You've probably heard the song 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,' but you may not know Judy Garland debuted the now-classic Christmas tune in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Although the film doesn't focus exclusively on Christmas (there is a lengthy Halloween sequence, for example), it's become an indelible, must-watch choice for this time of year.
The movie takes place in St. Louis, Missouri, and follows the Smith family's escapades in the year leading up the World's Fair in 1904. Older siblings (Judy Garland, Lucille Bremer, and Henry H. Daniels, Jr.) feel the pangs of first love, while little sisters (Joan Carroll and Margaret O'Brien, who won a Juvenile Academy Award for outstanding child actress in 1944) get up to all sorts of morbid mischief, especially at Halloween. Meanwhile, parents (Leon Ames and Mary Astor) try to keep the chaos to a minimum with the help of Grandfather (Harry Davenport) and the longtime cook (Marjorie Main). There's a handsome 'boy next door' (Tom Drake) who has captured Garland's eye, and plenty of delightful parties, songs, and dances to keep us entertained.
The film is based on a series of short stories written by Sally Benson and published in the New Yorker in 1941-1942 called '5135 Kensington Avenue' based on Benson's childhood in St. Louis in the early 1900s. She eventually published all twelve stories in a book called Meet Me in St. Louis in 1942.
MGM bought the rights to Benson's book, giving the project to musical producer extraordinaire Arthur Freed, who brought in Vincente Minnelli to direct. This was Minnelli's first big movie as well as his first in Technicolor, but already you can see he was well on his way to becoming known as an auteur and one of the top directors of the studio era.
With Minnelli in the director's chair, Freed producing, and access to MGM's resources, it's no surprise that this is a sumptuous musical with gorgeous costumes, musical numbers, and sets. Minnelli even convinced MGM to build an entire street set for this. The studio wanted the movie to shoot on the pre-existing Andy Hardy street, but Minnelli persevered, forcing MGM to build an entire turn-of-the-century locale on the backlot.
As is typical for Minnelli, the art direction and design of the movie is highly detailed, stylized, and striking, reproducing a gauzy but colorful dream version of the film's 1903 setting that fully utilizes Technicolor's range and vividness. (For more on Technicolor design in the mid 1940s, visit my review of Thrill of a Romance (1945).) And just as in Minnelli's later films, he drew inspiration for the look of this movie from the art world. For example, for An American in Paris (1951) he incorporated the style of Renoir, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec, among others, and for Gigi (1958) he looked to French caricaturist Sem, Constantin Guys, Boudin, and art nouveau. But for Meet Me in St. Louis, Minnelli was inspired by Thomas Eakins' soft but vividly colored paintings.
The picture is also notable for some behind-the-scenes drama: Garland and Minnelli fell in love during production and were married in 1945. They worked together on four more movies before getting a divorce in 1951. Their daughter, Liza Minnelli, later said her father's love for Garland shines through in every shot of this movie. Garland does look absolutely stunning, and said this was the first film in which she felt beautiful. She would request the film's makeup artist, Dorothy Ponedel, for every MGM movie she made after.
Beyond the stunning visuals, the movie features several now-iconic performances and classic songs. Garland is beautifully infatuated in 'The Boy Next Door,' and she wows in 'The Trolley Song,' which was such a hit Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer wrote another 'vehicle' song, 'On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Sante Fe' for Garland to sing in The Harvey Girls (1946). But perhaps her most famous number, and the one that brings this movie into the 'Christmas film' category, is 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.'
Hugh Martin wrote the song with WWII soldiers on his mind, which explains its wistful melody and surprisingly poignant lyrics. It's certainly no 'Jingle Bells,' and Martin's original version was even darker than what appears in the film. With original lyrics like 'Have yourself a merry little Christmas/ It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past,' it's not hard to imagine Martin thinking of soldiers far from home.
But when Garland, Drake, and Minnelli heard the song, they thought the lyrics were too depressing, especially because Garland was supposed to sing it to young O'Brien. The family is about to move from their beloved St. Louis to New York (which explains this other discarded lyric: 'Have yourself a merry little Christmas/ Pop that champagne cork/ Next year we may all be living in New York.') They are dreading the change, and the sisters believe this will be their last merry Christmas.
Still, Garland thought the song was too sad. Martin remembered Garland saying, 'If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they'll think I'm a monster.' At first Martin refused to make changes. He told Garland, 'Well, I'm sorry you don't like it, Judy, but that's the way it is, and I don't really want to write a new lyric.' (Martin later explained his initial refusal by claiming he was 'young then and kind of arrogant.') But he was eventually persuaded to re-work the problematic lines, changing 'It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past,' to 'Let your heart be light/ Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.'
But that wasn't the end of Martin's revisions. Frank Sinatra asked Martin to change some more lyrics when he recorded the song for his Christmas album in 1957. Sinatra thought the 'Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow' line was too dark, so Martin changed it to 'Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.' Those are the lyrics most artists record, and the version you'll hear blasting from shops this holiday season.
Garland liked the new version, and she gave a stunning, moving performance, gazing out on a snowy Christmas Eve in a deep red gown with teary O'Brien beside her. It's a wonderful scene in a wonderful movie!
Cameron Howard has loved classic movies since she was a kid checking out VHS tapes from her local library. Today she lives in Durham, NC, and writes about classic Hollywood at The Blonde at the Film.