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.