Director: Vincente Minnelli
Writers: Irving Brecher & Fred F. Finklehoffe
Cast: Judy Garland
The one thing that is astoundingly clear after watching Meet Me in St. Louis is that Judy Garland was a true star. I realize it sounds trite and obvious to make this kind of statement, especially given her iconic status as one of the best and greatest of cinema, but prior to watching this film I had only seen The Wizard of Oz, and while she is good in it, the film is such a colossal on its own that it’s at times hard to focus on any individual performance. Here, though, the film hinges on Garland and her likability. If we do not immediately take her side, the film risks being about a rich family who complains about its riches, status, and privilege – but in the hands of the inimitable actress, the film is a showcase of the acting and singing abilities of a truly great star.
The story is a compilation of vignettes over the course of the year leading up to the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. A well to do family with four daughters, the Smiths are focused on finding suitors for their two eldest daughters (Garland plays Esther, the second born), keeping the youngest two in check, and keeping the house in operating order, while also focusing on the prospects of moving higher in society’s order, with possible sights set on New York City. That’s pretty much it. They all look forward to the World’s Fair and what it may do for their city, but there are no stakes here other than living locations and romance.
The film starts off strong, and ends well too; the problem is in the middle section. Here the film really drags, a lot! The whole Autumn section of the movie seems like filler, and it’s very awkward and clunky, a tonally dissonant mess. From the bizarre Halloween sequence involving only the younger two sisters to a manufactured misunderstanding that will lead to Esther having a brief and insignificant spat with her paramour, the whole section of the movie is boring and should have been addressed. It’s a low point in an otherwise enjoyable and fun movie musical.
The rest of the cast is somewhat forgettable. The housekeeper is stern but warm and provides a few laughs, the younger siblings are annoying and whiny, the father stern but loving, the mother just loving, the grandpa kind and supportive, the love interests forgettable and bland. As I said, Judy Garland is a star, and her dull supporting cast just highlights this more.
The costumes are great, the attention to detail, sets, art direction, even makeup and hairstyling are quite superb. Often, especially in technicolor movies from the midcentury, things can read on screen to modern eyes as fake looking or overly saturated, but it works in this movie and feels organic to the story.
The music is also very good. From the initial “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” that is sung, hummed, or half-sung by a variety of characters is a great introduction. Other standouts are “The Boy Next Door”, which serves as the ultimate I-have-a-crush song. “The Trolley Song” is iconic even to those, like me before seeing it, who have never watched the movie. And obviously the holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is here, which also happens to be my favorite Christmas song to boot.
The ending of the movie might be predictable, but it’s earned. Judy Garland’s Esther gets the last words and as the movie ends I am taken by how amazing she was throughout the film and suddenly finally realized why people consider her to be such an unforgettable actress and singer. I get it. I finally get it.