Review: Meet Me in St. Louis (1959) CBS TV Special

It’s difficult to improve on perfection.

While this two-hour CBS 1959 TV Special may not be a remake, it pales when compared to the original.

The first “television special of 1959” was an adaptation of  the 1944 film “Meet Me In St. Louis” starring Judy Garland, Mary Astor, Leon Ames, Margaret O’Brien, Marjorie Main, Tom Drake and Lucille Bremer.

(L) Judy Garland and Tom Drake in the 1944 "Meet Me in St. Louis." (R) Jane Powell and Tab Hunter reprising their roles in a 1959 TV Special.

(L) Judy Garland and Tom Drake in the 1944 “Meet Me in St. Louis.” (R) Jane Powell and Tab Hunter reprising their roles in a 1959 TV Special.

Adapted from short stories written by Sally Benson, the story follows the Smith family who lives in St. Louis. The story begins in the Summer of 1903 and is broken into segments: Summer, Fall of 1903 with Halloween, Winter of 1903 with Christmas and Summer again in 1904. The story ends as the family goes to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

The lead, Esther, falls in love with the boy next door named John Truitt and the oldest sister Rose is a flirt who likes older men. The younger daughters Tootie and Agnes cause mischief.

The main conflict in the story is when the father announces the family has to move to New York for his job.

In the film, Garland plays Esther and Bremer plays Rose. O’Brien plays Tootie, and Ames and Astor are the parents. Tom Drake plays John Truitt, Marjorie Main is Katie the Maid, and Davenport plays Grandpa.

The 1944 film has a steller cast, but the 1959 cast is equally impressive:

Jane Powell as Esther, Jeanne Crain as Rose, Patty Duke as Tootie, Tab Hunter as John Truitt, Myrna Loy as Mrs. Anna Smith, Walter Pidgeon as Mr. Alanzo Smith, Reta Shaw as Katie the Maid, Ed Wynn as Grandpa and Kelly Brown as Lon Smith.

Many of the scenes and lines are similar to the 1944 film, if not identical, but there are some subtle differences in the film and the TV version:

-In the 1944 version, the brother Lon doesn’t have a great deal of screen time. The TV special version of the “Skip to My Lou” number at Lon’s going away party is much more elaborate. Lon becomes the star of the show. He leaps and jumps over girls. The number almost comes across more like the Barn Raising from “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” than a carefree, casual dance at a party.

-In the 1959 version, Esther’s whole family ribs her about her crush on John Truitt, and Mom even helps her pick out a hat suitable for “catching a man.” I found this pretty hokey. And who’s Mom would really do that?

-The iconic “Trolley Song” number from the 1944 film is obviously shot while the singers are on the trolley and the trolley is (supposedly) moving. The teenagers are riding the trolley to the swamp to see what progress has been made on what will be the 1904 World’s Fair grounds. In the 1959 version, the singers and dancers aren’t actually on the trolley for the majority of the song. However, I’m sure this had to do with limitations of a television studio. Also in the TV special Esther isn’t as surprised when John Truitt arrives on the trolley, they had a date to go to the swamp together.

Tab Hunter and Jane Powell in the trolley song (yes this is about how the quality is.

Tab Hunter and Jane Powell in the trolley song (yes this is about how the quality is.

-Unlike the 1944 version, we see the characters at the swamp in the television special. It’s fun but not entirely necessary. During their time at the swamp, Hunter sings “Boys and Girls Like You and Me” which was dropped from the 1944 print.

-In the Halloween scene, Tootie said John Truitt “tried to kill her” and Ether goes and hits him (and later apologizes when she learns the truth) to defend her little sister. In the 1959 version, Hunter sings “When Did This Feeling Begin” after this scene- giving John Truitt’s character two songs in the special. Truitt doesn’t sing at all in the film.

-After Esther sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” in the film- Tootie goes berserk and knocks down snowmen in the backyard. On TV, Tootie digs up her “dead” dolls from the backyard.  Mother comes to comfort her rather than Esther.

-The TV Special ends with the family walking off the porch to go to the World’s Fair, rather than them actually going to the fair like in the film. Again, this probably had to do with television limitations.

While I love every actor in the 1959 TV Special something is just severally lacking.

Jane Powell sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to Patty Duke.

Jane Powell sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Patty Duke.

Jane Powell is one of my favorite actresses of all time, but let’s face it, she just isn’t Judy Garland. Comparing the two is really like trying to compare apples and oranges.

Garland brought a bit more sass and warmth to the role, while Powell could have easily been doing a continuation of her awkward, coming-of-age character in “Two Weeks with Love.”

