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Meet Me in St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis
1944 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 113 min. / Street Date April 6, 2004 / 26.99
Starring Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Tom Drake, Marjorie Main, Harry Davenport, June Lockhart
Cinematography George Folsey
Art Direction Lemuel Ayers, Cedric Gibbons, Jack Martin Smith
Film Editor Albert Akst
Original Music Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin
Written by Irving Brecher, Fred F. Finklehoffe from a novel by Sally Benson
Produced by Arthur Freed
Directed by Vincente Minnelli

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Meet Me In St. Louis is one of the pillars of the old MGM. For the record, it's considered the first of the classic Freed era of Technicolor musicals, the vehicle where Judy Garland blossomed into a full-fledged star and a triumph of what the ritziest studio could do even in the middle of a world war. It's a solid entertainment that happens to be about nostalgia and therefore doesn't have a lot of musical firsts or innovations. It has three or four top songs that have kept it at the front rank of musicals, even though it has no major choreographed dancing scenes.


Four seasons in the life of the Smith family of St. Louis, circa 1903. Esther and Rose (Judy Garland and Lucille Bremer) worry about their love lives and John Truett (Tom Drake) the boy next door. Tomboy Tootie (Margaret O'Brien) is obsessed with pulpy violence and morbid games, and father and mother (Leon Ames and Mary Astor) think about leaving their idyllic hometown for better opportunities in a bigger city.

Everyone writes about the glories of the Arthur Freed musical unit at MGM in terms of its stellar talent and enviable track record of hits. Freed appears to have been a shrewd player at court, currying the favor of studio boss L.B. Mayer while quietly assembling some of the best musical talent around - arrangers and adapters of great taste and discretion like Roger Edens, his unsung associate producer. Meet Me In St. Louis is directorially the work of Vincente Minnelli, a designer and art director with bigger ambitions who had been responsible for some surprise hits like the wonderful Cabin in the Sky. There's also been a lot said about Minnelli's romance with his star Garland.

I find Meet Me In St. Louis to be the better side of Louis Mayer's "family values" concept of entertainment, the one that was more than a little condescending in its portrayal of the ideal American family in the Andy Hardy series. Americans were supposed to be lovable small town hicks, the kind who would keep buying tickets to MGM movies indefinitely. They weren't encouraged to think politically or join unions, and everyone was meant to stay in their place. Upward mobility was for the super-talented only. If they were good enough, they would come to work at MGM under exclusive and ironclad contracts. That made the American family fit neatly into the Mayer-centric view of the universe.

The war broke up that notion, and from the chaos of families split and husbands and sweethearts sent overseas came a need for nostalgia. Many hit songs of the time that express hope for an uncertain future through the dreams of the past. One of the most gripping of these is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which seems a light holiday tune until one hears the lyrics. They are about separation and the hopes that loved ones will be reunited, but also express a sense of loss. The line Someday soon we all will be together seems to recognize that its sentiment is going to be painful for hundreds of thousands of listeners whose loved ones aren't coming back. The Smith family of 1904 St. Louis doesn't have much relevance to WW2 now, but in 1944 it was immediately recognized as a picture of an idealized America worth fighting for, the one on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post.

That's why the actual business of the film - teenage dates, parties, a foolish Halloween night, is secondary to the overall theme of the film, the conservative but attractive idea that staying home and staying the same is a great ambition. The Smiths in the movie stay in St. Louis and presumably marry their childhood sweethearts and never move away. According to the extras on this disc, the real Smiths moved to New York where young Sally Benson (the real "Tootie" of the film) was inspired to write about her childhood. I wonder if that would have happened had she stayed in Missouri.

Otherwise, there's not much more to the politics of the film than the usual Hollywood encouragement to identify with people better off than you are. A lot more Americans are essentially rootless now, and no longer believe in the dream of the single-family residence on a broad street of fine homes. The "modest" neighborhoods of 1950s sitcoms now look like the homes of millionaires.

There's also a vague elitism behind the delightful comedy-drama of Meet Me In St. Louis, gentler than other pictures of the time but still there. There's an active snoot factor at work in the lives of the Smiths as they keep up appearances. Esther and Rose Smith openly scheme against a perceived rival for their boyfriends, one Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart) who turns out to be a classy lady who puts their cattiness to shame. We're encouraged to think that the girls learn their lesson, but the movie then dooms a whole social underclass of boys at the dance to "inhuman" status, in the kind of casual discrimination that the writers had no trouble milking for laughs. Esther and Rose are gently chided for being so concerned about status, but those were (and are?) the cultural values, after all - cry if you don't get the respect you deserve, but don't worry about ghettoizing those less socially anointed than thou. Don't worry, Esther Smith is adorable and friendly, like the high school prom queen. Nothing personal, but she can't be seen talking to you.

