MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS – Blu-ray review

You’d better like the music here because there’s precious little plot to enjoy.

Fortunately, the songs are memorable, the characters charming, and the romance sweet. Together, they’re more than enough to carry the day and make MGM’s 1944 production of “Meet Me in St. Louis” one of Hollywood’s first important modern musicals, one that directly tied its music to the action of the story. In tribute to the film’s stature, Warner Bros., who now own the distribution rights to the film, have issued it in a premium Blu-ray Book package.

MGM released “Meet Me in St. Louis” toward the end of World War II, and audiences welcomed the movie’s nostalgic look at an earlier, simpler, and far gentler time, a setting during the twelve-month period just prior to the opening of the 1904 World’s Fair. Today’s viewers may appreciate the movie’s look at simpler interpersonal relationships and simpler family concerns, too.

The movie centers on the minor conflicts of an idealized American family, the Smiths, living in St. Louis, Missouri, just after the turn of the century. Vincente Minnelli directed it and Judy Garland starred, Ms. Garland twenty-one at the time and appearing in her twentieth motion picture. The director and star would marry the next year. For Minnelli, it was the beginning of an illustrious lineup of films that would include “The Pirate,” “An American in Paris,” “Brigadoon,” “Kismet,” and “Gigi,” among many more. For Garland, the movie was one of the crowning jewels of her young career.

The story involves several related strifes, first and foremost the love life of Ms. Garland’s character, Esther Smith. Esther is seventeen, a high school junior, and in love with the new boy next door, John Truett (Tom Drake). Thrown into this romance is a second one involving Esther’s older sister, Rose (Lucille Bremer), a high school senior, and a college man named Warren (Robert Sully). More important, however, is their father’s plan to move the family from St. Louis to New York City, which the mother and children soundly reject but must accept as the father was the head of the family in those days.

Leon Ames plays the father, Alonzo Smith, in representative fashion–aristocratic, a bit pompous, grumpy, but entirely warmhearted, a typically old-fashioned Hollywood patriarch. Mary Astor plays the mother, Anna Smith, the versatile actress a few years earlier having played the femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, in “The Maltese Falcon.” Her character here is typically understanding, clearly subservient, yet firm in her resolve not to let her husband completely domineer her. Also in the family are Henry H. Daniels, Jr., as the oldest child, Lon, Jr., about to go off to college; Joan Carroll as Agnes, the next-to-youngest daughter; Harry Davenport as the eccentric Grandpa; and Marjorie Main (later of “Ma and Pa Kettle” fame) as Katie, the maid. Finally, there is the actress who practically steals the show, five-year-old Margaret O’Brien as “Tootie,” the youngest member of the family. Ms. O’Brien won a special Academy Oscarette for her performance that year.

The acting is fine, the romances are cute, the family discord easily amended, and Tootie’s adventures on Halloween night harrowing and delightful. But it is without a doubt the music that has made the film a classic. The movie combines older, period tunes with newer songs to make it a notable musical experience. The older songs include the title tune, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” plus “I Was Drunk Last Night,” “Under the Bamboo Tree,” and the elegant “You and I.” The newer songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane are “The Boy Next Door,” “Skip To My Lou,” the now-familiar “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and the showstopping “Trolley Song.”

The big family, the Victorian house, and the contested move to another city may remind some viewers of “Cheaper By the Dozen,” 1950 and 2003, and in many ways it does resemble the older of the two film versions in its gentle manner. But unlike the newer version of “Cheaper By the Dozen,” where a similar family relocation brings chaos and disaster, “Meet Me in St. Louis” never resorts to nonsensical slapstick or mind-numbing exaggeration, nor does it ever try to preach to its audience.

“Meet Me in St. Louis” remains charmingly wistful and appealingly sentimental throughout. It’s a captivating film.

Warner video engineers restored the picture to much of its former glory several years and now present the 1.33:1 ratio film in a dual-layer BD50, MPEG-4/AVC transfer. The Technicolor is often ravishing, rich and deep, with most age spots, flecks, lines, fades, and scratches largely eliminated. The images are fairly sharp, even though WB retained much of the print’s natural grain, and there are only occasional moments of softness in the detail, the picture mostly clear and realistically rendered.

Of some small concern, the color, while rich and deep, is also perhaps too rich and deep, looking darker than real life would dictate. Of greater concern, the color seems to fluctuate in brightness throughout the first half of the film, making it a minor distraction if you concentrate on it too much, as I confess I did.

Remixed from original audio elements, the 5.1 sound is quite good for its age. Using lossless DTS-HD Master Audio to reproduce it, WB manage to get pretty good sound from such an old film, the result a tad hard yet reasonably well spread out across the front speakers, with just a touch of musical ambiance bloom in the rear channels. Missing, as we might expect, is the deepest bass, the highest treble, and the strongest dynamic impact, but, otherwise, practically everything is in place.

WB carry over most of the extras from their two-disc Special Edition DVD set, starting with a five-minute introduction by Liza Minnelli, daughter of the movie’s star and director; and an informative audio commentary by Garland biographer John Fricke, actress Margaret O’Brien, screenwriter Irving Brecher, songwriter Hugh Martin, and daughter of producer Arthur Freed, Barbara Freed-Saltzman.

Next, we find a thirty-minute documentary “Meet Me in St. Louis: The Making of an American Classic,” narrated by Roddy McDowall. After that, there’s a fifty-minute, Emmy Award-winning, 1972 MGM TV special, “Hollywood: The Dream Factory,” narrated by Dick Cavett. Following the special is a forty-seven minute TCM special, “Becoming Attractions: Judy Garland,” that looks at the star’s career through coming attractions for her films. Then, there is a twenty-six minute pilot episode for the 1966 television series “Meet Me in St. Louis,” with Shelley Fabares and Celeste Holm; followed by “Bubbles,” a 1930 WB short film featuring Judy Garland at the age of seven; and “Skip To My Lou,” a rare, 1941 musical short with “Meet Me in St. Louis” composers Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane as part of a singing group, the Martins. Finally, we get an outtake of “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” reconstructed using still photographs; a December 2, 1946, Lux Radio Theater broadcast of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” with several members of the original cast.

In addition to the Blu-ray disc, the set also includes a bonus CD soundtrack sampler that contains “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

The extras conclude with thirty-two scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The two discs come packaged in a premium, hardbound Blu-ray Book, with forty-four pages of pictures and text.

Parting Thoughts:
“Meet Me in St. Louis” may start out slowly, but it grows on you. By the time it’s over, you know you’ve had a good evening’s entertainment. Next to “The Wizard of Oz” and maybe “A Star Is Born,” this is probably Garland’s best-remembered film. Sentimental and nostalgic but most of all genteel and beguiling, “Meet Me in St. Louis” is an acknowledged screen classic and rightly so.

Oh, and the movie early on brings up the question of the city’s pronunciation, “St. Louis” or “St. Louie,” when Esther and a city old-timer (Chill Wills) discuss the subject. He says it’s always been “St. Louie,” but Esther says it will always be “St. Louis” to her because the city is so proper. Of course, if she were right, we wouldn’t have the title tune or the resultant movie. Sometimes, it’s best to think in shades of gray.