The golden age of the MGM movie musical loosely spans the first half of the '50s, centered on the release of An American In Paris and the attendant revelation that musicals could be sophisticated, modern, and even abstract. But as far back as 1944, in the middle of WWII and the heart of the lighter, revue-musical era, director Vincente Minnelli made Meet Me In St. Louis, an ambitious nostalgia piece with a broad emotional palette.
Based on Sally Benson's "5135 Kensington" stories, Meet Me In St. Louis takes place over one year in the life of a middle-class, middle-American family, as they look forward to the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Crisis strikes when the head of the household announces an impending move to New York City, upsetting his children's plans and romances. Meet Me In St. Louis is bright and funny, but the frustration of children, powerless in a world made for adults, gives the movie a darker shade: Judy Garland's 17-year-old busybody throws parties for her friends, courts the boy next door, plays matchmaker for her older sister and brother, and keeps her mischievous younger sisters in line (including the comically morbid Margaret O'Brien), but even she can't buck her parents' decisions.
Of course, that's only the undercurrent to Meet Me In St. Louis; the surface is pure spun-candy Americana. The set's dirt streets and horse-drawn carriages add a mild twist to what could pass for a '50s TV sitcom suburb, full of friendly neighbors and manicured lawns. Minnelli frequently frames his characters through windows, which, along with the shallow depth of field, creates a diorama effect, boxing up the past like a Christmas window display.
The Meet Me In St. Louis DVD comes in a double-disc edition, with the second disc devoted to a storehouse of curios, the most remarkable being the smart 1972 documentary overview of MGM's history, Hollywood: The Dream Factory, as well as the dopey 1966 pilot for a proposed Meet Me In St. Louis TV series (closing the loop on the film's sitcom connection). The main feature includes an informative commentary track by Garland biographer John Fricke, who notes how Garland looks approachably beautiful throughout the film, but never really glamorous. She's most luminous while singing "The Trolley Song," where she makes the anxiety and joy of waiting for a promising new beau wonderfully real. Garland's sparkling plainness embodies the theme of Meet Me In St. Louis, which assured wartime audiences that nothing in the world could match the sweet stew of disappointment and happiness found at home.