Program Notes: Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) is one of a small handful of perfect (or nearly perfect) movie musicals.

Gene Kelly, who wasn’t in the film but was working nearby on the M-G-M lot when it was made, declared it his favorite movie musical ever. And that assessment is shared by many others.

Ironically, the movie’s leading lady initially wanted nothing to do with it. Judy Garland, at 21 the queen of M-G-M, was desperate for roles that allowed her to act her age. She had played a gee-wiz adolescent often in recent years (often at Mickey Rooney’s elbow) and was sick of being a starry-eyed kid. She wanted to grow up.

She was grown up enough in her personal life, being engaged in a torrid affair with a married man: writer/producer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. “Mank” supported Garland’s ambition to land roles of maturity and substance, and advised her to steer clear when her bosses at M-G-M announced that they wanted her to star as the teenage daughter of a turn-of-the-century family in Meet Me in St. Louis.

Film Screening:
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Saturday, May 5 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Meet Me... was actually a fallback position for Arthur Freed, head of the studio’s legendary Freed unit, which specialized in musicals. Initially Freed had tried to secure the rights to Life with Father, but lost them to another studio.

Still enamored of family life during the horse-and-buggy era, he optioned the semi-autobiographical Kensington Stories of Sally Benson which had been running in The New Yorker. Over several months a half-dozen writers toiled to turn these anecdotal tales into a coherent feature film.

The pressure was on to come up with a usable script quickly. M-G-M had contracted to rent one of the rare and much in-demand Technicolor cameras, and the studio needed a big colorful production to justify the expense. Moreover, M-G-M faced a deadline for returning the camera to Technicolor.

To make it all work the studio needed Judy Garland to play Esther Smith, the second oldest of four daughters of a family living in a gingerbread-heavy Victorian house on St. Louis’ Kensington Street.

Garland would be the only true star of the film; the other cast members were considered solid supporting players, but not box office dynamos capable of generating ticket sales.

But Garland defied studio boss Leo B. Mayer by refusing the assignment. Mankiewicz had pointed out to her that she would be sharing the spotlight with 7-year-old Margaret O’Brien as the family’s scene-stealing youngest daughter, Tootie. The film could easily become Tootie’s story, not Esther’s.

On the other hand, songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane had produced three numbers especially for Garland and it didn’t take crystal ball to see that “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolly Song,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” had “classic” written all over them.

In the end Garland took the role, but remained conflicted. She quickly butted heads with director Vincente Minnelli, who in the early days of filming felt that his star was – intentionally or not – making fun of the script and her character.

Some biographers have argued that Garland was accustomed to playing contemporary girls with wry sense of humor. It wasn’t easy putting herself in the shoes of a more restrained turn-of-the-century lass.

Or maybe she was just being contrary.

On days when filming ended early Minnelli called for rehearsals so that the cast members could block out upcoming complicated scenes. A defiant Garland would play hooky, summoning her car. Minnelli informed studio security to have his leading lady turned back at the front gate.

She frequently called in sick. On several occasions while out on the town with Tom Drake (who played “the boy next door”), she confided that she would be too “ill” the next day to step in front of the camera.

At one point Mary Astor (who played Garland’s mother) upbraided the young star for keeping the entire cast waiting for hours.

There were other problems. Hearing reports of Garland’s behavior, Margaret Hamilton, who had played the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, visited her on set.

“They are giving me pills of some kind to go to sleep,” Garland told her. “And then others to give me energy when I’m awake. And I don’t feel good on those pills.”

To top it off, Garland’s relationship with Mankiewicz was hitting the skids. He wouldn’t leave his family, though he clearly remained the love of her life.

Eventually the tension between Garland and Minnelli dissipated.

“Judy’s heart probably started to melt a little when she watched the daily rushes,” wrote Garland biographer Gerald Clarke. “For Minnelli, who had caused her so much pain and self-doubt, was doing what no other director had ever done: He was making her look beautiful.”

In fact, Garland and Minnelli began dating (they would wed a few years later and give the world Liza Minnelli). At first it was their secret. When word got out their fellow workers were stunned. In addition to being 20 years her senior, Minnelli was physically unattractive and blatantly effeminate. If he wasn’t gay he was at the very least bisexual.

But for a while, at least, it worked. He gave her a solid, protective father figure. She gave him the family life and sense of normalcy he’d always missed (in fact, Minnelli would wed three times).

Given all this behind-the-scenes drama, Meet Me in St. Louis could have been a stinker. It was anything but.

M-G-M bigwigs initially were concerned because the film didn’t have a major plot point. It was a series of vignettes reflecting a bygone way of life. It takes more than an hour for the screenplay to address the big crisis: the family may have to move to New York City and miss the upcoming World’s Fair in St. Louis.

But none of that mattered. The film was charming, crammed with characters we care about and root for. Its depiction of life in a pre-electric era when people had to entertain each other is affectionate and endearing.

Meet Me in St. Louis was, in fact, M-G-M’s biggest hit up to that time ... there even was talk of doing an entire series of Smith family films. It made a huge star of young Margaret O’Brien (who came close to stealing the movie, but not quite).

As Minnelli biographer Stephen Harvey has noted, St. Louis “exerted an influence on the development of the movie musical which was to last well into the next decade. The attempt to shape an intimate, period chronicle of a ‘typical’ American family in musical terms very soon became a Hollywood commonplace.”

Other films in the series “Vincente Minnelli: A Little Magic”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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