Released in 1944, Meet Me in St. Louis was director Vincente Minnelli’s first big hit, and it showcases two of Minnelli’s prime obsessions: The glittering Technicolor musical and the romantic melodrama. Set in turn-of-the-century St. Louis, it tracks a year in the life of the Smith family, which is enthusiastically anticipating the 1903 World’s Fair. It’s not Minnelli’s best musical; The Bandwagon is more antic fun and has better songs, and the ballet of An American in Paris remains his best-choreographed, most engaging film. But the home-and-hearth feel of St. Louis has its own warm enchantments, and it’s one of Judy Garland’s best performance this side of A Star is Born.
It’s best not to concentrate too hard on the plot itself, which mainly circles around Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames), the family patriarch, threatening to move the family from St. Louis to New York City. This causes much handwringing amongst the family members: Esther (Garland), Rose (Lucille Bremer), and Tootie, played by child star Margaret O’Brien, who pulled down an Oscar for her precocious performance. If the dialogue seems stilted and square today – Esther wonders where, oh where could Mr. Truitt’s chapeau have gone off to, and those newfangled telephones are such a bother – the Technicolor style works wonderfully, particularly in the period dresses that puff and flounce through the Smith household.
The true magic, though, is in the ‘Trolley Song’ sequence, one of American musical film’s finest moments: Garland pulls off the neat trick of simultaneously playing the shy girl new to love, and the showstopping chanteuse. Close readers of the movie argue that St. Louis has much to say about America’s transition from the 19th century to the 20th, and how social mores transformed in that time. But Minnelli doesn’t make much of that, except argue for a meat-and-potatoes Midwestern conservatism – the grand climax is about staying where your roots are and enjoying the simple pleasures of Christmas stockings and a kiss from the boy next door. In other words, the stuff that Minnelli would work to subvert in his later movies like Some Came Running and Home from the Hill, and the stuff Garland would work to annihilate in her own private life.
Ready to meet when you are.