Warner Bros. // 1944 // 113 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // December 13th, 2011
"We will dance the Hoochee Koochee / I will be your tootsie wootsie"
Based on the real-life remembrances of author Sally Benson, 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis was a huge hit for producer Arthur Freed and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It marked a turning point for the studio, ushered in the golden age of the "MGM musical," and introduced Judy Garland to her future husband, director Vincente Minnelli. It would be eclipsed in popularity by bigger, splashier musicals in later years, but with its memorable music and authentic performances, Meet Me in St. Louis is much more than a footnote in movie history. It's a slice of musical nostalgia that treats its setting with affection and its characters like real people. It may be set in 1903, but with a vivid new Blu-ray transfer, it's just as fresh in the 21st Century.
Meet Me in St. Louis follows a year in the life of one St. Louis family: Mr. Smith (Leon Ames, Mister Ed), his wife Anna (Mary Astor, The Maltese Falcon), son Alonzo (Henry H. Daniels Jr., The Chicago Kid), and daughters Rose (Lucille Bremer, Ziegfeld Follies), Esther (Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz), Agnes (Joan Carroll, The Bells of St. Mary's), and 7-year-old spitfire "Tootie" (Margaret O'Brien, Little Women). While the city anticipates the upcoming World's Fair, Esther pines for the boy next door (Tom Drake, Raintree County), Tootie conquers her fears on Halloween, and the family has to deal with the news that Mr. Smith is being transferred to New York.
Meet Me in St. Louis is my wife's favorite musical. I asked to review it as a favor to her. I've never been a fan of musicals, what with the melodrama and sudden bursting into song. The most I expected from Meet Me in St. Louis was an appreciation of its place in film history, and the fun of sharing the movie with someone who loves it. I didn't expect to end up loving it myself.
Meet Me in St. Louis isn't like most musicals. Where other films treat plot as an afterthought, the music here is an extension of the setting and characters. By combining actual songs of the period with new ones written for the screen, there's just enough reality to make the audience accept the fantasy. Esther and Rose Smith gather around the piano to sing the film's title song (one of the authentic period tunes) because that's what people in 1903 did, just as they threw parties where guests sang and danced to songs like "Skip to my Lou."
The old ditties are fun, but it's the original songs that helped popularize the movie. Even if you've never seen Meet Me in St. Louis, there's a good chance you'll recognize the music. You don't have to be a fan of musicals to know "The Trolley Song" -- whose opening line ("Clang, clang, clang went the trolley") has become shorthand for the genre. The film's other best-known tune is the holiday classic "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which, along with "The Trolley Song" and "The Boy Next Door," hails from the songwriting duo Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. The film even features a song co-written by producer Arthur Freed, "You and I." Combining old and new songs may seem like an odd choice, but it works wonderfully here, creating a strong musical foundation for the family drama.
The vignette structure of Meet Me in St. Louis comes from Sally Benson's original New Yorker articles, adapted for the screen by Irving Brecher and Fred Finklehoffe. Although the film takes place over the course of a full year, the episodes are tied together by several life-changing events for the Smith family, leading up to the opening of the 1904 World's Fair. At the beginning of the film, the elder Smith sisters are engaged in romantic pursuits. Rose has her sights set on a beau in New York, while Judy Garland's Esther is looking much closer to home, to the boy next door. The second half of the film deals with family's impending move to New York. As the family contemplates leaving behind everyone they know, the film takes on a more somber tone, culminating, like It's a Wonderful Life, in an emotional Christmas Eve.
The performances are universally strong, from established older actors Ames, Astor, and Marjorie Main (Heaven Can Wait) -- who plays Katie, the family maid -- to the younger players. When Garland was first approached to be in the film, she refused the role because she was tired of playing young girls. After much prodding, she took the part and gave one of the finest performances of her career. Meet Me in St. Louis allowed Garland to show off the breadth of her acting and musical talents. It also allowed her to pass on lessons learned from her years as a child star to Margaret O'Brien. As youngest Smith sister Tootie, O'Brien steals nearly every scene she's in, so much so that she was given a special Academy Award as an "Outstanding Child Actress." The best of her work comes during the bizarre Halloween sequence, taken from Benson's recollections of the holiday as it used to be: a night where children light bonfires and roam the streets, throwing flour in their enemies' faces in order to "kill" them.
