“…Meet me in St. Louis, Louis. Meet me at the fair. Don’t tell me the lights are shining any place but there…
This lyric is heard multiple times in Meet Me in St. Louis and it perfectly sums up the 1944 MGM classic, Meet Me in St. Louis. In a nutshell, the film is about the Smith family and the love they have for each other and their hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Their hometown also happens to be the future home of that year’s World’s Fair. However, Meet Me in St. Louis is so much more. It rightfully deserves to be remembered as one of the great musicals of not only the Golden Age of Hollywood, but of all time.
Meet Me in St. Louis opens in the summer of 1903. The Smith family is seen conducting their day-to-day business. Matriarch Anna Smith (Mary Astor) and maid Katie (Marjorie Main) are making ketchup. Younger daughter Agnes (Joan Carroll) comes in from swimming, crooning “Meet me in St. Louis.” Grandpa Smith (Harry Davenport) is taking a bath. High school aged siblings Esther (Judy Garland) and Rose (Lucille Bremer) come in from a trip downtown. It seems that a new attractive young neighbor, John Truett (Tom Drake) has moved in next door. Esther immediately has a crush on John. I don’t blame Esther for crushing on John, he’s cute, even if he’s kind of a dork. Rose on the other hand, is dating Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully), who has moved to New York (for school perhaps? Or maybe he’s on vacation? It’s not clear why he’s there). Rose is expecting a phone call from Warren. A phone call in 1903 is a BIG deal.
Rose’s phone call is such a big deal that the family is planning their dinner around Warren’s call. It is assumed by Esther and Rose that Warren is calling to propose marriage to Rose. After all, Rose is 18, and in 1903, if you’re not engaged by 18, you might as well be dead. The regular Smith dinner time is 6:30 pm. However, Warren is planning to call at the same time. Dinner has been moved up to 5:30 pm. Patriarch Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames) is not too keen on the change in dinner times and Rose ends up taking the call with the entire gang in the room. Warren finally calls and he and Rose end up having a hilarious conversation with a lot of “WHAT?! I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” The phone call ends with nary a proposal from Warren. Rose may as well become a nun now.
Eldest sibling and brother Lon (Henry Daniels, Jr.) Rose and Esther plan a party for all their friends and to celebrate Lon’s admission to Princeton University. The siblings plan a wild party, complete with roast rabbit, and a rousing song and dance to “Skip to My Lou.” Esther also has ulterior motives at this party. She and Rose have invited neighbor John to the festivities and Esther plans to make her move.
ESTHER: “I’m going to let John Truett kiss me tonight.”
ROSE: “Esther Smith!”
ESTHER: “Well, if we’re going to get married, I may as well start it.”
ROSE: “Nice girls don’t let men kiss them until after they’re engaged. Men don’t want the bloom rubbed off.”
ESTHER: “Personally, I think I have too much bloom. Maybe that’s the trouble with me.”
Esther gives it everything she’s got. She tries hiding his hat in the breadbox to keep him from leaving, she wears her special perfume and she invites him to turn off the lights with her. All she ends up with is returning John’s hat complete with raisins inside and John complimenting her on her strong grip and her perfume that reminds him of his grandmother.
The next day, Esther takes a trolley ride and hopes to see John. The trolley is taking guests on an excursion to the construction site of the World’s Fair that is taking place in the coming year. John misses the trolley, but after a rousing rendition of “The Trolley Song,” Esther is overjoyed to see that John has managed to catch a ride after all. Later that evening, youngest sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) and Agnes go out for Halloween.
Halloween in 1903 is a very strange affair. The neighborhood kids dress up (which is fine) and spend the evening burning furniture and stealing things from the neighbor’s homes. It seems that the stealing is condoned, as it is mentioned that the neighbors specifically set things out to be stolen, on the condition that it is returned. The children also go around playing tricks on the neighbors. Tootie ends up having to confront and throw flour at the “scariest” neighbor, Mr. Burkhoff. She does so to prove herself to the older children.
TOOTIE (after throwing the flour at Mr. Burkhoff): “I killed him!”
TOOTIE (after the kids celebrate her “murder” of Mr. Burkhoff): “I’m the most horrible!”
On the way home from Halloween, Tootie and Agnes tie a dummy to the trolley tracks as a joke. The trolley nearly derails and John helps the kids hide from the angry conductor. Tootie ends up sustaining a split lip and a broken tooth during the affair. When she returns home, she concocts a story about being assaulted by John.
Esther is furious that John would supposedly beat up children and goes over to his home to confront him. She ends up attacking him. John is caught completely off-guard and thinks Esther has just gone off the deep end. Tootie then admits that she made up the entire story and Esther is angry and petrified that she just beat up the guy she likes. This is the least of her problems however when Alonzo comes home with a big announcement.
