The glorious technicolor MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis brought future husband-and-wife Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland together. This collaboration became a six-year-marriage and their daughter Liza, but it was a landmark for the film industry in general, as a key success for the MGM musical as a genre, and for their careers specifically.
Prior to St. Louis, Garland was known to audiences as a typical girl next door type, often paired up with Mickey Rooney as an “ugly duckling” who doesn’t win his heart til the last reel. With this film, Minnelli tasked his team with presenting Garland as a beauty, adjusting her typical makeup design as well as through camera staging. Liza Minnelli points out how often her mother is framed within the camera – in a window pane, in a mirror. This presents Garland to the audience as a work of art, allowing the memory of an “ugly duckling” to fade away and allow this new, more mature, beauty to sink in.
In addition to his bride-to-be’s onscreen presentation, Vincente Minnelli also had to work on Garland’s on-set persona. While a more grown-up beautiful character than she typically portrayed, Garland’s role as Esther Smith was still that of a young woman, on the brink of adulthood – still playing a “girl next door,” albeit a mature one. The story goes, she would play her scenes with a wink, and ditch the lengthy rehearsals midway through – only to be intercepted by a phone call from Minnelli to the MGM studio gate. Venting about this to Mary Astor, an established star playing her onscreen mother, Astor turned the tables back on her, insisting Minnelli “knows what he’s doing. Just go along with it, because it means something.”
The trust paid off. Meet Me in St. Louis opened in November 1944 and earned over $6 million at the box office during its initial release. Even today, the film is a staple on classic movie channels, particularly during the holiday season, and has given us the immortal standards “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It connects to audiences so well for the genuine love the characters share for each other onscreen, while behind-the-scenes a new romance was just beginning.
Special thanks to the excellent audio commentary by John Fricke, available on the DVD, for providing much of the insight into this piece.