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  • Diana Balakirov

The Girl Next Door

Updated: Aug 20

After finding her way back to Kansas in 1939's The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland wanted nothing more than to part ways with Dorothy Gale — the gingham-clad, pigtailed little girl who longed to return to the place she called home — once and for all. Though she had felt ready to take on more mature roles since making her iconic appearance in the beloved classic, Judy often found herself clashing with the powers that be; despite her protestations, it would take Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) several years to transform the wholesome, playful image of the happy-go-lucky girl next door into those of a versatile actress with great emotional depth and genuine vulnerability. Adult roles like 1941's Ziegfeld Girl and 1942's For Me and My Gal were certainly a dance step in the right direction; for a while, it seemed like Judy's dreams of finally growing up would become a reality. But when a proposal to play a lovelorn teenager came her way, the 21-year-old was not impressed.


Printed in The New Yorker between 1941 and 1942 and based on her personal childhood stories and recollections, author Sally Benson's series of vignettes (known as the "The Kensington Stories") was highly appealing in its whimsical telling and depiction of a middle-class family living in the months leading up to the excitement of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, commonly referred to as the World's Fair, in 1904. By the time that more stories were added to the initial eight, transforming the compilation into a full-fledged book, published by Random House in 1942, the heartfelt tale of the Smiths found new beginnings at the hands of MGM film producer Arthur Freed.

 

Though it took a trolley-full of talented individuals, creative resources and financial support to bring Meet Me in St. Louis to the silver screen, the film's artistry received its first breath of life from the man behind the camera. Thanks to his experience in working with costumes and sets, director Vincente Minnelli was already a visionary with impeccable taste, one who could take a forgettable, run-of-the-mill scene and turn it into a masterpiece fit for the ages, by the time his next project assignment rolled around. Having worked on Cabin in the Sky and I Dood It in 1943, Vincente, along with a team of MGM's designers, gained inspiration from the vibrant illustrations of vintage greeting cards while also drawing upon the works of realist painter Thomas Eakins, known for his poignant depiction of people and places set against the backdrop of the early 1900s. The end result — a Technicolor-infused, visual feast — is perhaps the film's biggest draw and one of the reasons for its ranking as the tenth greatest movie musical ever made by the American Film Institute. The second reason, and probably the most important one, is Judy Garland herself.


Judy's lack of interest in playing leading lady Esther Smith was apparent from the very beginning of Meet Me in St. Louis' production. During rehearsals and script readings, she refused to take the role seriously, going as far as to deliver her lines with evident notes of sarcasm and an undisguised sense of apathy. Conversations with Vincente, during which he convinced Judy to understand and believe in the character's world of teenage angst, inner turmoil and small victories, led to her giving her all in a flawless and memorable performance that stands out as a career highlight — truly one of her best works.

 

A festive two-disc special edition released in 2004

Though Meet Me in St. Louis has certainly earned its place in cinematic history, it has also met its fair share of criticism and dislike from audiences — who have brushed the film off as foolish, naive and clearly lacking a plot — over the years. When viewed through a more traditional lens of storytelling, where the leading character must overcome some sort of a trial or tribulation, stand up to an adversary and find a solution to an overarching conflict, the lighthearted musical most likely misses the mark on all counts. But it is perhaps in its simplicity, in its unassuming depiction of tightly knit family members who share in each other's joys, mourn over one another's losses and stick together through thick and thin, without all the cinematic bells and whistles, that the real strength of the story lies.


*Contains spoilers*


As if flipping the page of a photo album, Meet Me in St. Louis transports its audience back to a time and place long gone but still in existence within the confines of their own childhood memories. From the moment we meet and embrace the family that feels so much like our own, regardless of its size, we are welcomed into a home that exists in and out of itself, seemingly unblemished by the outside world and many of its harsh realities. While loving, warm and supportive in every way, Mrs. Anna Smith (Mary Astor) also holds her own as an authoritative figure, managing the daily operation of a large household — and raising five siblings with whom some of us grew up...or wish we had — with the invaluable help of her wisecracking maid, Katie (Marjorie Main), the unwavering devotion of her hard-working husband, Alonzo (Leon Ames), and the amusing antics of loveable Grandpa Prophater (Harry Davenport).