It seems that Alonzo’s law firm is planning to transfer him (and consequently his family) to New York City. The family is devastated at the idea of leaving their home. Rose and Esther are especially upset, because they are still in high school and will have to leave their respective romances, friends, school, etc. Esther and Rose are also upset when they realize that they will miss the World’s Fair that they’ve been looking forward to for a long time.
Christmas Eve rolls around and the three eldest children are looking forward to attending the annual Christmas Ball. Esther plans to attend with John. It seems that Rose’s paramour, Warren is attending the dance with Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart), a girl he met in New York. Out of revenge, Esther and Rose plan to take the liberty of filling out Lucille’s dance card for her. They plan on filling in all the names of all the losers and bad dancers at the dance. By the time the Smiths get to the dance and meet up with Warren and Lucille, it seems that the plans have changed. At Lucille’s urging, Warren and Rose pair up and Lucille pairs up with Lon. At Grandpa’s behest, Esther ends up taking the bad dance card.
Esther’s dance card perks up however when John manages to get his tuxedo and come to the dance afterall. He and Esther dance their last dance at the ball. The Smiths are planning on leaving St. Louis after Christmas. John proposes marriage to Esther that evening and she is overjoyed and accepts. Later that evening, Tootie is realizing how moving to New York is going to affect her. Esther tries to help Tootie by singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but all this does is drive Tootie to a near nervous breakdown about the thought of leaving everything behind.
Alonzo, seeing first hand how moving is going to affect his family, changes his mind and announces that the family will remain in St. Louis. The family is overjoyed. Warren, apparently overcome by emotion at the Christmas Ball, bursts in:
WARREN: “Rose Smith, we can’t go on like this any longer. I’ve positively decided we’re going to get married at the earliest opportunity and I don’t want to hear any arguments. That’s final. I LOVE YOU! Merry Christmas.”
ROSE: “Merry Christmas.”
ALONZO: “Anna, who is that boy?”
ANNA: “Now Lonny, he’s a very fine young man. We’ll talk about it later.”
GRANDPA: “That young man is so excited he’s liable to leave on his honeymoon without Rose.”
The films concludes with the entire family, boyfriends and girlfriends included, attending the 1904 St. Louis World’s fair, or the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The family looks on at awe at the fountain that was also used in An American in Paris. I feel like this fountain is also in Gigi and Clueless, but I am not sure. For sure it’s in An American in Paris, however. The film ends on a corny, but appropriate note.
ESTHER: “Isn’t it breathtaking John!? I never dreamed anything could be so beautiful.”
ANNA: “There’s never been anything like it in the whole world.”
ROSE: “We don’t have to come here on a train or stay in a hotel. It’s right in our own home town.”
TOOTIE: “Grandpa? They’ll never tear it down, will they?”
GRANDPA: “Well, they’d better not.”
ESTHER: “I can’t believe it. Right here where we live. Right here in St. Louis.”
Meet Me in St. Louis is memorable not only for the memorable songs in the film, but for the effect it had on Judy Garland and her career. By 1944, 21/22 year old Garland was tired of playing the cute teenage girl. She was eager to take on adult roles. Initially, when offered the role of “Esther Smith” in Meet Me in St. Louis, Garland was not happy. Esther was yet another teenage girl. However, director Vincente Minnelli managed to convince Garland to do the film. One of the big things Minnelli did was to hire makeup artist Dorothy Ponedel to do Garland’s makeup. With Ponedel, Garland was given an entirely new, glamorous image. Garland was so happy with how she appeared on screen, that she had her contracts written so that Ponedel was her makeup artist on each film. Minnelli made Garland feel beautiful in Meet Me in St. Louis. Perhaps it was this reason why Garland fell in love and married him.
There are multiple reasons why I love Meet Me in St. Louis. One of the main reasons are the costumes. I love many of the costumes that Rose and Esther wear. Anna wears an amazing multi-colored striped robe toward the end of the film. It is so over the top and gaudy, I love it. I also love the Smith Victorian home. It’s gorgeous. All the rich woodwork and detailed wallpapers are so ornate, but beautiful. One of the best rooms in the entire house is the bathroom. It has a beautiful stained glass feature. I love that the set department paid so much attention to the details in the home.
Another reason I love Meet Me in St. Louis is for Garland herself. Her personal problems are well known and it is well known that they affected her professionalism on this film as well. However, in typical Garland fashion, the audience would have never known of Garland’s personal problems, they do not affect her performance at all. I read somewhere that Garland never showed up to rehearsals to “The Trolley Song.” The day came for the number to be filmed. Everyone was nervous that Garland wouldn’t be prepared and the shoot wouldn’t go off as planned. Garland showed up and boom! nailed the song on the first take.
Meet Me in St. Louis is such a joy to watch. I’ve probably seen it over twenty times and I never tire of it. I love Judy. I love Tom Drake. I love the costumes. I love the songs. I love the Smith home. I love how Tom Drake describes everything as “peachy.” I love Tootie and how morbid she is. I love everything about this film.