Five years on from The Wizard Of Oz and Judy Garland was singing her heart out about love, as were a good few of her sisters who wish to be betrothed. Released in 1944 but set at the turn of the century and initially seven months before the World’s Fair takes place, Meet Me In St. Louis is mostly based around Esther (Garland) and Rose (Lucille Bremner) and their romantic adventures, though the two youngest daughters, Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) Agnes (Joan Carroll) get a decent amount of screen time too and provide a lot of the laughs.
The film’s basically a series of vignettes set in different seasons as the family attend parties and lark about in general, while Esther lusts after the boy next door John Truett (Tom Drake) and Rose (Lucille Bremer) hopes that Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully) will propose to her, though is disappointed when he fails to. And then it looks like their hopes of romance are going to be dashed when their father (Leon Ames) announces that he’s got a new job in New York and they’re all to move there after Christmas, and all are horrified.
The lack of a strong narrative isn’t an issue in the slightest as so many of the scenes are delightful, and all of the songs (a mix of originals and classics) are beautifully performed. As mentioned above the kids provide a lot of the humour, with Tootie performing a song called “I was drunk last night mother” and when the maid Katie (Marjorie Main) jokes about kicking the family cat down the stairs Agnes believes her and responds “If you’ve killed her I’ll kill you I’ll stab you to death in your sleep and then tie you to two wild horses until you’re pulled apart”, which may be a slightly over the top reaction but a very funny one.
There’s also a quiet unusual sequence set at Halloween where Tootie and Agnes dress up and join the other kids on the street who have started a small fire, gossip about a local man who allegedly burns cats in his furnace and beats his wife with a red hot poker (and most shockingly of all has empty whiskey bottles in his cellar!), and go around “killing” people by throwing flour in their faces. It feels slightly out of place in the context of the movie but as it’s such a mad scene I’m not complaining, and it made me laugh a lot in general. Also pretty damn amusing is Rose and Esther’s plan to monopolise the men at the party held by Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart), Agnes’s hope that Rose has got her a hunting knife for Christmas, John’s reaction to being beaten up by Esther, Garland all but sobbing through the line “Oh John I don’t hate you, I just hate basketball”, and also being subjected to some some terrible dancing at Lucille’s party. It might be partially a rom-com but it’s also a quirky family comedy with the occasional glimpse of drama, and not what you might expect from a film made in the nineteen forties at all.
It contains an incredibly memorable selection of characters from the grumpy father (who at one point exclaims “Tootie, remind me to spank you right after dinner”) who always backs down and clearly loves his family really, to Garland’s spunky Esther who bites the one she loves after believing one of Tootie’s lies, while Harry Davenport is majestic as Grandpa, saving the day at a party where Garland is devastated that John can’t attend. Meanwhile Tootie may only be five years old but she’s beautifully acerbic, Agnes delivers some killer jokes, and the various men they attempt to seduce also provide stalwart support and are very likeable.
It’s politics might be a tad dodgy, it’s an era where if a woman kisses a man before she’s engaged to him she’s considered something of a slattern, and there are no cast members of colour at all, but it’s a product of it’s time and so perhaps shouldn’t be criticised for such things. The main thing is that all of the songs are alluring, it’s a joy to spend just under two hours in a more innocent time (well, on screen at least, in real life things were obviously hellish), the script is witty, the characters lovable, and it also contains a genuinely upsetting snowman massacre, and what more could you want from a film than that?