Scene Stealers: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

I think I've professed before (and again and again) my deep admiration for entertainment legend Judy Garland. It may come as no surprise the special admiration I hold her rendition of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas from the Christmas classic film Meet Me In St Louis. Her role as Esther Smith in this loving upbeat musical directed by Vincent Minnelli tops as one of my all-time favorite scenes and films. It's something that I can't pass up enjoying during the Christmas festivities.

Based on Sally Benson's short stories for The New Yorker, which chronicled her family living through 1891-1910, we follow the Smith family for a year in their hometown St. Louis. Leading up to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World's Fair making their town the "center of the universe", a turn-of-the-century clan live a serene and dreamy life where everyone is optimistic, hopeful, and full of promise. The household is alive and glows through the months of spring, summer, fall, and winter as the teenage daughters Esther (Judy Garland) and Rose (Lucille Bremmer) are facing young love with their beaus, and the more wily younger daughters dream up fatal diseases for their dolls and play outside all day long.

Halfway through the movie, just when life in the Smith house seems to be going everyone's way, Alonzo Smith (the father) receives a promotion and must uproot the family to the fast and energetic New York City before the new year. Sparkling hopes of staying with the boy next door, visiting the Louisiana Fair, and continuing a familiar life of home sweet home is dramatically dashed.

Perched at the younger tike's bedroom as they gaze outside to their backyard filled with snow people, Esther ponders the engagement she just received from her beau and the separation of her family heading to New York City. Trying to cheer up her little Margaret O'Brien, Garland winds up an old musical toy and croons the now-holiday classic standard: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.

Up until this memorable moment in the film, the Smith household had been filled with warm and fuzzy charm. As we watch the family's pursuits and daily activities burst with life season to season, nostalgia seems to pour out from the film. Alonzo and Anna are fantasy parents who are biting as well as loving and supporting. Being a teenager in love and gnabbing your heart's desire tug on our heartstrings as Esther charms her way into the heart of the boy next door. Plenty of comedy ensues in the smallest of lines and pauses as life on Kensington Avenue is a graceful and enchanting time capsule of a simpler time gone by - when going to a holiday dance with your brother instead of a boyfriend was the most embarrassing encounter for a young woman on the cusp of womanhood.

As with many films and iconic scenes from Classic Hollywood, it's hard to imagine what Meet Me In St. Louis would've been like without Esther singing to her little sister. It's harder still to think that the song almost didn't make into the final cut.


Songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine wrote the signature song, however the original version was much more grim. Martin was working on the tune relentlessly and in a fit of frustration threw it into a wastebasket. His songwriting partner Ralph Blaine having heard the unfinished tune convinced him it was too good to toss out - luckily digging into the trash they found it.

But that didn't stop the hurdles that came with finishing the song. Martin - a young and admittedly arrogant songwriter - wrote bleaker lyrics that expressed the separation of the family and their inevitable move apart rather than the final version we see of hope and family staying together through the years.

Having noticed that the song was too dark to be singing to juvenile starlet Margaret O'Brien, Garland asked for a revision. She remarked that if audiences saw her singing of everyone parting ways with no hope of knowing when they would reunite, people would think she was "a monster". Martin refused - until her co-star Tom Drake (John Truett) took him aside and pleaded him to finish the song because it had tremendous potential. The version we see in the film is the final product.

Once the last note of the song is sung, Alonzo witnesses Esther chasing after Ruth to the backyard. Her young sister declares that if she had to go to New York City without her snowpeople, St. Louis couldn't have them either, and she strikes them with an umbrella until they collapse. After a meditative moment to himself, the father awakened with an aha moment summons the entire family into the living room. He brashly and promptly decides what his loved ones have felt along: The Big Apple doesn't have a copyright on opportunity. They will stay together right there in St. Louis, afterall. A very Merry Christmas present to them all, indeed!

While there are plenty of enjoyable moments throughout the movie of comedy and songs, the sentimentality of Garland singing Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas always gives me great pause. It's such a tender scene watching Garland remain hopeful through her tears and O'Brien bursting into sobs. The lyrics themselves always remind me to enjoy the Christmas we have right now and not any obstacles that might follow afterwards.

Garland's smooth and tender voice makes it as beautiful as it ever could be. Startling, as the decades sared by the songs' lyrics were changed once again to make the song more upbeat. Dare I say, despite all of its covers that have been mastered by legends like Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, Garland's is the best one yet and perhaps forever.

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