The MGM musicals of the 40s and early 50s, often produced by Arthur Freed, as this one was, are among the high points of Technicolor film production, and so they must be represented in a series like this. I’m happy to be showing tonight’s movie, Meet Me in St. Louis, because it is a charming look back at a time, the first decade of the 20th century, that is very distant to us, but which was very real in the memories of moviegoers of the mid-forties. The film reminds us that a lot of nostalgia in the 20th century for earlier days was for the times when new technologies, such as the long-distance phone, were introduced. I haven’t shown many musicals at the library, maybe because I often feel that even the greatest musicals require the audience to pause, and to separate from what is happening on the screen, while the songs and dances are presented. This one, one of the greatest works of its director, Vincente Minnelli, and its star, Judy Garland, is different, to me anyway, because the songs are integral to the progress of the story.
The movie was based on the stories of New Yorker magazine writer Sally Benson, which were based on her childhood in St. Louis. It was written by Irving Brecher and Fred Finklehoffe. It was produced from December, 1943 through April, 1944, and was released in November, 1944. The songs were written by a number of hands, including producer Freed, who wrote the lyrics to the song “You and I” with his long time collaborator, Nacio Herb Brown, who wrote the music. The title song was a period song from 1904 by Kerry Mills and Andrew Sterling, and the two biggest songs, “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” were by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. The film’s Oscar nominations were to George Folsey for best color cinematography, to George Stoll for best music score, and to Martin and Blane for best song (for “The Trolley Song”). The film was named to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry as a film worthy of preservation in 1994. The picture cost $1.5 million to make and it grossed over $7.5 million. Garland, who was twenty-one at the time, had to be persuaded by the studio head, Louis B. Mayer, to take on another teenage role, having made several films playing an adult. George Cukor was to direct, but was drafted into the Army, and Minnelli took his place.
The critic David Thomson wrote, “This is a story with a crisis, and – of course—it is made for audiences in 1944. So it knows a lot about change, progress, the future, and the fears that clothe those states; it knows all the reasons for wanting to stay home, in a preserved world, the one that people left so recently. In…’Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ Judy Garland sings, ‘Someday soon we all shall be together.’ Not quite all, we know that. But the togetherness is so powerful an idea that maybe it can stop American progress in its tracks.” This is a musical, and a story of a family in an earlier, simpler America, but it has its complexities as well. I hope you enjoy watching Meet Me in St. Louis with me tonight.