Gene Kelly is often credited as the key man in the birth of the modern movie musical of the late 1940s, but Gene himself said he felt the first modern picture musical was released in 1944, starred Judy Garland as she became a woman, and was directed by her soon-to-be first husband, Vincente Minnelli—only his third picture: That charming Technicolor piece of early 1900s’ Americana (based on the book by Sally Benson), Meet Me in St. Louis (available on DVD).
This is the one in which Judy sings “The Boy Next Door” and “The Trolley Song” for the first time, two numbers she would do for the rest of her life: The innocence of these renditions can break your heart and the gusto of the “Trolley” scene is still as wonderful as ever. Minnelli’s evocative, delightful opening musical sequence—starting with Grandpa (Harry Davenport, aged 80 and still agile) singing and humming the familiar refrain (“Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie,/ Meet me at the fair…”) and then introducing all members of the typical mid-Western Smith family singing the same tune in their Currier and Ives home—recalls the dexterity and wit of the very first movie musicals (1929-1934) of Ernst Lubitsch, who started it all. (This acknowledged debt to “the Lubitsch Touch” is echoed in Minnelli’s 1958 Oscar-winning—for Best Picture—Gigi, by the casting of Lubitsch’s four-time leading man Maurice Chevalier.) Gene Kelly also gives due credit for St. Louis to producer Arthur Freed, whose unit—of which this was the first product—was responsible for all the great MGM musicals that followed, from On The Town (1949; directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen) through The Band Wagon (1953; directed by Minnelli).
Meet Me in St. Louis covers a year in the life of the family and its friends as they go about their lives and struggle to remain in St. Louis (instead of moving to New York, which the father feels is a business necessity) because the 1904 World’s Fair is about to open in their beloved town; and besides, two of the daughters are in love in St. Louis! So several holidays are depicted, including Yuletide, with the wholesome and charming “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” There’s even a slightly terrifying Halloween sequence in Mark Twain’s somewhat darker Huckleberry Finn mood, featuring the beautiful, precocious Margaret O’Brien as Garland’s little sister, Tootie, aged six. In fact, the Academy gave her a special 1944 Oscar as “Outstanding Child Actress.” The song and dance number little Margaret does live with Judy Garland—“Under the Bamboo Tree”—is one of the most infectiously joyous moments of freshness in picture history. Notice how protective and delighted Judy is watching Margaret as they go, happily letting her steal the scene away.
The whole cast is terrific: Having played a double-crossing “bad girl” in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) only three years before, the superb Mary Astor shows her amazing versatility and grace as the understanding, reasonable and lovely mother. Marjorie Main does one of her most archetypal roles as the maid who virtually runs the house, perhaps another tip of the hat to Lubitsch, who had just used her memorably the year before in his first color film, Heaven Can Wait (1943). Leon Ames is solid as the father surrounded by women (four daughters, one son) and Tom Drake is very likeably conventional as Judy’s “Boy Next Door.” Growing up, my younger daughter (who’s 40 now) played the videocassette of Meet Me in St. Louis so many times that she now kids herself on the square saying that she thought the whole world would be like this movie. Maybe it was once. When the picture opened in 1944, Variety’s description ran: “…as American as the World Series.”