Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

#26 on AFI Top Songs for “The Trolley Song”
#76 on AFI Top Songs for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

In an age when the celluloid casted shadows on the silver screen were predominantly black and white comes an MGM spectacle of magnificent Technicolor in the musical Meet Me in St. Louis. Judy Garland stars in this charming motion picture of nostalgia and music for a generation of World War II weary Americans who looked fondly back on the days that seem so innocent and carefree at the turn of the twentieth century. The feature marks a reluctant return for Garland in a juvenile role after her hard work to graduate to more mature characters. Its result one of the highest grossing pictures in the studio’s history to that point.

Meet Me in St. Louis is a musical about the year in the life of a St. Louis family leading up to the World Fair of 1904, and the struggle with the idea that they may need to leave their long beloved hometown. The picture follows the Smiths, an All-American family led by patriarch Alonzo (Leon Ames) along with wife Anna (Mary Astor), their daughters Rose, Ester, Agnes, and Tootie, and son Lon Jr. Much of the feature focuses on Ester’s (Judy Garland) romantic infatuation with a handsome neighbor boy John Truett (Tom Drake). Meanwhile Rose (Lucille Bremer) battles with expectation of a proposal that appears to never come, and littlest sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) finding ways to getting into innocent trouble.

The greatest drama for the family revolves around the announcement of Mr. Smith taking a position that calls for him and family to relocate to New York City, to the shock of the children who grieve the idea of having to leave friends and the only place they think of as home. While watching Ester consoling a very upset Tootie, following a heartbreaking outburst that represented the loss of past happiness, Mr. Smith has a change of heart and decides he cannot take his family away from their home, much to the family’s delight. The film concludes with the family visiting the World’s Fair, celebrating the beauty and prominence of their hometown.

Filled with bright, colorful imagery and timeless music, Meet Me in St. Louis, despite being a rather simple and overly sweet motion picture, warms the heart of nostalgic American audiences. The plot of the film is nothing complicated as we following the very loving upper-middle class Midwestern family focusing primarily of the children’s aspect of life. We watch as the older daughters deal with the ideas of romance do not always meet expectation, and how the younger siblings, Tootie to be more specific, just finds herself in different sorts of trouble, making fibs, and simply enjoying aspects of being a child. All this is potentially ripped away from away from these children when their father tells them they will be moving away.

The quality of the filmmaking is first rate for the time, with the beautiful use of Technicolor, elaborate sets and costuming, and the delightful choreography to complement one of the most impactful scores of the decade. With most of his experience coming from the Broadway stage, director Vincente Minnelli brings the energy of stage musical to film, with use of chorus players and the story-integrated choreography that transcends the screen. Minnelli, in a way, becomes one of the first true directors to transition from musical stage to musical screen, going beyond large kaleidoscopes style of Busby Berkley or elaborate dancing of Fred Astaire. This film remains grounded in the emotion of nostalgia and home, keeping the filmmaking style relatively simple, but as vivid and dreamlike like and fond memory.

The film’s headlining star was portrayed by an actress who strongly did not want to take the part. Judy Garland had recently graduated from juvenile roles to more mature characters, an overdue move to the mind of a then 22 year-old actress. For a while she had been attempting to shed the youthful roles of her past, such as the Andy Hardy pictures, or the classic Wizard of Oz performance, and just when it appeared the she had moved beyond such youthful parts she was sucked back in once more as Ester Smith in Meet Mr. St. Louis.

Despite it seeming to take a step back in her career Meet Me in St. Louis was a large step forward in her makeup artists reshaped her eyebrows applied makeup to downplay the shape of her nose and enhance her lips. Essentially it was a massive cinematic makeover using make-up for Garland. This picture would be the starting point as to how Garland’s makeup was applied for all her future projects. Most significantly  on this picture Garland was introduced to the man that would become her second husband in director Vincent Minnelli, whose brief six year marriage resulted a daughter, future Academy Award winner Liza Minnelli.
O'Brien and Garland

As MGM’s next popular child actress, Margaret O’Brien receives quite the high billing in this feature despite the relatively minor supporting character she portrays. As youngest daughter Tootie, O’Brien does steal the scenes for the few fleeting moments she is on screen. In a very productive year where the seven year-old was featured in four major motion pictures for MGM, Meet Me in St. Louis by far being the most notable, O’Brien was honored with a special juvenile Academy Award.

Meet Me in St. Louis would be well nominated at the Academy Awards in early 1945 with nominees in various categories including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography (color), however the most memorable and lasting aspect of the picture is in actuality its music. Beyond nominations for Best Score, Best Music, and Best Song, this feature is filled with tunes that have transcended time. “The Trolley Song” with its joyful “clang clang clang with the trolley” lyrics would land itself as one of the best songs of the year, both at the Academy Awards and with popular culture. “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” was the perfect lighthearted tune to set the tone of the entire feature.

Garland performing "The Trolley Song"
Numerous songs were featured throughout the picture, but one would go on to  transcend the furthest of all these in the emotions that it would evoke. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was an original refrain inked for this very feature as a melancholy moment in the Christmas/winter scene where things appear their darkest for the Smith children in the brink of moving away from their beloved city. With a change of lyrics before filming, a lighter tone, and years of tinkering by various artists in many covers this song has become a staple of the Christmas season in American popular culture, so much so that a far greater amount of the population would not know that the cherished melody actually originates from a movie, let along this movie.

Meet Me in St. Louis remains an exuberantly joyous motion picture that help deliver joys to audiences in a darker period of World War II America and inspire a new generation to look back on the nostalgia of their own pasts. It is believed that it was with the help of this picture that Walt Disney was inspired to mimic a turn of the century town as the entry section of new outdoor entertainment enterprise constructed in the mid-1950s, Disneyland, naming it the area Main Street, U.S.A., to evoke the same nostalgic hometown pride many wished their pasts.

Along with The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis cements Judy Garland as the all-American girl in movie musicals for this period in Hollywood, a status she would in a way haunt her the rest of her life. However, after the massive success of Meet Me in St. Louis Garland began to trust producers at MGM a little bit more, understanding that some choices she may not want would further her own career.

The feature a mega-success for its day and became MGM’s second greatest box office success of all time up to that point, trailing only Gone With the Wind. The feature remains one of America’s classic films, cherished by a great deal for its simple, yet colorful joyous ways.

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