The film is full of historical details. From the costumes to the set design, Minnelli strove for period authenticity. He relied on Benson's recollections to recreate her childhood home as exactly as possible, filled with the same kind of ornate sculptures, wallpaper, and lush fabrics. As the director's first movie in Technicolor, Meet Me in St. Louis is a visual feast, even more so in this new AVC-encoded 1080p Blu-ray transfer. While the film retains the heavy grain of the 2004 special edition DVD, the picture is brighter, and more vivid. Minnelli and director of photography George J. Folsey purposely shot much of the film in soft focus (especially Garland's scenes), so the visual upgrade is more about rich color than razor-sharp detail. The picture is stable, although color has a tendency to fluctuate slightly. The areas in which the picture falls short are largely issues with the way the film was shot, however, and not the transfer itself. While not revelatory, this is the best Meet Me in St. Louis has looked, and the best it probably will ever look.
The audio is presented in a 5.0 DTS-Master Audio mix that focuses most on the front channels. The rear speakers are engaged in subtle ways, adding depth to the musical numbers as necessary. Like the visuals, the lossless mix improves what has always been in the film, rather than trying to add anything new.
When Meet Me in St. Louis was released on a special edition DVD, it came packed with extras. All of those standard-definition extras are back for this Digibook Blu-ray release. Nothing substantial has been added, but given the thoroughness of the last release, it's hard to imagine what more they could have done. Unlike the two-disc DVD, everything has been combined here on one Blu-ray:
* "Introduction by Liza Minnelli" (4:59)
Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli's daughter looks back on her parents, the film, and its legacy.
* Audio Commentary
More film lecture than traditional commentary, this track is hosted by historian John Fricke, whose gentle discussion of the movie is peppered with archival interviews from Margaret O'Brien, screenwriter Irving Brecher, songwriter Hugh Martin, and Barbara Freed-Saltzman, Arthur Freed's daughter.
* "The Making of Meet Me in St. Louis" (30:47)
This Roddy McDowall-hosted documentary explores the film production and release. Highlights include the conflicting versions of how Minnelli got O'Brien to cry during the pivotal Christmas sequence; and Hugh Martin recollecting the original, darker version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that Garland refused to sing -- with lyrics like "Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past."
* "Hollywood: The Dream Factory" (50:31)
This documentary, narrated by Dick Cavett, focuses on the history of MGM and Hollywood's "Golden Age," including profiles of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, a look at the complex social structure designed by studios to keep their stars happy, and the excesses of fame.
* "Becoming Attractions: Judy Garland" (46:10)
This Turner Classic Movies TV special, hosted by Robert Osborne, is a collection of trailers from Garland's major movies: "Everybody Sing," "Love Finds Andy Hardy," "The Wizard of Oz," "Babes in Arms," "For Me and My Gal," "Presenting Lily Mars," "Meet Me in St. Louis," "The Clock," "The Pirate," "Easter Parade," "Summer Stock," "A Star is Born," and "I Could Go On Singing."
* Meet Me in St. Louis 1966 TV Pilot (26:35)
There is a reason this television adaptation was never picked up. Lacking all the charm and style of the original film, this half-hour sitcom is a curiosity at best.
* "Bubbles" (7:54)
This 1930 short is one of the earliest surviving records of Garland on film, as a singing-dancing member of The Vitaphone Kiddies.
* "Skip to My Lou" (3:11)
Martin and Blane's rearranged version of this pop standard goes back to the days when they were part of a singing group called The Martins, as seen in this 1941 "soundie."
The three remaining bonus features all fall under the category "Audio Vault":
* "Boys and Girls Like You and Me"
Before it was cut from the film, this Rodgers & Hammerstein song appeared immediately after "The Trolley Song" sequence. Because footage of the scene no longer exists, it is presented here alongside a collection of rare photographs.
* Lux Radio Theater Broadcast
This hour-long radio play version of Meet Me in St. Louis was broadcast on 12/2/1946, with Garland, O'Brien, and Drake reprising their roles, along with various other actors.
* Music Only Track
The only new bonus features in this Blu-ray set are a 40-page booklet of photos, song lyrics, and liner notes hardbound into the Digibook case, and a bonus CD sampler of the movie's four biggest songs: "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis;" "The Boy Next Door;" "The Trolley Song;" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
Boasting an embarrassment of riches on both sides of the camera, a memorable soundtrack, and lush visuals worthy of the Golden Age in which it was made, Meet Me in St. Louis isn't just a great musical, it's a great film. This Blu-ray release might not add any new extras, but the high-definition transfer is enough reason for the film's biggest fans to upgrade, and make this the definitive version for anyone who doesn't already own this MGM classic.
Not, not, not, not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.0 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1944
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* TV Pilot
* Archival Footage
* Audio Vault