Wednesday, 16 December 2015

12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS FILMS | Day 3: "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) tells the story of the Smiths, an upper-middle class family living in St. Louis, Missouri at the turn of the century. The family consists of father Alonzo (Leon Ames); mother Anna (Mary Astor); two teenage daughters, Rose (Lucille Bremer) and Esther (Judy Garland); two younger daughters, Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margaret O'Brien); one teenage son, Lon (Henry H. Daniels); one grandfather (Harry Davenport); and one maid (Marjorie Main). Lon is preparing to leave to Princeton; Rose is anxiously awaiting a long-distance call in which she hopes to be propose to by Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully); Esther is infatuated with the boy next door, John Truett (Tom Drake); and Tootie and Agnes occupy themselves by burying dolls.

The film is divided into four sections, each covering a season during a yearlong period from 1903 to 1904. Summer finds the Smith family eagerly anticipating the 1904 World's Fair, which is to take place in St. Louis. At the Smiths' house party, Esther gets to meet John properly, although her chances of romancing him do not go according to plan. Autumn covers Tootie's frigthening experience on Halloween, during which she returns home injured and claims that John attacked her. Without bothering to investigate the incident, Esther confronts John, physically attacking him and scolding him for being a "bully." When Tootie confesses that John was actually just trying to protect her after a prank she and Agnes pulled went wrong, Esther apologizes to John and they share their first kiss. Winter brings an elegant Christmas ball, during which John and Esther become engaged, and the crushing news that Mr. Smith has been offered another position in his firm's New York office (which, to the relief of his family, he eventually declines). Finally, Spring shows the entire Smith family on the opening day of the long-awaited Fair, gazing at the thousands of lights illuminating the grand pavilions.

Esther Smith: Meeting him across the lawn for the first time would be so ordinary. I don't want to be just introduced to him. I want it to be something strange and romantic and something I'll always remember.

The story of the Smith family and their adventures during the year leading up to the 1904 World's Fair first reached the American public in a series of vignettes written by Sally Benson for the New Yorker magazine. Published under the title 5135 Kensington between June 1941 and May 1942, these sketches were based on Benson's recollections of growing up in a large St. Louis family and recounted "a bygone era of Friday night Whist clubs and suitors making their intentions known with ten-pound boxes of Page and Shaw candy." Benson's original eight vignettes, filled with nostalgic charm, proved to be so popular with the war-weary readers of the early 1940s that she decided to collect them in a book, which included four additional stories, making a total of twelve each chapter representing one month out of the year.

Captivated by one of Benson's stories, "5135 Kensington, March 1904," screenwriter Fred F. Finklehoffe sent a copy of the vignette to his friend Arthur Freed, a songwriter and producer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Freed read the Kensington piece and became equally enchanted. He telephoned Kenson immediately to make "a deal for the property" and bought it at the flat rate of $25,000. Freed believed that Benson's charming stories, although "slight and essentially plotless," had the makings of a heartwarming musical that would incorporate popular songs of the period, such as the 1904 Andrew B. Sterling and Kerry Mills standard, "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis," which would inspire the film's title. With a musical in mind, Freed naturally hoped that the material could be shaped into a vehicle for his brightest star, Judy Garland.

Margaret O'Brien and Judy Garland
Freed originally wanted George Cukor to helm Meet Me in St. Louis, but the director was soon mobilized into the war effort, which unabled him to work on the film. Freed then approached newcomer Vincente Minnelli, whom he had brought to MGM in 1940. Although his first two pictures, Cabin in the Sky (1943) and I Dood It (1943) had been successful, Minnelli had not yet solidified his reputation with Hollywood's most powerful studio. Minnelli had little experience for such a large-scale musical, but Freed was confident that he would do a good job.

It was not difficult to persuade Minnelli to direct Meet Me in St. Louis, as he found the book's evocation of a bygone era "affective, humorous and warm," despite its highly sentimental nature. What appealed to him the most about Benson's stories was one mischevious sequence set during Halloween involving the Smith's two youngest daughters, which had a "dark, even malicious" tone for the kind of nostalgic musical Freed was envisioning. "The burning of feet and slashing of throats they envisioned, almost a wistful longing for horror wasn't the sweet and treacly approach so characteristic of Hollywood," Minnelli said. "This was the type of fantasy that real children, raised as the grimmest of Grimm's fairy tales, would have." As an artist, Minnelli saw great possibilities for endowing the story with additional color and emotion. After a second reading of the book, Minnelli told Freed that he would be glad to direct the film.

