Judy Garland made more than 30 films during her legendary career, and although 'The Wizard of Oz' will forever top her cinematic résumé, the beloved Garland was never more beautifully photographed or contributed a more natural, winning performance than in 'Meet Me in St. Louis.' One of the all-time classic musicals, this sumptuous slice of Americana continues to warm the heart and thrill the senses almost 70 years after its initial release. Director Vincente Minnelli artistically weaves together a tender, simple story, melodic and often exhilarating songs, and the glorious Technicolor palette to create an unforgettable masterwork.
The achievement, however, becomes magnified when one takes into account Minnelli's relative inexperience at the time. 'Meet Me in St. Louis' was only the director's third feature film, causing even Garland, who was far from enthusiastic about her proposed role, to initially question his abilities. At age 21, the actress stubbornly resisted being cast as 17-year-old Esther Smith, a plucky ingénue who wistfully pines for the boy next door. Garland was sick of playing awkward teenagers, and felt 'St. Louis' might sabotage the strides she already had made toward mature roles. Yet studio pressure forced her to acquiesce, and after a few days of shooting, Minnelli won her respect and, shortly after, her love. The two would be married the following year, and 'Meet Me in St. Louis' would become MGM's biggest moneymaker since 'Gone with the Wind.' For Garland, 'St. Louis' was an instant personal triumph, and Esther Smith, along with Dorothy Gale in 'The Wizard of Oz' and Vicki Lester in 'A Star Is Born,' remains one of her most memorable and acclaimed screen roles.
With charm and insight, the film chronicles a year in the life of the Smith family and their common middle-class existence in turn-of-the-20th-century St. Louis. With anticipation at a fever pitch over the upcoming 1904 World's Fair, father Alonzo (Leon Ames) drops a bombshell by announcing he's accepted a promotion that will force the Smiths to move to New York City. The family, which in addition to Esther includes Mrs. Smith (Mary Astor), eldest daughter Rose (Lucille Bremer), son Lon (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.), and youngsters Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margaret O'Brien), balks at such upheaval, especially Esther, who's crushed at the prospect of ending her blossoming romance with John Truitt (Tom Drake). But soon everyone accepts the inevitable and prepares to leave idyllic St. Louis.
Although the plot is practically threadbare, writers Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe draw us into the story and keep us involved by making the Smiths reflect the dynamics and foibles of a typical American family. It's impossible not to identify with the squabbles and bickering, playful ribbing, and deep sense of loyalty and love that pervade the Smith household. Such timeless themes of home and family packed a powerful punch during World War II, and still resonate today. (In fact, when Garland earnestly recites the film's last few lines—"I can't believe it. Right here where we live! Right here in St. Louis!"—the sentiment so blatantly echoes 'The Wizard of Oz,' one almost expects Garland to add, "Oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like St. Louis!") Thankfully, the script's light comedic flair keeps sappiness at bay most of the time, and although tears certainly will be shed during the film's climax, the emotions expressed are honest, visceral, and universal.
Such simplicity and grace also distinguish the film's score, a combination of period standards and three contemporary songs that Garland would quickly stamp with her inimitable signature. Written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, 'The Boy Next Door,' 'The Trolley Song' and 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' are seamlessly woven into the film's fabric, gently moving the story forward and adding emotional subtext. Complemented by Garland's exquisitely rich vocals and Minnelli's impeccable visual sense, the musical sequences tell mini-stories of longing, exuberance, and uncertain hope that far outshine the bloated production numbers of other films.
Dramatically, Garland projects both a winsome charm and spunky self-assurance that make her performance irresistible. Although few actresses could hold their own against the scene-stealing prowess of moppet O'Brien, Garland, with her sincerity and vulnerability, always maintains our focus. O'Brien deservedly captured a special juvenile Oscar for her portrayal of the mischievous and lovably ghoulish Tootie, and her work in the Hitchcockian Halloween scene (brilliantly conceived by Minnelli) is one of the film's highlights, but 'St. Louis' is Garland's picture from start to finish. In addition, Ames, Drake, Astor, Bremer, the priceless Marjorie Main as the blunt Smith maid, and a very young June Lockhart also contribute fine performances.
Acting, script, and music aside, just looking at the film is a joy. From the art direction and costumes to George Folsey's eye-popping cinematography, Minnelli perfectly integrates every element, and his meticulous attention to detail permeates every frame. Simply said, 'Meet Me in St. Louis' is one beautiful film, a tailor-made showcase for the supreme artistry of Judy Garland and the boundless creativity of MGM craftsmen. As far as musicals go, they don't get much better than this.
