Vincente Minnelli’s most acclaimed musical, Meet Me in St. Louis is a fresh breath of stale air, a tart ode to nostalgia. Even though the first few minutes linger for the most part on undiluted period details, such as ice trucks and home-bottled ketchup, underneath lies a snub-nosed portrait of a family in crisis. Based off a string of remembrances by author Sally Benson, and centering around the 1903 pre-World’s Fair excitement in the city of the title, the film is an unforced and light entertainment that also casually tackles the occasional universal issue: mutating sex roles within the American family, the oft-crippling nature of tradition and reminiscence, and the temporary nature of home in a world of mechanized transportation (Kensington street is shown dealing with horse-carts perpetually dealing with motorized vehicles and trolleys). (All of this is accentuated by the fact that America was in the thick of taking on both the Eastern and Western worlds.)
The Smith family is facing a crisis of their own: Just as the city is about to stage its grand coming out party on the world stage, Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames), the henpecked patriarch of the family, announces that his job requires that they relocate to New York City. Unfortunately, Esther (Judy Garland) and Rose (Lucille Bremer) are just beginning to make serious gains in their husband hunt. Though it wasn’t the first musical to deal with any the elements of industrial progress or familial discord, it was undeniably one of the most successful. True, much of the credit deserves to go to Minnelli, whose gracefully gliding camerawork is at its absolute best here (the scene in which Judy leads her love interest Tom Drake through the canyon-esque rooms of her house as she turns the gaslights down is an erotic wonder.) But St. Louis‘s true coup is in the seamlessly integrated musical numbers by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, which, by virtue of their relatively spare use (only six or seven full-blown tunes, to most musical epics’ dime-and-nickel), accentuate plot points in a unique and surprising manner.
When daddy Smith informs the family about their impending move and everyone has run to their respective rooms to sob, his wife Anna calmly steps into the parlor to play the love ballad “You and I” on the piano. Though the lyrics of the song refer to the strength of their romantic relationship, they also become a clarion call, reminding the Smiths (who return from their grieving to listen in respect to their mother’s song) of the need for family bonds. Likewise, the standard “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” actually reveals itself to be a bitterly ironic lament for the unreliability of everything, even the holiday spirit. Because of its modern take on the seductive but naïve binds of nostalgia, Meet Me in St. Louis remains one of the most vital of musical films.
Utilizing the same ultra-resolution digital restoration process that made their special edition of Singin' in the Rain one of the most eye-popping DVDs ever released, MGM has given Meet Me in St. Louis new life here. A sparkling print that looks fresh from the developers and, even better, doesn't have an overbearing Technicolor garishness. Colors are plenty strong but remain in firm check; it's cake, not frosting. The three sound mixes are also wonderful. The audiophiles will no doubt choose the tasteful and rich 5.0 remaster, but the alternate original mono mix makes a great case for purism. There's also an isolated music track that sounds nearly flawless. This disc belongs in the highest echelon of golden age transfers.
Looking as spiffy as it does, I'm guessing that you'll only want to dig into the extras after watching the film three or four times. Only then will you come to realize that this two-disc set is even more jam-packed with extra features than the Singin' set was (though there's nothing quite as distinctive as the collection of clips featuring that film's songs in their original cinematic incarnations). On the first disc is a full commentary track, mainly by John Fricke (who's obviously reading from his very well-prepared set of note cards) with interjections from Margaret O'Brien, Hugh Martin, Irving Brecher and Barbara Freed-Saltzman. If it's understandable that "Merry Little Christmas" needed some time to separate itself from its ironic context in the film to become a holiday favorite, wait until you hear Fricke sharing the original lyrics for the song, which are flat-out morbid. Filling out the last bits on the first disc is a massive (but, as it leaves out The Band Wagon, hardly complete) collection of Vincente Minnelli trailers. Now, onto the second disc. There are three-count 'em, three-short documentaries. One 30-minute look specifically at the making of St. Louis, which is as concise as it is informative. Then there's the hour-long MGM gush-fest we all remember from occasional showings on PBS, Hollywood: The Dream Factory. Finally is TCM's 45-minute look at the career trajectory, such that it was, of Judy Garland. You've got your deleted songs, your radio adaptations, your archival clips, and your stills gallery. The truly above-and-beyond addition to the package is the hilariously campy pilot for a 1965 attempt at turning the film into a television series, with Shelly Fabares pouting in Garland's role, Celeste Holm slumming as the mother, Mary Poppins's grouchy maid Reta Shaw as Katie, and the scarily robotic and epitomatically gay-faced Michael Blodgett (who I'm convinced was an early prototype for A.I.'s Gigolo Joe).
"Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past."