While I think The Wizard of Oz is a cultural touchstone, integral to American culture, I’ve never liked the movie. I thought it was creepy as a little kid, and creepier still as an adult, but I would never deny that Judy Garland was a talented performer. In point of fact, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America named Somewhere Over the Rainbow as the greatest song in the 20th Century (the link goes to an adorable, fannish NPR dissection of the song and what makes it great).
Of course, she also gave us probably the best of the “modern” holiday songs: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. She didn’t write it, any more than she wrote Somewhere Over the Rainbow, but her sweet, wistful voice informs the lyrics with such terrible longing that it makes your heart ache to hear it. No wonder urban legends insist that suicides spike around the holiday season – if you have this tune on heavy rotation, you’re going to end up crying yourself a sweater of tears, at the very least. And that’s before you learn that Judy Garland refused to sing the original line “‘Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas/It may be your last…. ” to the girl playing her baby sister, and that Frank Sinatra later asked for “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” to be cheered up to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”.
Now, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and countless covers are ubiquitous at this time of year, but heaps of people are unfamiliar with the film it was from: Meet Me In St. Louis.
This superb little movie was a huge blockbuster in its day, and for good reason: it’s clever, pretty and chock full of catchy tunes. It’s also amiable, charming and funny as hell. And really, nothing happens. The family is happy in St. Louis, they’re looking forward to the World’s Fair (which is still almost a year away at the beginning of the film) and they wear a lot of super cute outfits. Sure, there’s this part where they freak out because they have to move to New York City, but it’s all a tempest in a teapot and it blows right over.
It’s an entire movie about nothing else, really, except people you actually believe might be related to each other, which is all the more impressive given that it was filmed in 1944. There’s a longsuffering big brother with improbable 50s Teen Idol hair, and a dad who’s kind of a drama queen. Their grandfather has twelve guns in his room and the mom runs the household by supplying the dad with a careful campaign of misinformation with the help of her sardonic bulldog lieutenant, Katie the Maid. The eldest sisters spend a fair bit of time stomping around being self-involved, sighing about boys and worrying about their hair, and the younger ones are fucking hoodlums.
Everyone in the family takes a turn at being manipulative and petty, while never losing your affection. This is probably because the movie was based on a series of short stories (basically a memoir), about a real family, and written by Sally “Tootie” Benson, someone who loved them. It’s so entirely great, you guys. Especially since this film could so easily have turned into a flat little saccharine wafer and is instead a confection as airy as spun sugar yet as satisfying as corned beef and cabbage.
But what’s a Judy Garland film without gossip?
Although I’m sure poor Judy Garland was already knee-deep in various substance abuses, there’s tons of fantastic stage lore about Margaret O’Brien, who was all of seven during the filming. From what I’ve read, Garland initially balked at the movie, weary of playing “teenagers”, and was worried that O’Brien would steal the show. It has been suggested that director Vincente Minelli gave O’Brien a puppy, and later told her that it had been hit by a car and killed, in order to induce the hysterical tears required for the “snowman scene”.
Emotional trauma was only the tip of the iceberg, though. At one point, the producers weren’t sure if they wanted to pay the money O’Brien’s mother asked for, and went so far as to fit the daughter of a setlight operator for her costumes. They later changed their minds, and this (unsurprisingly) made the setlight operator unhappy – so much so that he was accused of dropping a light that almost hit O’Brien, and was later committed to a mental hospital.
Now that is drama, kids.