If you find comfort in nostalgia, you can get a double helping in this month’s News-Gazette Film Series offering, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” starring Judy Garland, set for 1 and 7 p.m. Nov. 21 at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign.
Not only does the 1944 film take you back to the heyday of MGM color musicals, but it also takes a fond look back itself at the period of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, better known as the St. Louis World’s Fair.
Actually, there’s very little of the fair itself in the film (and nothing at all of the Olympic games held in St. Louis at the same time). Most of the story takes place in the summer, fall and winter of 1903 in and around the home of the Smith family.
People talk about preparations for the fair, but the main concerns revolve around the two oldest Smith daughters, Mary (Lucille Bremer) and Esther (Judy Garland), actively looking for husbands and the decision of their father, Alonzo (Leon Ames), to move the family to New York City (thereby jeopardizing his daughters’ immediate marital plans).
Eldest offspring Lon (Henry H. Daniels Jr.) also experiences romantic complications, and Halloween and Christmas scenes involve the family’s youngest daughter, Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), in some odd adventures that introduce strangely dark undertones to the otherwise-sunny film.
The nostalgia factor weighs in with scenes of technology and society in transition, which many in its 1944 audience would have remembered from 40 years earlier.
The Smiths and their friends travel in horse-drawn carriages, but electric trolleys and a few automobiles also ply the streets. The family home has both electric and gas lights (even in the same chandelier).
And the family tries to have dinner early when Rose’s beau plans to call her long distance from New York in the evening; they assume that, because long distance costs so much, he’s surely going to propose.
Nostalgic musicals were a staple of 1940s film entertainment, harking back to earlier, better times while World War II made the present look grim. This sort of period family comedy (which provided our men in uniform with a sentimental portrait of what they were defending) was already familiar to viewers from popular plays such as “Life with Father.”
“Meet Me in St. Louis” is based on Sally Benson’s series of autobiographical short stories from the New Yorker and subsequent 1942 novel. Benson was the original of the film’s 5-year-old Tootie, although her older sister, Agnes, was the real-life perpetrator of some of Tootie’s deeds.
Benson did not script this adaptation, but she did write some memorable screenplays herself, including a darker vision of middle-class American family life in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943) and very different sorts of musicals in “Viva Las Vegas” (1964), starring Elvis Presley, and “The Singing Nun” (1966). Her screenplay for “Anna and the King of Siam” garnered an Oscar nomination.
Judy Garland sings several songs, some of which became signature tunes at her live concerts.
“The Trolley Song” earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Song, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has become a general seasonal favorite; both appear on the American Film Institute’s list of the hundred best film songs — at 26th and 76th place, respectively.
Director Vincent Minnelli (born and raised in that great Italian city of Chicago under the name Lester Minnelli) had directed Broadway musicals previously but had only begun directing films the year before with the fanciful musical “Cabin in the Sky.” He already demonstrated a complete mastery of his new medium, though. Minnelli worked in various genres but was famous chiefly for his success with musicals (including “An American in Paris,” “The Band Wagon” and “Gigi”).
Garland had already appeared in more than 25 films by this time, including “The Wizard of Oz,” and truly shines in this role. (The following year, she and Minnelli married, he for the first time and she for the second.)
“Meet Me in St. Louis” received Oscar nominations for Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Song and Scoring for a Musical. It did not win any but nonetheless remains better known and more appreciated than the presidential bio-pic “Wilson,” which won five Oscars that year. As an evocation of idealized late 19th/early-20th century Midwestern middle-class family life, it has no parallel.
Of course, its prominence as a film led to adaptations in other media. A remake appeared on live TV in 1959 with Jane Powell as Esther, Walter Pidgeon and Myrna Loy as her parents and Tab Hunter as her beau.
A non-musical TV pilot with a script by Benson aired in 1966 but was not picked up as a series. A Broadway musical based on the film garnered Tony nominations in 1989 for Best Musical, Book of a Musical, Original Score and Choreography.