This is generally considered to be a Christmas movie; I suppose because of the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, but in truth it’s a family movie. It deals with the growing-up problems of the five children of an attorney and his wife over the course of a year from Summer 1903 to Spring 1904, although most of the humor comes from the misadventures of the four girls and the ensuing discussions of same. The dialogue is sharp and a real delight.
In Summer 1903 the family members are introduced: Mr. and Mrs. Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames and Mary Astor) and their son Lon Jr. (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.), their eldest daughter Rose (Lucille Bremer), second daughter Esther (Judy Garland), and the two youngest family members, Agnes and Tootie (Joan Carroll and Margaret O’Brien). The family also includes Grandpa Smith (Harry Davenport) and the live-in maid Katie (Marjorie Main). This summer everyone is already excited about the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (or St. Louis World’s Fair) which doesn’t open until next spring; Esther has a huge crush on the new next-door neighbor John Truett (Tom Drake); Rose is being nonchalant about an expected long-distance call from Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully) in New York, which Esther is convinced will be a long-distance proposal; Agnes is stomping around the house in her bloomers singing “Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie”; and little Tootie is explaining to the iceman, Mr. Neely (Chill Wills), that her doll has four fatal diseases and will soon join Tootie’s other dolls in the backyard cemetery, but in a beautiful cigar box wrapped in silver paper. Everybody in this family is a unique soul with an original outlook on the world; it’s just that Esther and Tootie are even a little more outside the box in this regard. And all the performances are terrific.
About the long-distance call: Papa will have be to lied to in order to get dinner over before the call comes in – God forbid that Rose would have to respond to a proposal with the entire family sitting around listening.
Mrs. Smith cautions the younger girls: “Not a word of this to Papa. He plagues the girls about their beaus.”
Agnes: “Everybody knows but Papa?”
Grandpa: “Your Papa is not supposed to know. It’s enough that we’re letting him work hard to support the whole flock of us. He can’t have everything.”
The film’s screenplay is by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe, based on the book by Sally Benson, who had written about her own family in St. Louis (she herself was the youngest, “Tootie”). Benson later wrote a TV pilot which starred Shelley Fabares as Esther, Celeste Holm and Wesley Addy as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Reta Shaw as Katie, and Morgan Brittany as Agnes. Lon Jr. and Rose were eliminated to keep the story simple for a 30-minute sit-com.
And Mary Astor and Leon Ames would again play mother and father to a houseful of young women in the 1949 version of “Little Women”.
Also in Summer 1903 Esther boards a special trolley car which takes people out to the site of the under-constuction Fair, hoping against hope that John Truett is coming too. He doesn’t show (at first), but she sings “The Trolley Song”. In Autumn 1903 there’s an extended Halloween sequence, mostly showing Tootie’s experiences, and in Winter 1903 Alonzo announces that he has accepted a job with his firm which will take the family to New York, where he will have much more responsibility. An immediate revolution begins, but he digs his heels in, basically saying, “Deal with it.” Now we get “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” which broken-hearted Esther sings to broken-hearted Tootie. And in Spring 1904 the Fair opens with everyone reunited at this amazing, thrilling Exposition: Esther with John, Rose with Warren, and Lon Jr. with Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart). And right here in St.Louis!
The movie was produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincente Minnelli. The song credit is unusual in that it lists the songs, “The Trolley Song, The Boy Next Door, Skip to My Lou, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Words and Music by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.” In the Special Features on Disc 2 Hugh Martin says, “It’s not a score; it’s just three songs.” But he and Ralph Blane had sometime earlier added significantly to “Skip to My Lou”, with additional melody to go with additional lyrics. And while it’s not quite as reclaimed as “Skip..”, they also rearranged “Under the Bamboo Tree” for this film. I don’t think they did anything to Margaret O’Brien’s solo rendition of “I Was Drunk Last Night, Dear Mother.” And Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown wrote “You and I” for Mary and Leon to sing. Even though Freed is doing the singing for Leon, Leon is lip-syncing to perfection, as is Mary to the singing of the unnamed female singer (Wikipedia says it is “D. Markas”). Of course the title song, “Meet Me in St. Louis” is an actual 1904 standard by Andrew B. Sterling and Kerry Mills, a classic before the movie was conceived. And while we all know the chorus (which I thought was all there is) there are 7 or 8 verses, most pretty hysterical, dealing with notes left by various people, instructing the reader to… “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis”.