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Tuesday, June 7, 2022

June 7, 2022: Judy Garland Studying: Meet Me in St. Louis

[June 10th would have been Judy Garland’s 100th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Garland’s performances, leading up to a weekend post on LGBTQ icons.]

On three ways to analyze Garland’s next blockbuster film after The Wizard of Oz (although she made like 8 in between, this being Hollywood in the 1940s).

As I highlighted in this post on the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (also known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition), the hit song “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” was originally written in that historical moment and performed by a number of contemporary artists (perhaps the first recorded version being Billy Murray’s). That means that Judy Garland’s 1944 version of the song (which dropped the second “Louis” from the title) wasn’t just a cover, but could also be seen as a kind of musical historical fiction, commenting on both a song and a historical event and context that were four decades past by that time. The same can be said of the entire 1944 film, of course—while it feels very much like a contemporary musical film, it is instead historical fiction, a representation and reframing of a significant historical event from that 1940s perspective. To name just one example: the trolley on which the film’s most famous song focuses was itself a historic relic, far more central to St. Louis transportation and city life in 1904 than by 1944.

Like most cultural works, however, Meet Me in St. Louis combines multiple genres, and despite starting and ending with sequences set in the summertime (first in Summer 1903 and then at the World’s Fair in Summer 1904), the film can also accurately be described as a Christmas movie. That’s true not only because the central and longest section is set at that holiday, but because the story features the kinds of holiday humor, family melodrama, and “magic of the season” miraculous reversals that have become such staples of that film subgenre. While 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life can be seen as inaugurating the post-war explosion of Christmas films, and certainly to my mind influenced the genre more than any other single work then or since, that film was at best a middling box office success; whereas Meet Me in St. Louis was the second-highest grossing film of 1944 and MGM’s most successful musical of the entire decade. At the very least, Garland’s Christmas musical smash has to be in the conversation as well, and only Clarence Oddbody knows what the genre would look like if it didn’t exist.

If 1903-04 St. Louis and Christmas are significant parts of what’s on screen in the film, the offscreen origin points represent one additional layer to AmericanStudying Meet Me in St. Louis. The film is an adaptation of a series of short stories by Sally Benson, originally published in a 1941-42 New Yorker series titled “5135 Kensington” and then expanded for the short story cycle Meet Me in St. Louis (1942, and named that because the film was already in the early stages of production). Benson, a St. Louis native who was 6-7 during the World’s Fair and who consistently wrote about life in that city, had a surprisingly long and influential career, not only as a writers of fiction but as a screenwriter; while her early work on Meet Me in St. Louis did not end up being part of the final screenplay (and so went uncredited), she would go on to write such films as Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Anna and the King of Siam (1946, for which her screenplay was Oscar-nominated), and Elvis’ Viva Las Vegas (1964) among many others. Given how much Meet Me focuses on precocious and talented young women, not at all limited to Garland’s Esther, it’d be a shame not to include its author in the mix.

Next Garland performance tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Garland works or moments you’d highlight?

1 comment:

  1. From englishteacher (pasted from Monday's post):

    I love Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis, because I'm a sucker for a nondenominational Christmas movie (it wasn't until I read the book I even knew the family was Catholic). It really showcases how well she uses her voice as a strongly tuned instrument with very little actual training other than being forced to over work it constantly. I love her wide eyed innocent throughout the film, entirely an act as she actually called it a "turkey" when she read the script. It's sad her career wasn't allowed to go in a Meryl Streep direction where we could see what she would do with a really dark role. - AMD