In attempting to inject some conventional plotting into Benson's "wistful nostalgia trip," some of the original screenwriters went too far. One misguided treatment even featured the teenaged Esther finding herself involved in a kidnap and blackmail scenario that seemed more appropriate to a film noir than a musical. Since, as Minnelli said, that was "hardly the stuff of which lyrical evocations of an era are made," Freed decided to hire Finklehoffe and his collaborator Irving Brecher to write a new draft of the screenplay. They started from scratch and restored the whimsical, homespun qualities of the original narrative, giving life to episodes that Benson had only alluded to, such as a sisterly cakewalk, a ride on the trolley and a Christmas Eve cotillion. By July 1943, Finklehoffe and Brecher had constructed a simple but charming story out of a short episode in the book the imminent transfer of Mr. Smith to New York and the effects of this seemingly traumatic move on each member of the three-generational family.

Mary Astor and Judy Garland
Although Meet Me in St. Louis had been written with Judy Garland in mind for Esther Smith, the actress had to be talked into doing the picture. At age 21, Garland intended to move into more adult roles, similar to the ones she had recently played in Busby Berkeley's For Me and My Gal (1942) and Norman Traurog's Presenting Lily Mars (1943). She felt that playing another adolescent character would be a career setback and bluntly told MGM chief Louis B. Mayer that she would not do it. Determined to have Garland star in Meet Me in St. Louis, Freed argued that the character was not a silly juvenile, but a beautiful young woman whose varied emotions would certainly turn the film into something very special and unique. Although Mayer concurred with Garland's notion that the film had no plot, he also knew that Freed's track record at MGM thus far had been excellent. Ultimately, Mayer decided to give Freed the benefit of the doubt and told Garland that she would be assigned to star in Meet Me in St. Louis whether she liked it or not.

To play Garland's youngest sister Tootie, a character based on Benson herself, MGM selected one of their greatest assets at the time, Margaret O'Brien. At the tender age of seven, O'Brien had already proved her great talent an actress, playing complex and challenging roles in films such as Journey for Margaret (1943) and Jane Eyre (1944). Making her screen debut in Meet Me in St. Louis was Lucille Bremer, who was handpicked by Freed to play Rose, the eldest Smith daughter. Bremer had began her career as a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall in New York and was appearing in the Broadway musical Panama Hattie when Freed discovered her and put her under contract to MGM. According to Minnelli, Freed felt that Bremer had the makings of a major star; unfortunately, after she co-starred Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), MGM lost interest in her and two years later she made the decision to leave the film industry

The Smith house on the St. Louis street set
A perfectionist, Minnelli wanted every detail in Meet Me in St. Louis to accurately reflect its turn-of-the-century setting. MGM suggested that Minnelli use the already existing Andy Hardy street on the studio back lot as the Smiths' neighborhood, but the director convinced Mayer to let him build a whole new St. Louis street. Instead of building separate sets, one for each room in the Smiths' home, with breakaway walls to facilitate camera movements, Minnelli decided to shoot on a continuous set that would be constructed like a floor of a real house with interconnecting rooms. As far as the visual look of the film was concerned, Minnelli felt that Meet Me in St. Louis should have the look of a Thomas Eakins painting and asked art director Preston Ames to evoke "vividly and nostalgically" the city of St. Louis in the early 1900s. On Metro's Lot Number 3 were then built the detailed façades of eight imposing Victorian houses, each surrounded by a lush lawn and carefully manicured shrubs and flower beds.

Since the story of Meet Me in St. Louis corresponded to a year in the life of the Smith family, Minnelli decided to divide the stucture of the film into four seasons, each with a strong stylistic impact. To that end, he introduced each segment by presenting the Smiths' house at 5135 Kensington Street as "a lovely filigreed illustration," in the style of the greeting cards of the era. Each card would then dissolve into a live-action shot of the house as it stood at each given season: Summer introduces the Smith family and the central conflict f the story; Autmun contains the Halloween sequence; Winter show the bittersweet Christmas; and Spring concludes the film with a family celebration at the opening of the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.

Judy Garland and Tom Drake
Before Meet Me in St. Louis began production in early December 1943, Garland was sent to MGM make-up artist Dottie Ponedel, who set about transforming her look. Ponedel started by getting rid of Garland's teeth caps and the rubber discs she inserted into her nose to change its shape. Then, it was just a matter of enhancing the natural beauty that was already there. "I raised her eyebrows a bit, and gave her a fuller lower lip," Ponedel explained. "I put on a make-up base that was pretty to the eye. I knew it would be pretty to the camera too. I tweezed out some of the hairline." Garland was so pleased with the results that she made sure to use Ponedel from then on as her make-up artist on every film she made for MGM.