Powell and Garland have very different singing styles, but they are equally pleasant. Hearing songs like “The Boy Next Door” and “The Trolley Song” sung more operatically is a bit different if you are used to hearing the songs performed the way Garland does.

Myrna Loy is another one of my favorites, but I didn’t care for her as the mother in this special. Maybe it was the script, but she was a bit dreamy and sweet. Mary Astor’s role was more of a strong mother, in my opinion.

Jeanne Crain’s Rose was less snooty than Lucille Bremer. Though it might be unbelievable, Patty Duke’s Tootie was sometimes as annoying or worse than Margaret O’Brien’s. Mainly because Duke would flat out screech, like how “John Truitt tried to kill” her. O’Brien’s specialty was tears rather than screaming.

I think the only casting I flat out disagreed with was Tab Hunter, who was an odd John Truitt to me. However, I don’t have any other suggestions for a “Boy Next Door” type in 1959.

The one actor I loved the most in the TV role was Walter Pidgeon. He has a fatherly warmth but is also a good curmudgeon.

With top-notch actors in the roles, I’m not sure what fell flat for me with the TV special. It wasn’t bad or terrible, just different.

The 1944 film is charming, colorful, nostalgic and poignant. It makes you laugh, sigh, cry and you don’t want the film to end. I wasn’t sad when the 1959 special ended. I was maybe even slightly relieved. The story was again reused in 1966 non-musical television pilot starring Shelley Fabares as Esther, Celeste Holm as Mrs. Anna Smith and Morgan Brittany as Agnes.

While I wouldn’t call the CBS “Meet Me in St. Louis” a remake, it didn’t improve upon what was already in place. With a new cast, adding extra songs and originally deleted scenes, you just can’t improve on perfection.

 If you want to watch the 1959 CBS TV Special sponsored by West Clocks, you can find it here on Youtube. The quality is terrible but watchable.

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Musical Monday: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

meet meThis week’s musical:
Meet Me In St. Louis” –Musical #10

Studio:
MGM

Director:
Vincente Minnelli

Starring:
Judy Garland, Mary Astor, Leon Ames, Margaret O’Brien, Lucille Bremer, Marjorie Main, Tom Drake, June Lockhart, Harry Davenport, Chill Wills, Joan Carroll.

Plot:
Meet Me In St. Louis” revolves around the Smith family who lives in St. Louis and follows them from Summer of 1903 until the 1904 World’s Fair. The film is broken up into story segments such as Summer, Fall of 1903 with Halloween, Winter of 1903 with Christmas and Summer of 1904 when they go to the World’s Fair.
Esther (Garland) falls in love the boy next door, John Truitt (Drake) and her sister Rose (Bremer) is a flirt who likes older men. The two younger sisters Tootie (O’Brien) and Agnes (Carroll) cause mischief. The conflict comes when their father (Ames) needs to move the family to New York.

Trivia:
-Van Johnson was originally supposed to play John Truitt rather than Tom Drake.
-The daughter of a lighting man was originally cast as Tootie. When O’Brien was cast instead, the lighting man intentionally attempted to drop a light on O’Brien.
-Arthur Freed dubbed Leon Ames’s singing voice.
-Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli met on this film. They were married from 1945 to 1951.
-Garland was 21 when she was in this movie and was disappointed to play another teenager. She wanted to move on to other adult roles.
-”Meet Me in St. Louis” was made into a Broadway show in 1989, according to “Hollywood Musicals Year by Year” by Stanley Green.
-Director Vincente Minnelli’s first film hit, according to The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity by Raymond Knapp

Judy Garland as Esther singing "The Trolley Song"

Judy Garland as Esther singing “The Trolley Song”

-The film is based off a series of autobiographical stories by Sally Benson published in “The New Yorker,” according to Knapp’s book
-A personal favorite film of producer Arthur Freed.
-The highest grossing film at the time for MGM since “Gone with the Wind” (1939).
-The film was remade twice for television. Once in 1959 starring Jane Powell, Jeanne Crain, Patty Duke, Walter Pidgeon and Myrna Loy. The second time was in 1966 starring Shelley Fabares and Celeste Holm.

Highlights:
-The terrific cast. Though the leads are amazing, I would argue that the secondary leads of Marjorie Main and Harry Davenport steal the show.
-Lon’s going away party with “Skip to My Lou” and Tootie and Esther singing “The Cake Walk” is one of my favorite parts.
-I love the holiday portions of the film such as:
-Halloween: Tootie and Agnes trick-or-treating in their spooky costumes-Agnes as a drunken ghost and Tootie as a horrible ghost. The two are dared to throw flour on neighbors and shout “I HATE YOU.” I’m always shocked that these kids parents don’t care they are starting a huge bonfire in the middle of the neighborhood.

