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 whose music was directly tied 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 one of their celebrated two-disc Special Editions. It's worth the trouble.
Set in the twelve-month period just prior to the opening of the 1904 World's Fair, "Meet Me in St. Louis" was released toward the end of World War II, and audiences welcomed the movie's nostalgic look at an earlier, simpler, and far gentler time. 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. The movie was directed by Vincente Minnelli and stars Judy Garland, then twenty-one 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.
The father, Alonzo Smith, is played in representative fashion by Leon Ames, aristocratic, a bit pompous, grumpy, but entirely warmhearted, a typically old-fashioned Hollywood patriarch. The mother, Anna Smith, is played by Mary Astor, the versatile actress who a few years earlier had 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 is easily amended, and Tootie's adventures on Halloween night are harrowing and delightful. But it is without a doubt the music that has made the film a classic. Older, period tunes are combined with newer songs to make the movie 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.
The picture has been beautifully restored to its former glory in this new, 1.33:1 ratio digital remaster. Color schemes are ravishing and in this transfer entirely natural, not too bright or too dull. Age spots, flecks, lines, scratches, and such have been eliminated entirely. There is some small roughness to the image, true, a bit of fine grain, and an occasional softness in the detail, but mostly the picture is clear, clean, and realistically rendered.
Almost as good as the restored video is the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, remixed from the original audio elements. The sound is among the best I've heard from an older film, very smooth, reasonably well spread out across the front speakers, with just a touch of musical ambiance in the rear channels. Missing is the deepest bass and the strongest dynamic impact, but, otherwise, every thing is in place; and like the video, the sound is neither too bright nor too dull. The film's theatrical-release 1.0 mono track is also available, but who'd want it? For a film sixty years old, this one has about the best sound and picture one could imagine.
We've come to expect a load of bonus items on these WB Special Editions, and this edition is no exception. Disc one contains the standard screen presentation of the film; a new, 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. In addition, there are thirty-two scene selections; a Vincente Minnelli trailer gallery with trailers from eight of his most treasured films including "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1955 rerelease), "Father of the Bride," "An American in Paris," "The Bad and the Beautiful," "Brigadoon," "Designing Woman," "Gigi," and "The Courtship of Eddie's Father"; a music-only track (without vocals); English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Disc two contains almost as much material as disc one, perhaps more. First, there's a thirty-minute documentary "Meet Me in St. Louis: The Making of an American Classic," narrated by Roddy McDowall. Next, there's a fifty-minute, Emmy Award-winning, 1972 MGM TV special,
"Hollywood: The Dream Factory," narrated by Dick Cavett and presented for the first time on home video. After that 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. Following that is "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; and, lastly, a colorful stills gallery.
"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 classic and rightly so. The Special Edition does it up proud.
Oh, and the question of the city's pronunciation is brought up early on, "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.