Even as Rose (Lucille Bremer), the eldest of the Smiths' daughters, is eagerly awaiting a long-distance marriage proposal from her beau, Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully), Esther is prominently featured as the romantic lead of the story while setting her sights on next-door-neighbor John Truett (Tom Drake). Strategically placed within the frame of an open window — like a delicately painted portrait come to life — Judy longs for the "Boy Next Door," introducing the first of the three major songs, among many others heard throughout the film, all of which encompass the brilliant stylings of musical director George Stoll.

To call this scene mesmerizing would be an understatement; its creation is by no means a coincidence. It is a love letter of sorts, inadvertently written by Vincente as he provided a canvas for make-up artist Dottie Ponedel to work her magic in front of a camera. Besides making Judy, whose physical appearance had been manipulated by MGM in previous films, feel beautiful, Dottie also gifted the actress with a signature look that would forever change her depiction. Perhaps it is in seeing herself in a different light, thanks to Vincente's efforts, that Judy fell in love both on and off the screen.


By the end of the film's production, following a quickly blossoming behind-the-scenes romance, she and the director had become engaged. Their union was met with a nod of approval from the studio boss himself, Louis B. Mayer, but friends and colleagues had their doubts. And while the oddly matched couple certainly didn't last, the relationship ultimately ending in a divorce by 1951, the tumultuous marriage led to the birth of a star — Liza Minnelli — who would follow in her parents' professional footsteps.

 

Aside from its stunning cinematography, turn-of-the-century costumes and stellar soundtrack, the film continues building upon the relationships and interactions of the Smiths as the focal point of the Meet Me in St. Louis narrative, and it does so extremely well. At the heart of that characterization is the precocious Tootie, played convincingly by seven-year-old Margaret O'Brien, a highly admired, award-winning child actress whose reputation for skillfully shedding tears preceded her. Though the youngest member of the family, Tootie freely speaks her mind, displays a high level of intelligence and spends a fair amount of mischievous energy to remain at the center of all the attention. At a family gathering, one of the earlier highlights of the film, Tootie trades in her rendition of "I Was Drunk Last Night" for the more guest-friendly cakewalk and "Under the Bamboo Tree" duet with Esther, even as Rose and her older brother, Lon, Jr. (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.), provide the rousing accompaniment.


Though Tootie eventually plays a key role in bringing Esther and John together, the two need all the romantic help they can get at the conclusion of the party. Esther's attempts to beguile her unsuspecting neighbor with the dimming of the lights, perfume that reminds him of his grandmother and an intimate moment shared "Over the Banister" are somewhat fruitless but necessary in setting the stage for what's to come next — a visit to the construction site that is slated to become the home of the highly anticipated World's Fair.


When it came time to film "The Trolley Song" sequence, during which a nervous Esther eagerly anticipates a meeting with John, whom she cannot find, Judy Garland was nowhere in sight. Following her rise to stardom at MGM, she had been suffering from the life-altering effects of amphetamines and barbiturates prescribed to her by studio doctors — an ill-advised solution for getting her and many young stars through grueling rehearsal and filming schedules. Prior to and on the set of Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy had made it a habit of arriving late or not at all, sometimes missing weeks of shooting and ultimately causing tension between herself and her co-stars, most notably Mary Astor, who had worked with Judy during 1938's Listen, Darling and previously applauded her consistent work ethic and professional enthusiasm.


Judy's resilience in making it onto the set of one of the most iconic musical scenes ever staged and nail the number in a single take, fueled by her overall miraculous ability in consistently delivering powerhouse performances — despite ongoing health issues and a deeply impactful array of personal problems — makes her a life force to be reckoned with.

While both Esther and John make it to the fairgrounds, the deleted "Boys and Girls Like You and Me" song, unfortunately, does not. Cut from the Broadway production of Oklahoma!, the Rodgers and Hammerstein-penned composition was recorded by Judy for Meet Me in St. Louis, filmed as a transitionary scene with Tom Drake and eventually cut out of the film for reasons of slowing down pacing while adding little development to the storyline.