Margaret O'Brien as Tootie being the "most horrible"

Margaret O’Brien as Tootie being the “most horrible”

-Christmas: Esther (Garland) and Rose (Bremer) go to a dance and try to sabotage Lucille Ballard’s (Lockhart) dance card by giving her dopey boys to dance with. The scene where Esther dances with all of the silly boys is hilarious.
-More Christmas: Tootie (O’Brien) is a snowman murderer. Tootie is upset the family is moving so she destroys the snowmen.
-And then there is Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully)

Notable Songs:
-The Trolly Song sung by Judy Garland. The most famous song in the film. It’s such fun and Garland did the scene in one take.
-”Skip to My Lou”/”Under the Bamboo Tree” sung by Judy Garland and Lucille Bremer during the party scene. It’s so fun and I wish my party was like this.

-”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sung by Judy Garland is also another famous song from the film. It makes me mother cry every time. And I have recently inherited sappily crying during the scene.
-”The Boy Next Door” sung by Judy Garland

My Review:
This is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s one of those movies that I have been watching since I was a baby and it never gets old. The humor, the gorgeous Technicolor and the wonderful songs. The story flows well and the songs fit in effortlessly.
I can’t think about this movie without smiling.

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Classics in the Carolinas: Arthur Freed

Comet Over Hollywood is doing a mini-series of “Classics in the Carolinas.” I’ll be spotlighting classic movie related topics in South Carolina (my home state) and North Carolina (where I currently live and work).

Annie Get Your Gun, Bandwagon, Singin' in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis are just a few MGM musicals Arthur Freed produced.

Annie Get Your Gun, Bandwagon, Singin’ in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis are just a few MGM musicals Arthur Freed produced.

Singin in the Rain” (1952), “Show Boat” (1950) and “Meet Me in St Louis” (1944)

These are just a few of the well-known, Technicolor MGM musicals that producer Arthur Freed produced.

But before working with some of Hollywood’s most talented stars, Freed was born down south.

Freed, real name Arthur Grossman, was born in 1894 in Charleston, S.C.

His parents, sister and brothers were a musical family. Freed’s father, Max, emigrated from Budapest in the 1880s.

Max Freed sold zithers and encouraged his children’s musical talents. Arthur’s brother Walter became an organist, Sydney and Clarence had recording businesses in Hollywood, Ralph was a songwriter and Ruth also wrote several songs, according to M-G-M’s Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit by Hugh Fordin.

Nacio Herb Brown (left) and Arthur Freed (right) in 1929. The two wrote several songs together.

Nacio Herb Brown (left) and Arthur Freed (right) in 1929. The two wrote several songs together.

Though Freed was born in Charleston, he was raised in Seattle, Washington, educated in New Hampshire and started his music career as a song plugger in Chicago.

In Chicago, Minnie Marx, mother of the Marx Brothers, discovered Freed who sang and wrote material for the brothers in vaudeville shows, according to Billboard Aug. 1950.

In 1928, Freed got a job at MGM studios where he wrote songs with Nacio Herb Brown such as “Broadway Melody,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “You are My Lucky Star” and “Temptation.”

Freed began producing films in the late 1930s and became interested in helping promote Judy Garland’s career.

Judy Garland and Arthur Freed

Judy Garland and Arthur Freed

From 1939 to 1960, Arthur Freed produced 44 films. It’s safe to say I have seen every Freed production.

After working with  some of MGM’s top talents and winning an Academy Award for Best Picture for “Gigi,” Freed left the studio in 1961.

Freed died at the age of 78 in 1973 and was buried in Culver City, California.

Although Freed did not spend much of his life in Charleston, I felt it important that one of Hollywood’s most prolific producers was born in my birth state of South Carolina.

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The years Margaret O’Brien ruined Christmas

Though some people find 1940s child actress Margaret O’Brien cute and spunky, I think she is a nuisance. Particularly at Christmas time.

1940s child actress, Margaret O'Brien

1940s child actress, Margaret O’Brien

From attacking snowmen to nearly killing her pregnant mother, O’Brien can really put a damper on the Christmas season.

Her brattiness particularly shines through in two Christmas films “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) and “Tenth Avenue Angel” (1948):

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944):

“Meet Me in St. Louis,” a personal favorite, is simply the story of a family, set in the early 1900s when the World’s Fair is coming to St. Louis. The family has four daughters: Rose (Lucille Bremer), Esther (Judy Garland), Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien)

Though Garland is the true star of this film, O’Brien steals several scenes by simply being a brat.

I’m fairly convinced that Tootie manipulates her family by being an obnoxious brat and turning on the waterworks in order to get what she wants.

O'Brien as Tootie telling lies to Mary Astor, playing her mother-saying that John Truitt tried to kill her on Halloween.

