Holiday Classics: “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944)

The Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a standard during the holidays, and has been ever since Judy Garland first sung it in the 1944 MGM musical “Meet Me in St. Louis”. But if it wasn’t for Garland, it probably would have been a much different song. Martin and Blane’s original lyrics were quite dark, particularly the line, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/ It may be your last.” Garland, whose character in the film was to sing the song to little Margaret O’Brien, thought it was much too depressing; so, the lyrics were changed, and it is now a classic.

Esther (Judy Garland) sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Tootie (Margaret O’Brien)

But several other great songs make their debut in “Meet Me in St. Louis” as well, including “The Boy Next Door” and “The Trolley Song”, all sung by Garland’s Esther Smith. The story is set in St. Louis just prior to the 1904 World’s Fair. The Smith family, which also includes Rose (Lucille Bremer), Tootie (O’Brien), Agnes (Joan Carroll), Lon (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.), mother Anna (Mary Astor), Grandpa (Harry Davenport), and maid Katie (Marjorie Main), are devastated to learn that father Alonzo (Leon Ames) has taken a job in New York that will require the family to move from their beloved hometown. Over the course of a year, the Smith family learns life lessons, while Esther falls in love with her neighbor, Jon Truett (Tom Drake).

The sets and costumes used in “Meet Me in St. Louis” are gorgeous, and the soft use of Technicolor heightens the sense of nostalgia for a simpler time (this movie was, after all, filmed right in the middle of World War II). Director Vincente Minnelli skillfully sets up each shot to get the best out of each character. For instance, in the surreal Halloween sequence, the camera for the most part remains low to the ground, allowing the viewer to experience the events the way little Tootie would. Minnelli also knew how to make Garland—who, at twenty-one years old, was reluctant to play yet another teenager—appear at her most beautiful. Garland and Minnelli later married.

Thanks to an excellent cast, score, and director, “Meet Me in St. Louis”—despite the fact that it really doesn’t have the amount of songs a typical movie musical at time usually did—is one of the best and most memorable MGM musicals. It was a huge hit, grossing more money than any MGM film ever outside of “Gone with the Wind”. And while the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has been covered countless times by various artists over the decades, Garland’s heartfelt version is still the best.

“Meet Me in St. Louis” is available to rent or buy on all digital platforms and is airing on Turner Classic Movies on the following dates:

Wednesday, December 23 at 8 PM EST

Thursday, December 24 at 4 PM EST

Runtime: 113 minutes.

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