Friday, November 28, 2014

The Premiere of Judy Garland's Transitional Movie

"A lie's a lie, and dressed in white don't help it."

Katie the maid (Marjorie Main)

Vincente Minnelli's "Meet Me in St. Louis," which premiered 70 years ago today, is highly regarded by the American Film Institute — as well as many devotees of the movie musical.

I say that from personal experience because my grandmother was a fan of movie musicals, and she always liked "Meet Me in St. Louis." Maybe that was because she really liked Judy Garland — which I knew as a child. But, when I got older and saw the movie for myself, I kind of felt the main attraction for "Meet Me in St. Louis" really was 6–year–old Margaret O'Brien, who appeared in several movies in 1944 and was rewarded with a special juvenile Oscar.

It was O'Brien's most memorable role in a movie career that was too short; she wasn't able to make the transition to adult roles as Garland (who also won a juvenile Oscar) had.

(Whatever the reason, I often heard my grandmother singing songs from "Meet Me in St. Louis." My grandmother loved to sing, and she had a pretty good voice, too. As a child, I didn't know which musical featured those songs, but the first time I saw the movie, I knew the words to the songs — and, in my head, I could hear my grandmother singing them.)

"Meet Me in St. Louis" was something of a milestone for Garland, though. It was her transitional movie, marking her shift from children's roles to adult roles. She was 22 when it premiered. She had been a teenager when she made "The Wizard of Oz," which was probably her breakout role (even though she had already made movies with Mickey Rooney by that time), but it was also a children's role.

And movie purists might argue that "Meet Me in St. Louis" wasn't really her first adult role; they might be inclined to mention "Presenting Lily Mars" or "For Me and My Gal," but I'll stick with "Meet Me in St. Louis" because it was more commercially successful than the others.

The story was set around the turn of the century — in St. Louis in the months before the opening of the 1904 World's Fair. It followed the Smith family, who enjoyed a middle–class lifestyle (which, at the turn of the century, was pretty darned affluent — affluent enough to afford a maid to take care of the family and the large house it occupied).

Leon Ames played the head of the household, and Mary Astor, not too far removed from her role in "The Maltese Falcon" and her Oscar–winning part in "The Great Lie," played his wife. Garland was one of their daughters. So were O'Brien, Lucille Bremer (who always reminds me of Julianne Moore — maybe it's the red hair) and Joan Carroll; Henry H. Daniels Jr. played the only son.

Carroll and Daniels had relatively small roles; Garland, O'Brien and Bremer got the most attention. Marjorie Main, who was best known for playing the movies' Ma Kettle, was the maid.

When I saw it for the first time, it was already three, maybe four decades old, and it struck me as being similar to "Life With Father" (which came out a few years later but was set perhaps 20 years earlier than "Meet Me in St. Louis").

Both movies were so frothy and sweet they could give you cavities — but they were also charming and endearing with stories that were mostly told from the young people's points of view. When Mr. Smith's work required him to uproot the family and move to New York, it created crises within the family: They would have to leave St. Louis before the start of the fair they all had been eagerly anticipating, and Garland's blooming relationship with the boy next door would collapse.

Oh, the humanity.

What's more, O'Brien (who was more aware of mortality than most children her age) began a serial execution of snowmen upon learning the news.

O'Brien stole the show, but "Meet Me in St. Louis" really was built around two themes — music and crises. It started with songs, then there was a family crisis, followed by more songs, then more crises, then more songs ... well, you get the idea.

Astonishingly, it was nominated for four Oscars. It didn't win any, but it was still nominated for its cinematography, screenplay, musical score and song ("The Trolley Song" by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane).

"Meet Me in St. Louis" was noteworthy for something else.

It was the first pairing of Garland and Minnellii, who married the following year.

The marriage ended in divorce, but it did produce a child — Liza Minnelli — who has enjoyed some professional success of her own.

They worked together on "The Clock" (1945) and "The Pirate" (1948) before they divorced, but Liza remains their most famous post–"Meet Me in St. Louis" collaboration.

The movie itself was remade twice for television — in 1959 and 1966.

The second remake was made without music and was intended as a pilot for a TV series, but it wasn't picked up. That's for the best, I suppose. O'Brien notwithstanding, it's hard to imagine "Meet Me in St. Louis" without Garland, isn't it?

(By the way, you can see "Meet Me in St. Louis" tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. Central time on Turner Classic Movies.)