The world of Meet Me In St. Louis was a 1944 dream of a life most Americans never had yet they would probably still define it as the American way of life they were defending. America had consistent ideals that were accepted by a much greater consensus of the country back then, which some people think was a good thing. Even though it is a fantasy, this is one of the key films my generation could have looked to, to understand our parents' generation.

When I first saw the film, I thought Margaret O'Brien was delightful, but her precocious morbidity no longer seems so funny. Now I probably identify more with the characters of the parents - Leon Ames and Mary Astor.

A digression. When I first saw Meet Me In St. Louis, the idea of being interested in musicals was nowhere on my list of priorities. In the UCLA dorms in 1971, Randy Cook dragged me across town to the Encore, a small theater that stood where Raliegh studios have expanded today at the corner of Melrose and Van Ness, a few blocks from Savant headquarters now. The Encore showed studio prints right from the studio vaults. That night I saw Meet Me In St. Louis and Singin in the Rain, each for the first time, each in perfect original Technicolor prints. It was like never having seen movies in real color before, and although the Gene Kelly musical was funnier and more exciting, the Minnelli show had images that pulled one's eyes out of their sockets. The dark, rich Technicolor image had real black and seemed to have no grain at all. In the stylized Technicolor world all hues were super-saturated and faces didn't look real but hyper-real. Judy Garland was a pair of huge eyes over bright red lips. Every shot was a rich world of textures and color.

I was in a buzz. After that I'd go see any print of anything being shown in Technicolor. Not all of them looked good, but some were fabulous. The pictures I most remember striking me in the same emotional way - just enraptured by the color image itself, were Damn Yankees, The Searchers, Vertigo and a Paramount studio print of Danger: Diabolik that almost put my eyes out. But the first experience was at Meet Me In St. Louis. Oh, and I had my first Pink's hot dog the same night!

Hopefully that wasn't too annoying a tangent. Musical fans who adore Meet Me In St. Louis tend to be the Judy Garland faithful, but even though she's at her best here, there's a lot more to the movie than just her. I'm not always certain I even like Vincente Minnelli's ideas about design or taste, especially in his later CinemaScope films, but there's not much to complain about in this show.

Warners' DVD of Meet Me In St. Louis is a two-disc set with some extras that will attract mostly confirmed musical aficionados. The transfer is excellent, but even though this title reportedly underwent the same expensive process used for Singin' in the Rain and last year's The Adventures of Robin Hood, it didn't quite capture the same Technicolor look on my set. I think it's because this movie has a more delicate and sophisticated color scheme. The transfer is still excellent, and a huge improvement over the old laserdisc.

Disc one has the feature with a new introduction by Liza Minnelli. The audio has been remastered in 5.0 with the original mono retained as an option, and there's an entire separate music-only track that will immediately attract interest. There's an audio commentary with Margaret O'Brien, composer Hugh Martin, screenwriter Irving Brecher and Arthur Freed's daughter Barbara Freed-Saltzman.

One docu on disc two is the Dick Cavett-hosted The Dream Factory from the early 70s, a precursor to the That's Entertainment series. The Making of an American Classic is an okay docu that appears to have been done for a late 1990's laser (the late Roddy McDowall narrates). Becoming Attractions: Judy Garland is a episode of an old TCM show that strung together a selection of themed trailers.

There's also an ancient musical short subject called Bubbles that showcases a bunch of Hollywood kids singing and dancing in a horrible arrangement like something from What's the Matter With Helen? Judy Garland is a tiny singing tot in one song, as one of the Gumm sisters. Shelley Fabares, Celeste Holm and a young Michael Blodgett are featured in a failed 1965 TV pilot for a Meet Me In St. Louis TV show. It starts with a horse-drawn carriage on the same backlot street, and then zooms into the Smith house just like any other design-challenged 60s TV show. There's a deleted song illustrated with stills, and another early sound musical short subject. Finally, there's a Lux radio version of the movie from 1946 and a Vincente Minnelli trailer gallery. It unfortunately shows only to what's available on DVD.

This was a time when many MGM posters were bad collages of ugly artwork, and that authentic design is what's used on the DVD cover.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Meet Me in St. Louis rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: see above
Packaging: Double card and plastic case in a card sleeve.
Reviewed: April 3, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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