1944’s Meet Me In St. Louis marked a number of notable events in Judy Garland’s life. Her love affair and eventual marriage to director Vincent Minnelli came from filming. The film itself was Garland’s second-biggest box office smash behind The Wizard of Oz. But more than anything else, Garland was at the absolute peak of her star power and on-screen magnetism.
Garland stars as Esther, the second-eldest daughter of the upper-class Smith family. Esther schemes to get her older sister Rose (Lucille Bremer) married off, while pining after the boy next door John (Tom Drake). Esther has deal with the family dynamics of her overworked father Alonzo (Leon Ames), her sweet mother Anna (Mary Astor), similarly lovesick brother Lon (Henry H. Daniels Jr), and the shenanigans of her younger sisters Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margret O’Brien).
The well-documented behind-the-scenes struggles faced by Garland in no way translate to her performance in the film. She is positively voluminous. Her real brilliance in this film is the ability to take center stage when the scene calls for it, but also sink comfortably into the ensemble. Regardless of how it happened off-screen, Garland’s willingness to share the limelight with the rest of the Smith family shines through. And it’s not just the main actors. Go watch the famous trolley scene and tell me that is an actress mugging for camera attention.
That doesn’t mean Judy doesn’t get her chance to shine. Whether it’s Esther physically beating John after a misunderstanding, or her show-stopping performance of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” Garland knows how to take charge.
Garland’s look was in no small part to finally getting the glamour treatment for the film, despite playing an 18 year-old. Makeup artist Dorothy Ponedel worked specifically to bring out the actress’ natural beauty, Ponedel arched Garland’s eyebrows, removed nose discs, and threw away dental caps. According to Ponedel, Garland was pretty enough without them. She is also the one who first introduced Garland to her signature bright red lip color and false eyelashes.
On top of it all, five-time Oscar-winning costume designer Irene Sharaff (eight years before her first nomination/win) complements Garland’s beauty with eye-catching costumes at every turn. Starting out in a blue and white striped tennis outfit (believe it or not), transitioning to a frilly green number, shifting to simple black with lace, and crescendos to the blinding red dress at the highly anticipated ball. While the earlier costumes cover Garland up, the red number finally transitions her from an on-screen teenager to the woman she was desperate for the world to see.
Meet Me in St. Louis was a massive hit and solidified Garland as an adult movie star. Though she would go on to star in other box office hits and gain greater critical acclaim, the combination of Garland’s talent, charisma, beauty, and likeability reaches its absolute apex in this film. Despite how rocky it was in her personal life, it never got better on-screen than 1944.
If you like this and all other IC4F content, make sure to subscribe and never miss a thing