O’Brien as Tootie telling lies to Mary Astor, playing her mother-saying that John Truitt tried to kill her on Halloween.

At the start of the film, Tootie tells the iceman (Chill Wills) that her doll has “four fatal disease” and how she will bury  her and have a funeral for a perfectly good doll (maybe this is just a ploy to get new toys?).

At Halloween she really is a little hellion. She throws flour in the face of an unsuspecting neighbor and shouts “I hate you!”-part of a turn-of-the-century Halloween tradition that we never should bring back.

Still on Halloween, she nearly turns her sister Esther (Judy Garland) against her boyfriend John Truitt (Tom Drake).

Tootie and Agnes stuff a dress and put it on the trolley tracks. John Truitt drags Agnes and Tootie out of the way so they don’t get hurt or caught by police. As a result, Tootie splits her lip and loses a tooth.

She is carried into the house sobbing and saying, “John Truitt tried to kill me!” prompting Esther to go next door and beat him up.  Her family comforts Tootie by letting her wear one of Esther’s nightgowns and giving her a gigantic piece of cake (has anyone else noticed cake in classic films is HUGE?). Even after her mother (Mary Astor) discovers Tootie was lying, they let her keep the cake and nightgown, because she was a “good girl when the doctor was there.”

But the real clincher is the Christmas scene.

O'Brien attacking snowmen early Christmas morning (screencapped by me)

O’Brien attacking snowmen early Christmas morning (screencapped by me)

Understandably, Tootie is upset about leaving their home in St. Louis to move to New York.  Esther comforts her younger sister by singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Does this calm the child down? No! Inexplicably, she runs outside in the snow after midnight, starts attacking snowmen they worked so hard to build earlier that day.

Because of Tootie’s crazed snowman moment, father (Leon Ames) changes his life plans to make his family happy, again Tootie getting her way.

Tenth Avenue Angel (1948):

In “Tenth Avenue Angel,” O’Brien plays Flavia; a little girl who lives with her pregnant mother Helen (Phyllis Thaxter) and Aunt Susan (Angela Lansbury).

Steve and Flavia wait to see if a cow will kneel for baby Jesus on Christmas morning. (screencapped by me)

Steve and Flavia wait to see if a cow will kneel for baby Jesus on Christmas morning. (screencapped by me)

Flavia was told that Susan’s boyfriend Steve (George Murphy) has been on a trip around the world but really he has been in jail.

Other harmless white lies and old wives tales are told to Flavia such as mice turn into money, cats all have nine lives and wishes on stars come true. When Flavia finds out none of these are true- including that Steve really didn’t travel around the world- she is sent over the edge.

“If it isn’t the truth then it’s a lie, isn’t it,” she says to her pregnant, bed-ridden mother. “I don’t know who to believe or what to believe. Everybody lies to me.”

In a Margaret O’Brien moment of hysterics complete with sobbing, she runs out of the apartment with mother running behind her, who falls down the stairs and becomes ill…basically because of Flavia.

However, regardless of her bratty moment, Flavia finds a miracle in order to save her mother.

And the cow kneels. This scene is utterly ridiculous. (screencapped by me)

And the cow kneels. This scene is utterly ridiculous. (screencapped by me)

The movie ends ridiculously with Flavia and Steve waiting at the stroke of midnight on Christmas morning to see if a cow will kneel to honor the newborn king-another old wives tale her mother told her.

If the cow kneels, it will be a miracle to make her mother better and will restore Flavia’s faith in her family. Lo and behold, the cow kneels and everyone lives happily ever after.

To review:

Maybe I’m being unnecessarily harsh because I’m simply not a fan of Margaret O’Brien. I’m not sure if O’Brien is the brat or if it’s the characters, but regardless I can’t take the sobbing and would be really angry if a hysterical little girl knocked down my snowman.

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Classic films in Music Videos: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Kenny G

This is December’s edition of Comet Over Hollywood’s classic film references in music videos.

Going with the Christmas season, is the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” played by Kenny G in 1997.

Though I’m not a Kenny G fan, I have to admit this is a very heartwarming video.

It stars classic film star Burgess Meredith, who’s career ranged from “Idiot’s Delight” (1939) to his role of the Penguin in the 1960s Batman TV show.

Meredith appears to be a projectionist at a movie theater who is sad, lonely and missing his family at Christmas.

He reminisces on past Christmases by watching clips of classic holiday films such as “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), “Miracle on 34th Street (1947), “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), “Little Women” (1949), “A Christmas Carol” (1938) and “Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945).

Meredith was 90 when this video was filmed. He died that same year of melanoma and Alzheimer’s disease, making this video a little more heartbreaking than it already is.

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