

Initially Arthur Freed, head of MGM's musical unit, hired Sally Benson herself to write the screenplay for Meet Me in St. Louis. Ultimately, Mr. Freed was disappointed with Miss Benson's work, so that in the end it would be Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe who would write the screenplay for the film. Mr. Brecher had written the screenplays for the Marx Brothers' films At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940), and the screenplay for Shadow of the Thin Man (1941). Fred F. Finklehoffe had written the play Brother Rat and the screenplay for the musical Strike Up the Band (1940). 

Although Meet Me in St. Louis is now one of Judy Garland's most popular films, when she was cast she was not particularly eager to appear in the movie. Miss Garland had just appeared in her first adult role in the film Presenting Lily Mars (1943). In Meet Me in St. Louis, the 21 year-old Miss Garland would be playing 17 year-old Esther Smith, yet another juvenile role. Director Vincente Minnelli tried to convince Judy Garland that the film was perfect for her, to no avail. She then went over his head to Louis B. Mayer himself. Initially Mr. Mayer took Miss Garland's side. Fortunately, Arthur Freed was able to convince Louis B. Mayer that Judy Garland should star in Meet Me in St. Louis. While Miss Garland relented, the filming of Meet Me in St. Louis would not be particularly easy.

Indeed, Judy Garland would miss sixteen days during the shooting of Meet Me in St. Louis, calling in due to an ear infection, having a tooth pulled, a sinus condition, swollen eyes, and the common cold, among other reasons. Joan Carroll, who played Esther's sister Agnes, had to have her appendix removed was and out for two weeks. Mary Astor missed three weeks due to sinusitis. Margaret O'Brien was out thirteen days due to hayfever and influenza, among other things. Meet Me in St. Louis had been budgeted at $1.708 million, but due to much of the cast missing several days, it finally came in at $1.885 million.

While Meet Me in St. Louis proved more expensive to make than originally thought, in the end it proved to be worth it. It proved to be MGM's highest grossing film in 1944 and the fourth highest grossing film of the year. It not only went over well with audiences, but with critics as well. As mentioned earlier, it also earned four Oscar nominations. 

Meet Me in St. Louis portrays a year in the life of the Smith family from the summer of 1903 to the summer of 1904. The movie is notable for having little in the way of a plot, structured as a series of vignettes taking place throughout the year. In the summer the Smiths hold a house party. At Halloween young Tootie engages in various bits of mischief. On Christmas Eve is the neighbourhood's annual Christmas ball. Of course, featured during these vignettes are various songs, including "The Boy Next Door" (in summer), "The Trolley Song" (in summer), and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (at Christmas), among others. Both "The Trolley Song" and particularly "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" would become standards.

Much of what is enjoyable about Meet Me in St. Louis is that it acts as a look at a bygone time. At the summer house party, Tootie performs a cakewalk, a custom still practised in some small towns but now largely forgotten in larger cities. During Halloween the neighbourhood children go about throwing flour on people, a custom so long forgotten that the whole thing probably seems a bit alien to modern day viewers. There are trolleys, old fashioned telephones, horse drawn carriages, and various other things that probably seem novel to the modern viewer. Meet Me in St. Louis does a fairly good job of capturing life in St. Louis in 1903 and 1904.

Of course, because of the Christmas sequence and the iconic song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" there are many who think of Meet Me in St. Louis as a Christmas movie. While Meet Me in St. Louis is one of my all time favourite movies (which is why I chose it for this blogathon), I have never seen it as a Christmas movie myself. I have never timed the sequences, but I suspect the Halloween sequence (my favourite in the movie) is actually longer than the Christmas sequence! That having been said, I don't think of it as a Halloween movie either.

Aside from iconic songs and a fairly strong script, Meet Me in St. Louis benefits from an excellent cast. Judy Garland gives one of her best performances in the film, as does Margaret O'Brien. Mary Aston is excellent as the matriarch of the Smith family, Anna, as is Harry Davenport as Grandpa. The cast included some actors who would soon be famous of their own accord, including June Lockhart and Hugh Marlowe. 

If Meet Me in St. Louis remains one of Judy Garland's most popular movies, it is perhaps because it is such a good movie all around. It features a strong cast with a strong script that has plenty of humour and a number of classic songs. Judy Garland was initially resistant to appearing in the movie, but audiences have probably been thankful ever since that she did. 


Steve Bailey said...

Terrific summary of a wonderful movie! The holiday season isn't complete for me without at least one viewing of it and getting teary-eyed over Judy Garland's rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Thanks so much for contributing this to the blogathon!

J-Dub said...

I don't understand the people who try to call this a "Christmas" movie. Yeah, you get the song and part this movie is around Christmas, but you really can't have a a "year in the life" movie without Christmas, can you?

Because it takes place at Christmas time, does that make Stalag 17 a Christmas movie?