What’s Good About a DVD

This year for Christmas one of the presents my wife gave me was a DVD of Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 picture Meet Me in St. Louis. What made the purchase completely worthwhile was the add-on features which included a commentary track, a “Making of…&148; short, the original trailer, and some other associated shorts.

Some of the info in the commentary and “Making of…” short I already knew about. For example, I’ve heard interviews with Hugh Martin, the composer of the movie’s most enduring song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, in which he explained that the version of the song that made its way into the finished movie was markedly different from the song as originally conceived. As originally written the opening lines of the song were

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It could be the last.
From now on we’ll all be living in the past.

and continued on in a similar vein. Judy Garland, cognizant of her own fan base and what we’d now call her “brand” refused outright to sing it. I didn’t, however, that after a few weeks of uneasy truce between Martin and Garland Ms. Garland’s co-star, Tom Drake, prevailed upon Martin to re-write the lyrics for what was obviously a lovely and nostalgia-evoking melody, the movie’s likeliest candidate for a hit song, to be a bit more cheerful. Martin relented and the result is the song we know.

However, considered closely as lovely as it is, it is both incoherent and inconsistent with what’s going on in the movie at that point. The emphasis has been transferred to the joys of Christmas with family and friends and away from “Have yourself a merry little Christmas now” because the future will be different, not necessarily for the better.

Another of the features included on the DVD was a pilot for a television sitcom based on the movie starring Shelley Fabares as Esther and Celeste Holm, completely wasted, as Mrs. Smith and featuring the wonderful Reta Shaw as Katie, their housekeeper (played in the movie by the inimitable Marjorie Main). The pilot is a thoroughgoing disaster with ghastly writing and direction, little or no music, and completely lacking in the loving attention to detail that gives much of the hit movie its charm. Really, the only good thing about the pilot is that it gives us some hints about what Shaw’s Katie in the 1955 television production must have been like.

Which brings me to my sole complaint about the DVD: it doesn’t include the TV production. It starred Jane Powell as Esther, Walter Pidgeon as Mr. Smith, Myrna Loy as Mrs. Smith, and a pre-The Miracle Worker Patti Duke as Tootie (the part for which Margaret O’Brien won a juvenile Oscar for her performance in the original movie). The kinescope of the live production appears to be extant and with that cast I’d love to see it.

Unlike the commenter on the DVD I don’t believe that Meet Me in St. Louis is the all-time greatest movie musical (I think that Seven Brides for Seven Brothers holds that distinction). It is too much a vehicle for Judy Garland, the dance routines don’t meet the standards of the music or Ms. Garland’s singing, etc. However, in one sense, the loving, meticulous, obsessive attention to detail while MMISL may not be the greatest movie musical it is perhaps the finest example of what the studios could accomplish when they had an inclination to and when they gave, ,essentially, a free hand to a director with that kind of vision if it can be said that anybody other than Vincente Minnelli has.

Maybe that long ago live television production will show up in some other future release of Meet Me in St. Louis.

8 comments… add one
  • Zachriel Link

    Someday soon, we all will be together
    If the Fates allow
    Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
    So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

  • Here’s the full set of original lyrics:

    Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,
    Next year we may all be living in the past
    Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork,
    Next year we will all be living in New York.

    No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore,
    Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.

    But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow,
    From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
    So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

    I think that’s significantly more coherent and to the point. But it is depressing.

  • sam Link

    It’s interesting how great songs of the “American Songbook” came to be. “Old Man River” was written simply because the second act of Showboat needed an ending. “September Song” came about because Walter Houston wanted a solo. In neither case did the writers (Kern and Hammstein, and Weil and Anderson) think they’d done anything all that special.

  • I think that something depends on the composer. By all accounts Gershwin thought everything he ever wrote was a deathless classic (a lot them were). On the other hand Irving Berlin promoted and honed his compositions into their eventual forms. If it didn’t sell one way, he’d re-write it, put new lyrics to it, re-package it until it did sell. He was a relentess merchandizer and re-merchandizer.

    BTW, you might want to re-check that story about Show Boat. “Ol’ Man River” is near the beginning of the first act. It was there in the original production and has been there in every revival.

    Knickerbocker Holiday is such a weird show I’d believe anything you told me about it.

  • sam Link

    “BTW, you might want to re-check that story about Show Boat. “Ol’ Man River” is near the beginning of the first act”

    I will do that, but I have a distinct memory of seeing an interview with Hammerstein in which he made the claim. (But I do grant that my “distinct memories” seem a bit fuzzy these days.)

  • It may have been Hammerstein’s recollections that were a bit fuzzy rather than yours.

  • sam Link

    Ah, got my scenes/acts wrong:

    From the show’s opening number “Cotton Blossom”, the notes in the phrase “Cotton Blossom, Cotton Blossom” are the same notes as those in the phrase “Ol’ Man River, dat Ol’ Man River,” but inverted. However, “Cotton Blossom” was written first, and “Ol’ Man River” was written only after Kern and Hammerstein realized they needed a song to end the first scene in the show. [Ol’ Man River

  • Icepick Link

    Judy Garland, cognizant of her own fan base and what we’d now call her “brand” refused outright to sing it.

    The solution would have been to have Margaret O’Brien’s Tootie sing the song – THAT would have been in character.

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