 

The passing of time, as the 1904 World's Fair draws nearer, is skillfully shown by Vincente Minnelli's subtle transitions between summer, fall and winter. Halloween is marked by old-fashioned traditions that look and feel a bit different, especially in the Smith household, from the more modern rituals of trick-and-treating and consuming frightful quantities of mass-produced candy most of us have come to expect. But the biggest surprise of all is an unusual bonfire scene where Tootie pursues an intimidating but harmless neighbor, a flat-out villain in her imaginative mind, at the insistence of her sister Agnes (Joan Carroll) and the local children — all of whom are acting like hooligans. The group's cruel and uncalled-for prank kickstarts an evening that almost gets Tootie and Agnes in trouble with the law, leads to injuries and nearly causes a rift between Esther and John. It is surprising that this sequence, a bit of an oddity compared to the bright, optimistic and upbeat overtone in the rest of the picture, was kept intact despite the studio manager's failed attempt to remove it. Whatever the reason for the scene's retention may be, the complaint against it is minimal and does not outweigh the magnitude of what comes next.


Alonzo's unexpected decision to relocate the Smiths to New York puts the family's deep-seated bond and willingness to make mutual sacrifices to the ultimate test. While Anna struggles with the thought of leaving behind a home where she and her husband raised their children, and Katie envisions the confines of a cramped tenement kitchen, Esther must bid farewell to the World's Fair and John, with whom she had just shared a first kiss. As the head of the Smith household, Alonzo is baffled by his family's reaction and is at a loss for words. All tensions are quickly resolved, though not easily forgotten, when Alonzo and Anna share a bittersweet moment of remembrance ("You and I"), letting the audience and their loved ones know they will get through this uncertain period of their lives together.

 

Meet Me in St. Louis' joyous and sentimental celebration of the Christmas season, in all of its splendor and festivity, make it an ideal candidate to watch during the holidays. Many events transpire during this time, while several loose ends are also tied between friends, love interests and the Smiths themselves. In true family fashion, tuxedo-clad Grandpa Prophater gallantly offers to escort a dateless Esther to the upcoming Christmas Eve ball, where Warren reunites with Rose and introduces his guest, the warm and engaging Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart), to a smitten Lon, Jr. To the lively tune of a Victorian-style orchestra and past ornately decorated Christmas trees, Grandpa waltzes Esther away from her entrapment of unruly dance partners and into the arms of John, who arrives just in time to declare his love and ask for her hand in marriage. But despite the merriment felt by all during this momentous occasion, the grim prospect of leaving St. Louis for good draws ever-so-nearer.


As the adults of the Smith family grapple with the stark reality of their impending move up north, Tootie's own world is snowed under. Worried as to how she'll be able to bring all of her toys to New York or, more importantly, whether Santa will be able to locate her at her new address, she turns to Esther, who is on the verge of bidding farewell to the boy next door, for consolation. Though the words of comfort imparted by Esther are meant for herself just as much as her younger sister, in their honest and thoughtful delivery, they also speak of longing, reminiscence and regret that make up one's nuanced sense of hope.

After making its debut as Judy Garland's legendary rendition in Meet Me in St. Louis, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has become an American standard, covered by many artists and embraced as a musical staple of the winter season. Yet despite its popularity, the original lyrics penned by composer/lyricist Hugh Martin and his songwriting partner Ralph Blane were as grim and off-putting as the bonfire scene that somehow snuck its way into the film. As it's difficult to imagine a wish for a light-filled heart being quickly extinguished by the unpleasant loss of close friends — seemingly for good — while memories of loved ones are left in the dust in lieu of a champagne cork that feels like it shouldn't be popped, the song's listeners should feel especially appreciative of the lyrically superior version that has graced their screens and radios since 1944.


While Esther's heartfelt sentiment is not completely lost on Tootie, she is clearly inconsolable. Her tear-jerking reaction, marked by yet another brilliant delivery from Margaret O'Brien, makes Alonzo second-guess his plans to tear his family away from everything they've ever known and loved. As the Smiths gather together once again, Alonzo makes a decision that becomes a gift almost as grand and important as the one the Smiths experience at the World's Fair the following year.

 

It's hard to believe that 78 years have passed since Meet Me in St. Louis, a four-time Oscar®-nominated masterpiece that remains every bit as vibrant and fresh today, made its glorious debut. But time flies when you're having fun, and several adaptations of Vincente Minnelli's release had plenty of it, dancing and singing its way into the hearts of musical lovers for generations to come.


While the 1959 and 1966 television remakes attempted to capture the magic of the 1944 masterpiece, a 1989 Broadway production also took a stab at bringing Sally Benson's story to life on the theater stage. And though the Smiths never did find themselves in New York, although the idea of such a sequel had once taken root, their place in MGM's movie history, the literary world and a turn-of-the-century St. Louis is forever cemented at 5135 Kensington Avenue.


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