Garland may have been happy and more confident with her new look, but she still was not pleased about making Meet Me in St. Louis. She was unable to completely relate to the story and did not take her role very seriously at first. Once before the camera, she began reading her lines in a way that mocked what she perceived to be the "trite, juvenile aspects" of Brecher and Finklehoffe's script. On the first day of filming, Minnelli noticed that Bremer was doing a better job than Garland because she understood her role better and delivered her line with wholehearted sincerity. At that point, Minnelli told Garland, "I want you to read your lines as if you mean every word." Garland complied, but she felt that his "cryptic direction" was not providing her with the guidance she needed. When Garland discussed Minnelli's unconventional approach with co-star Mary Astor, who had previously played her mother in Listen, Darling (1938) and whom she referred to as "Mom," the veteran actress responded, "Judy, I've been watching that man and he really knows what he's doing. Just go along with it, because it means something."

Minnelli and Garland on the set
As shooting progressed on Meet Me in St. Louis, however, Minnelli and Garland realized that they were falling in love. "I found Judy's self-deprecating wit disarming," Minnelli later said, "and the vulnerability she disguised with it all the more touching. Like everyone else at the studio, I wanted to protect and love her. And Judy was affectionate and loving right back." They had their first date towards the end of shooting with another couple and began seeing each other exclusively soon afterwards. By the time Meet Me in St. Louis finished principal photography in April 1944, they were living together. Minnelli and Garland were eventually married in June 1945 and welcomed daughter Liza, who went on to win an Academy Award for Best Actress for Cabaret (1972), in March of the following year. Before their divorce in 1951, they worked together in The Clock (1945), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), the aforementioned Till the Clouds Roll By and The Pirate (1948)

Meet Me in St. Louis had its world premiere in St. Louis, Missouri on November 22, before opening at the Astor Theatre in New York on November 28, 1944 to critical and commercial acclaim, breaking box-office records across the country. TIME called it "one of the year's prettiest picture," praising it for having "a good deal more substance and character than most musicals." The Hollywood Reporter deemed it "a warmly human entertainment which has captured a nostalgic charm rarely if ever equaled on the screen." In addition, Variety said that the film "is wholesome in story [...], colorful both in background and its literal Technicolor, and as American as the World's Series." For his part, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times described it as "a warm and beguiling picturization based on Sally Benson's memoirs of her folks. [...] As a comparable screen companion to Life With Father, we would confidently predict that Meet Me in St. Louis has a future that is equally bright. In the words of one of the gentlemen, it is a ginger-peachy show."

Opening night at the Astor Theatre in New York
At the 17th Academy Awards held at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood in March 1945, Meet Me in St. Louis received nominations for Best Cinematography (Color), Best Original Score, Best Original Song (for "The Trolley Song") and Best Adapted Screenplay. Additionally, Margaret O'Brien won a special Academy Juvenile Award as the Oustanding Child Actress of 1944. In the end, Arthur Freed and Vincente Minnelli had been right and everyone else had been wrong: Meet Me in St. Louis had not only succeeded, it had triumphed. One of the first to admit error was the initially reluctant star Judy Garland. After attending an early preview of the completed film, she reportedly told Freed, "Arthur, remind me not to tell you what kind of pictures to make."

Although only the climactic scenes of its year-long story span focus on the winter holiday, Meet Me in St. Louis has always been a regular on lists of "Favorite Christmas Movies." The reason for that is undoubtedly Judy Garland's emotional and unforgettable delivery of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane's composition "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to Margaret O'Brien, who is distraught at the prospect of leaving her beloved hometown. The song was written while Martin was vacationing in a house in Birmingham, Alabama that his father had designed for his mother as a honeymoon cottage. The initial lyrics as penned by Martin went: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past / Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Pop that champagne cork / Next year we may all be living in New York." 

When presented with the original draft, Garland, Minnelli and Tom Drake (who replaced Van Johnson as Esther's sweetheart John Truett) deemed the song too depressing and asked Martin to rewrite the lyrics. Although he resisted at first, Martin made several changes to soften the dark tone of the song: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Let your heart be light / From now on our trouble will be out of sight / Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Make the Yuletide gay / From now on our troubles will be miles away." Garland's version of the song, which was released as single by Decca Records, became hugely popular among American troops serving in World War II. In fact, her performance at the Hollywood Canteen is said to have brought many soldiers to tears.

A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli by Mark Griffin (2010) | Casual Affairs: The Life and Fiction of Sally Benson by Maryellen V. Keefe (2014) | Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clarke (2001) | Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Green (1999) | Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood's Dark Dreamer by Emanuel Levy (2009) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review

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