This is the Friends’ Christmas movie though technically it is not a seasonal film The plot actually covers the summer of 1903, then autumn, winter and spring. However, the Christmas sequence is one of the most memorable in the film, indeed in all Hollywood. It is full of seasonal tropes and motifs and features the wonderful ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. The film is a musical and one of the classics produced by the M-G-M Studio.
The plot follows the domestic and romantic developments in the household of Mr Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames) and Mrs Anna Smith (Mary Astor). Their family includes four daughters; Rose (Lucille Bremer), Esther (Judy Garland), Agnes (Joan Carroll and “Tootsie” (Margaret O’Brien). There is a single son, Lon Jr. (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.). There is also a youthful Grandpa (Harry Davenport) and a maid with a tart tongue, Katie (Marjorie Main).
The cast are excellent and one of the great pleasures of the film. Judy Garland, in her nineteenth feature, is in her youthful and vibrant mode rather than the darker and more emotional tone of her later years. Her songs are done with accomplishment, especially my favourite ‘The Trolley Song’. Margaret O’Brien, in her tenth film, is a well-practised scene stealer but always entertaining. The story does tend to sentiment but Marjorie Main’s Katie continually inserts a more caustic note. The beaux of Rose and of Esther are not quite as interesting as the girls [neither in Lon Jr.), but this is [among other things] a woman’s picture.
Much of the film is in bright sunshine and vibrant Technicolor. But autumn introduces a darker tone with some fine chiaroscuro. And winter offers both twilight scenes and plenty of snow. The director, Vincente Minnelli, is a fine craftsman and he is a master of musical genre; he would later direct The Pirate (1948) and An American in Paris (1951). Early in his career he was a production designer and Minnelli makes use of splendid mise en scène and has a preference for fine travelling shots. In this he is aided by the excellent craft personnel of M-G-M. The Art Direction is by Lemuel Ayres, Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith; the Set Decorations are by Edwin B. Willis with the costumes designed by Sharaff. They all look and meld beautifully. The cinematography is by George Folsey, who had a long and distinguished career. The Technicolor is excellent and the sequence shots are finely smooth; watch the way the camera handles the opening number, ‘Meet Me in St Louis’.
The screenplay was adapted from a series of short stories by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoff. They have succeeded in blending these into a complete and integrated story. The songs are a medley from many sources including that of the 1904 Great Exhibition with which the film ends. Most of the score was adapted by Roger Edens but clearly also involved Arthur Freed. Freed is the guiding spirit behind the cycle of classic films from M-G-M, of which this is one of the finest.
The film was a major success on release, coming second in the annual box office. It received four nominations in the Academy Awards though it failed to win one. However, since then it has been listed among the American Film Institute’s ‘Greatest American Musicals’ and two of the musical numbers made it into the AFI’s ‘100 years … 100 songs’. It remains a perennial, classic. 113 minutes of pleasure in glorious colour, songs and unrivalled Hollywood production values. Happily the film is screening from a 35mm print so it can be enjoyed in its original format.