The wonderful 1944 musical Meet Me In St Louis directed by Vincente Minelli contains one of the most treasured Christmas songs ever written. Performed by Judy Garland at the height of her artistic powers, sung to the emotionally distraught child actress Margaret O’Brien, the song and setting resulted in one of the most poignant and memorable moments in cinematic history. The song never fails to capture for me the interwoven connection of the American public to this holiday through song, and the recognition of so many great song writers of the 20th century of this unique connection of the holiday to the American experience.
Written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for the musical, the song frames the need for Judy Garland’s character Esther to try to explain to her little sister Tootie, played by O’Brien that a planned move from St. Louis to New York by the family will somehow turnout alright, though neither sister really believes it. the lyricist Martin conveyed the impact of uprooting the family through the lyrics in desperate fashion:
“No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore; faithful friends that were dear to us, will be near to us no more”
“But at least we will all be together, if the Fates allow; From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow“
The lyrics painted such a dark sheen on the moment that Martin was asked by Garland to restore some hope to the lyrics, or she was not sure she could get through the song without both she and O’Brien collapsing in tears. Martin did make an attempt particularly in the first lines, as :
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past” became “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight” – a significant emotional reliever.
The song in the emotional setting of World War II with so many separated and disrupted families was an immediate sensation both nationally and with the far flung troops. The spectacular singing performance of Garland and the tears of her co-star O’Brien seemed to tear at the fragile stability each family felt with the war’s upheaval and perhaps better than any other Christmas song evoked the underlying bond that Americans feel toward family unity and the focal point for this unity that is associated with Christmas.
It has been performed many times since by hundreds of artists , including a special version by Frank Sinatra, but nothing comes close to Judy Garland and the vulnerable, beautiful and sentimental performance by her in Meet Me in St. Louis: