It is the hot summer of 1903 and the Smith family are as content as they will ever be, with mother Anna (Mary Astor) and Katie the maid (Marjorie Main) making tomato soup, daughter Agnes (Joan Carroll), one of five children, back from swimming, and Esther (Judy Garland) returning home from tennis. She has a scheme to ensure that her older sister Rose (Lucille Bremer) will have the telephone to herself when the man she wants to propose to her calls, so asks Katie to arrange dinner for one hour earlier than usual, mainly so father (Leon Ames) cannot do anything to spoil the occasion. But the best laid plans and all that...
On the surface, Meet Me in St. Louis was a simple, episodic item of nostalgia for days gone by, but that would not entirely explain why it was one of the biggest successes of its year. There was a good reason that most of America, of the world in fact, were looking back to what they perceived as happier times, because it was exactly the tonic they needed with the world war raging at the time. This is a sweet film, true, but there is always an underlying threat that the family's peace will be disrupted, even ruined, a theme that makes itself more apparent in the second half. Before that, the idyllic life the Smiths enjoy is not as rosy as they would like to believe.
Mostly, until that major plot point, we can look at them and think as the wartime audiences did, ah, what did they know? Esther regards the fact the new boy next door, John Truett (Tom Drake), is showing no interest in her is likely to upset her potential joy, as we see when she sings about him, but we understand this is youthful folly and she will turn out fine. Besides, although it does turn out all right for her, you would be forgiven for musing that John wasn't really up to her standards - what can you say about a boy whose idea of a compliment is "You've got a mighty strong grip for a girl!"? Yet while this does reach a beneficial conclusion for everyone, we are in the privileged position of being well aware the future is none too bright.
This means Meet Me in St. Louis fairly aches with poignancy, and goes some way to illustrating why the wartime public flocked to it. As far as story goes, considering it was based on anecdotes about a genuine growing up in the early twentieth century, director Vincente Minnelli managed to make something cohesive out of what could have been strictly stop-start as far as forward momentum went. The original reminiscences were by Sally Benson, who is played in the film by Margaret O'Brien as the morbid five-year-old Tootie; O'Brien was a legendarily precocious child star, and this is the role she is best remembered for probably because not only is her performance supernaturally good, but because it is Tootie who we see the emotional disruption in most keenly.
So what does happen? Well, after an hour of quaint tales, where Esther wins the heart of John and Tootie goes out on Halloween (a vividly nightmarish sequence with an off kilter and anarchic tone about it), father announces he has been awarded a promotion and everyone is to leave for New York just after Christmas. Although most of them manage to compose themselves for most of the time, the Smiths are appalled at the news, summed up by the fact they'll miss the World's Fair in the spring, and it is with a heavy heart they settle down to their final Yuletide amongst the surroundings and people they love. This leads to the famous Christmas Eve section, where Esther goes to the ball with her sisters and brother, dances with John, and it's all perfect except that she has to go home and admit to Tootie that nothing will ever be the same again. Garland's rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in that scene would melt a heart of stone, and one of the most bittersweet and melancholy in Hollywood history; there is a happy ending, but if you've ever feared for the future, this film cannot fail to strike a chord.