Meet me at the fair, indeed.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Meet Me in St. Louis' comes packaged in one of Warner's handsome digibooks. The 50GB dual-layer disc and CD sampler, which contains four songs from the film, are housed inside the front and back covers, respectively, and a lavishly illustrated 40-page book lies in between. Song lyrics are sprinkled throughout, along with bits of trivia, a brief analysis of the movie, and mini bios of Garland, O'Brien, Mary Astor, and Vincente Minnelli. One amusing error slipped by the editors - when referring to Garland's appearances in the 'Andy Hardy' films, the uncredited writer mistakenly identifies the star of those movies as Andy Rooney instead of Mickey Rooney! (Who knew the late '60 Minutes' contributor had such an illustrious film career before going into journalism?!) Such an egregious mistake only emphasizes the ignorance of so many when it comes to cinema history.
Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0. Upon insertion of the disc, the Warner Home Video logo pops up, followed by the static menu with music; no previews or promos precede it.
When Warner released the DVD of 'Meet Me in St. Louis' back in 2004, it sported a spanking new digital transfer from restored picture elements, and the results were spectacular. Yet believe it or not, this Blu-ray edition outclasses that fine effort with a perfectly balanced image that showcases the movie's exceptional Technicolor photography and period detail. It's often tempting to over-saturate three-strip Technicolor films, but Warner remains true to the source, fashioning a natural-looking palette that embraces the lush hues without pushing them into an artificial realm. From Garland's auburn hair and red Christmas ball gown to Bremer's green velvet dress and the verdant front lawns that line Kensington Avenue, every color exudes the proper temperature and makes this movie a true visual delight.
The grain structure complements the film as well, lending it a cozy texture that ties into the antiquated setting. (In only a couple of instances did the grain seem excessive, but that's to be expected for a movie of this vintage.) Clarity and contrast are both excellent (and a step up from the DVD), so the picture brims with vibrancy. Details on a Tiffany lamp, wallpaper and carpet patterns, and background elements are all strikingly sharp. Black levels in the Halloween sequence exude a lovely inkiness, yet shadow delineation never suffers and crush never occurs. Whites are solid, too, especially the elaborate dresses the Smith women wear to the World's Fair, but fleshtones adopt a slight rosy tint.
Minnelli was a master of the close-up, and some of his shots of Garland are so exquisitely framed and executed, they take our breath away. The final shot of 'The Boy Next Door' and extended close-up during 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' exhibit a unique lushness and beauty that only a man in love with his leading lady could construct.
The print is primarily spotless, with almost all incidents of speckling erased. There's still a faint vertical stripe with a greenish-yellowish tint that shows up late in the picture for several isolated seconds, but it's not particularly noticeable unless you look for it. No edge enhancement or DNR have been applied, and no banding, halos, artifacting, or noise disrupt the image. Once again, Warner has done a superior job transferring one of its classic titles to Blu-ray, and all fans of musicals and Golden Age cinema should be thrilled with this eye-filling treatment.
The addition of lossless audio really perks up the 'St. Louis' soundtrack, offering more purity of tone, detail, and dynamic range than the previous Dolby Digital mix on the DVD. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 track gently envelops; you won't hear anything distinct coming from the rear speakers, but the overall surround feel, which is most potent during the musical numbers, makes the movie more immediate and involving. The wide dynamic range handles Garland's soaring highs well (with distortion never an issue), while lows possess lovely resonance and weight. Subtleties are more pronounced, too, such as the rustling of dresses and the roaring flames of the Halloween bonfire, and accents, like the clanging trolley bell, are crisply rendered.
Dialogue is always well prioritized and easy to comprehend, and the music score enjoys marvelous fidelty and tonal depth. A couple of errant pops could be detected and just the faintest hint of hiss, but neither in any way hamper one's enjoyment of this aural feast. Listening to Garland sing such standards as 'The Trolley Song,' 'The Boy Next Door,' and 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' is always a treat, but hearing her legendary voice in lossless audio adds a rare and wonderful extra dimension to the experience.
The original mono track has been dropped from this release, but a music-only track, highlighting Garland's numbers and Conrad Salinger's lilting orchestrations remains, and can be accessed through the Audio Vault section in the special features area.
Though the spec sheet affixed to the back of the digibook only mentions a handful of supplements, fans of 'Meet Me in St. Louis' can rest assured almost all the extras from the 2004 DVD have been ported over to this release. (Why would a studio risk alienating potential buyers by not providing a full list of special features on the packaging?) Both the Vincente Minnelli trailer gallery and a stills gallery have been deleted, but all other extras remain. The array of material is comprehensive and entertaining, and will please aficionados of Golden Age Hollywood, the film itself, and Judy Garland.
Musical lovers, rejoice! Warner honors one of Hollywood's finest with a top-notch digibook edition that features superb video, excellent audio, and a huge array of first-class supplements. 'Meet Me in St. Louis' is the quintessential family musical, and its relatable story and characters, enduring songs (performed with heartbreaking warmth and irrepressible verve by the unforgettable Garland), and gorgeous Technicolor photography make it a time-honored classic that continues to entertain and delight audiences of all ages. So hop aboard the trolley and revel in the magic of Garland, Minnelli, and MGM. Highly recommended, even for those who generally shy away from the genre.