Meet Me in St. Louis: Making of Minnelli’s Classic Christmas Musical A
Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, who had written other Freed musicals, created three of the most melodic songs for Judy: “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” All three songs would become classics in Judy’s future concerts.
Freed prevailed against strong opposition, for Meet Me was a risky endeavor. Both Freed and Minnelli were gambling their reputations on a problematic movie. If the picture scored a hit, no one would question their judgment, but if it failed, both would be blamed. For both, the stakes were high.
With screenplay and songs in acceptable but not final shape, Minnelli began to labor over the film’s visual look. In New York, he was used to supervising every detail, from the first sketch to the last lighting cue. But, as noted, at Metro, he found himself at odds with the art department, which had its own way of doing things.
On Meet Me in St. Louis, however, he worked with Lemuel Ayres, who had arrived from New York as one of Broadway’s leading set decorators. For costumes, he hired Irene Sharaff, another Broadway vet.
Finklehoffe’s departure in the midst of the shoot to become a Broadway producer was a snag, and Minnelli had to rely on Irving Brecher to continue tightening up the script.
The main interior set, the Smiths’ home at 5135 Kensington Avenue, was an elaborate and challenging proposition. Apart from the question of accurate period detail, Minnelli didn’t want to be confined with conventional sets. Instead of building separate sets, one for each room, with breakaway walls to facilitate camera movements, he decided to shoot on a continuous set that would be constructed like the floor of a real house with interconnecting rooms. This created some technical problems, but it also contributed to the effectiveness of the movie’s key emotional scenes, such as the one in which Esther and her next-door neighbor move from room to room to put out the gas lights.
Minnelli felt that the whole picture should have the look of a Thomas Eakins painting. Art director Preston Ames evoked vividly and nostalgically the city of St. Louis, which was recreated on the back lot. Metro built on Lot number 3 eight imposing Victorian houses, each surrounded by a lush lawn and beds of flowers.
The picture was divided into four seasons. Minnelli introduced each segment by using the Smith’s Gothic house as an illustration, like the greeting cards of that era. Each card dissolves into the live action of the Smith family. Summer introduces the family and the central conflict; Fall contains the Halloween sequence; Winter shows the bittersweet Christmas; and Spring concludes the film with a family celebration at the opening of the World Exposition.
Meet Me in St. Louis was the first Metro picture to be shot in Technicolor, for which Minnelli relied on the advice of Natalie Kalmus, the studio’s color consultant. Until one day, an assistant told him, “You’ve heard the truth about Kalmus.”
“No, I haven’t,” Minnelli said.
“She’s color blind,” said the assistant.
At which point, Minnelli laughed.
Minnelli’s juxtaposition of color had been praised in his stage productions, but at Metro, he couldn’t do anything right in Kalmus’s eyes. “You can’t have one sister in a red gown and another in a bright green,” Kalmus said. ”The two colors together are wrong. The camera will pick them up as rust and greenish black.” Kalmus based her judgment on trial shots of the swatches, but Minnelli stubbornly held that, under the changing lights, the camera wouldn’t distort the colors. From then on, Minnelli relied entirely on his own instincts.
When the shoot ended, on April 7, 1943, it was clear that, despite the initially embattled production and reluctant star, the movie had an extraordinary emotional power. Meet Me in St. Louis became the first picture to establish Minnelli’s reputation as a major talent.
Curiously, during the process, the star and her director forgot their initial antagonism and fell in love. This was all the more bizarre, considering that their relationship was initially distant. Judy perceived Minnelli as a strange man, moving in his own remote milieu, and he didn’t trust her much as an actress either.
Judy began to melt as soon as she watched the dailies. The same Mr. Minnelli who had caused her pain, accomplished what no other director had done before: he made her look beautiful, not as a girl but as a woman. Judy’s makeup artist, Dorothy Ponedel, deserves some credit, too, for she rounded out Judy’s thin lower lip and accentuated her dark expressive eyes.
Sharaff, who designed the costumes, also deserves credit for disguising Judy’s short neck and odd figure. Ultimately, though, it was Minnelli who made each and every shot of Judy flattering. Judy, who never liked the way she looked onscreen, had always wanted to look beautiful in a mature, feminine way. Now, thanks to Minnelli’s efforts, she did.
Louise Bremer, who had begun as a Rockette before Freed discovered her at the Club Versailles, was cast as Judy’s oldest sister. Freed, who was amorous of Bremer, felt that Bremer had the making of a star. Minnelli disagreed, but, knowing how important she was to Freed, reserved judgment. Ironically, when shooting began, Minnelli thought that Bremer was doing a better job than Judy..
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