Early in "Meet Me in St. Louis," Esther Smith (Judy Garland) pines for the boy next door. Lent silky grace by Garland's perfect warble, Esther describes love — and, by extension, Vincente Minnelli's 1944 classic. "I want it to be something strange and wonderful," she says. "Something I'll always remember." (See our poll of the best movie musicals here.)
Set in the high times of Gilded Age prosperity, the seasons marching relentlessly forward, "Meet Me in St. Louis" is just that. Its images are stabs of memory as much as they are blooms of color or bursts of song. The rich, swooning palette — the scarlet flush of Grandpa's fez, the soft-focus pink of roses and young cheeks — mixes with a darker, more macabre streak. Minnelli balances the film's dueling emotions effortlessly, from Tootie telling a carriage driver that her doll suffers from four fatal diseases, to Rose, Lon, and Esther singing "Skip to My Lou" as part of a rousing, joyous square dance in the front hall. It is a complex and lively picture, and I'm not alone in my praise. This year, like me, Anne Thompson ranked "Meet Me in St. Louis" as the ninth-best film ever made, and the best musical.
In the late summer of 1903, the Smiths bottle ketchup, cool down in the swimming hole, and await marriage proposals, the film's music matching the progress of the story perfectly. Garland's propulsive charm is on full display in "The Trolley Song," its zinging heartstrings exploding with woozy infatuation as the number reaches its climax. "With his hand holding mine," she croons, "To the end of the line!" Already, though, dimmer portents compete for space with hope's baubles. Lon is heading to Princeton, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, as summer becomes autumn, sing of steadiness in the face of "dark and fair weather."
Indeed, perhaps more than any other Hollywood musical, Minnelli's vision — produced in the depths of wartime — reserves space for life's struggles, its forays into the minor key. On Halloween, Tootie and Agnes anxiously join the other children in the street, throwing shreds of abandoned furniture onto an anarchic bonfire. With a scream in the night, the family comes running, suddenly terrified that not all the promises will be kept. More bad news is in the offing. They're to leave St. Louis for New York on the first of the year, following Father into a kind of exile. In her only flash of anger, Mother castigates him for his nonchalance: "You're being very calm about the way you pack us off, lock, stock, and barrel," she says.
Maybe this delicate measure of sorrow amid the shine is what makes the film's climactic Christmas so powerful, far more resonant than the reams and reams of holiday celluloid that avoid the more complicated truths about life in a family. Happiness, the thing itself, remains a moving target, glimpsed in Esther and Grandpa's swirling dance at the Christmas ball. Even when the boy next door finally proposes, Esther's response is bittersweet. She asks him to keep it secret for a night, as though their silence might comprise a protective charm. If she doesn't tell, she doesn't have to choose between romantic and familial love, between her future and her past, not just yet, anyway.
Garland's iconic song, then, registers as a very particular kind of heartbreak, still warm with regret. Crimson-clad, silvery hood glinting in the moonlight, Esther joins Tootie at the windowsill and refuses to ignore the truth of their predicament. Even with its faint hope that the next year will bring an end to their troubles, the song is full of the conditional tense, struggling out of the dark:
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.
Returning to it every year, Garland's song, like Minnelli's film, is a refreshing burst of invention — a reminder that whatever I may have faced in the last year, I will, like the Smiths, muddle through somehow. On the other side of "Meet Me in St. Louis" is the World's Fair, its sparkling illumination shedding light where there was shadow. As Mother says, "There's never been anything like it in the whole world." And she's right.