Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor
If arguing the great Die Hard debate, rebelling against Saint Nicholas by siding with Krampus under the fairy lights, or hearing Catherine O’Hara scream “Kevin!” for the four hundredth time tickles your tinsel, then a slight change from the rogues’ gallery of festive films could still supply enough nostalgic comfort to put the cream in your cocoa this winter. Aside from hosting one of the more classic Christmas tunes that leaves no eye dry, Vincente Minnelli’s 1940 musical, Meet Me in St. Louis, remains a mother/daughter tradition in my house that can never be skipped in December, under the threat of no brandy trifle from said matriarch.
Judy Garland’s second big break after The Wizard of Oz puts Esther Smith and her siblings through the rollercoaster of large family dramas, social frivolities accompanied by infectious singalongs and melodramatic romances that oozes just enough glowing hyperbole to remind you of its time period. As a kid, I was convinced Minnelli’s first major directing gig ran for over three hours as – at that age – a 40’s family drama/musical wasn’t The Grinch and came as more of a duty to sit through. Nowadays, the runtime has cut by half in my mind and I’m always sorry to see the Smith’s story end.
Based on a book by novelist Sally Benson and her family experiences, St. Louis infuses the airy premise with strong flavours of family bonding and loyalty that are always enhanced around the holidays. With the story broke into four acts – summer, fall, winter and spring – we witness the Smith girl’s long hot summer and their dance with romance featuring the feel-good Trolley Song that on set diva Garland managed to nail in one take. It is still not known how they survived in those curtain dresses. A memorable autumnal act tells us the little-known tradition of children who throw flour into the faces of a feared neighbour on All Hallows Eve, emphasising Minnelli’s talent at saturating each of the four acts with the pertaining seasons defining features.
Minnelli also segregates the Smith family into parents, teens and children to tell their individual stories in the narrative and effectively joins them in their times of need to convey their unity. The parents focus on the responsibilities and well-being of the family, creating a cathartic arc in the story when they threaten their family’s stability by planning to move from St. Louis to New York against their children’s wishes. Meanwhile, the teens focus on their social and romantic status’ and generally remain footloose and fancy-free. The interesting perspective is the children’s, especially the youngest sibling, cheeky Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) who’s mischief is tracked with Minnelli’s low camera angles that allow the viewer to witness her adventures from a child’s height, particularly visible in the Halloween scene.
One year in the life of the Smith family has its laughs, theatrics and singalongs, but the real sucker punch to the feels is the famous scene when Garland’s Esther sings Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas before the family has to uproot and move town. Garland apparently protested for the final line of the song to be removed – as it previously read, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last.” – and while this poignant moment in the film is relevant to that closing statement, Garland thought this was just a touch too sombre.
If by the end of Meet Me in St. Louis you don’t feel festively fulfilled or compelled to interact or reconnect with your family, then you are simply not human and are genuinely missing out on the tenderness that this hidden gem holds. The Christmas sequence is a heartfelt and memorable moment in cinematic history that is renowned for warming each and every heart cockle, even if Garland’s headscarf will constantly remind you of bubble wrap.