- Monday, 19 December 2011
Even if you didn’t know that Director Vincente Minnelli was to marry his leading lady, 22-year-old Judy Garland, a year after the release of Meet Me in St. Louis, movie, you’d suspect as much. The camera loves her and, for the first time, her hair and makeup were designed to show her off as a dazzling leading lady with all the best songs. Moreover, love and marriage are central to the story, with the attempts of the two older Smith girls (Garland and Lucille Bremer) to capture their respective man. In the winter of 1944 millions flocked to see this bright, joyous Technicolor dream in which the plot’s feather light conflict is quickly resolved: A St Louis family risks missing the 1904 World Fair – and a couple of weddings – when the father‘s job is transferred to New York.
Highlighting the BFI’s current season of MGM musicals, Meet Me in St Louis was the film that made Judy Garland the studio’s highest grossing female actress and gave her the power that, eventually, was to destroy her. But in 1944 the world, and the up-and-coming director Minnelli, were in love with Garland. The irony is that she almost didn’t appear in the film. At 22, and having already played an adult, she felt too old to play a teenager. She also feared being upstaged by six-year-old Margaret O’Brien as her sister ‘Tootie’ – and she nearly is.
Only four songs were composed specially for the film and the title song wasn’t one of them. Three of those four songs were written by an almost unknown writing team, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, who were credited with the score. The three songs, The Trolley Song, The Boy Next Door and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, were all sung by Garland and are considered among the greatest ever written for a musical. Unusually for musicals of the period, they felt like an integral part of the script rather than superimposed on it.
Meet Me in St Louis was not only Garland’s first film shot entirely in colour but the first that was made as a vehicle for her from the songs to Fred Finklehofffe’s script. If she was paired with the hugely popular Mickey Rooney or Gene Kelly before, in Meet Me, the studio felt she could hold her own with only Tom Drake. One can criticise this choice. Van Johnson was originally cast, and it would have made more sense to give such a strong female protagonist a more charismatic suitor than Drake.
While Meet Me in St Louis is a wonderful bit of Americana, today’s viewers might be struck with the St Louis of 1904 where not even the maid is black, and where poverty is unknown. Though the Smiths live in what to us is a gorgeous, American Gothic mansion, and where different dresses every day, the girls fear that ‘people like us’ will have to settle for tenements flats in New York. St Louis was, and some respects, still is, a closed, WASP (White, Anglo Saxon Protestant) society. Esther’s brother (Leon Ames) is Yale bound but the idea of Rose and Esther going to university, though mentioned, seems to disappear when the marriage proposals arrive. Nowadays, few young people would rather live in St Louis than in New York. But perhaps that’s what makes the Meet Me in St Louis such entertaining escapism.
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