For a so-called Christmas film this has precious little to do with Christmas. However, its climax occurs on Christmas eve, so it kind of fits.
The story concerns a family in St Louis in 1904. The World Fair is going to be held there the following spring, and everyone is excited by the news. The father of the family announces that they will all be moving to New York directly after Christmas, and he is surprised that his wife and children are upset by this. The remaining film addresses the looming move and how it will affect them.
The main character is 16-year-old Esther, played by then 21-year-old Judy Garland. Her character is focused on getting the attention of a boy who has moved in next door, and their romance develops throughout the movie. The concerns of Esther, her sister and friends, are very much focused in getting married, which was to be expected of girls at the time the film was set and even the time the film was made (1944). There are many aspects of this film that really haven’t aged very well.
Vincent Minelli was the director. This was an early film for him, though his repertoire later included musicals such as ‘An American in Paris’ and ‘Gigi’. This is a visually beautiful film, with gorgeous costumes and scenery. The house interiors were accurate for the period. The musical numbers are all beautifully choreographed.
The father, Alonso, played by Lon Ames, is rather strangely written in my opinion. His first appearance is when he returns from work while the family are trying to organize an early dinner so the eldest daughter Rose (Lucille Bremer) can have a private conversation with the boy she’s interested in when he makes an expected long-distance call. They tell Alonso this, citing a reason that is untrue (but he doesn’t know this). He has just shouted at his eldest daughters for singing, and now informs his wife that he doesn’t care about any emergency and that they will have dinner at the usual time. He threatens to spank his youngest daughter (who is five) because she left a skate on the stairs and he tripped on it, and when he discovers about the phone call, rants at the children because he didn’t know about it. I suspect this may have been intended to be funny. I found the character extremely unsympathetic.
The next time we see him is Hallowe’en, when he announces to the whole family out of the blue that they are all moving to New York straight after Christmas for his work. It does not seem to have occurred to him that his wife and children might find it distressing to leave friends and plans, and that the servant was probably not keen to hear she would soon be out of a job so abruptly. He then sulks when no one is happy. This character is written as so oblivious that it has not occurred to him that telling his wife privately first might have been better, and then discussing how best to break it to their children. He seems very thoughtless. Surely even Dads from that era would care a bit more about their kids’ feelings.
Margaret O’Brien played the youngest daughter, Tootie. I was not entirely clear why this character had been written as such an odd child, doing things like deciding her dolls were dying of fatal diseases and conducting funerals for them. She is at the centre of the Hallowe’en sequence, which is filmed from a low angle to simulate a child’s perspective, so the house she goes up to seems very large and looming. From a modern perspective, it is a bit of a cringe-worthy moment to see the children unattended and throwing random items on a fire, not to mention throwing flour in people’s faces, but it was appropriate for the time period. She also lies about an injury she gets this evening, and there seems to be no reason for it, other than to make an excuse for Esther to confront her boyfriend John. I couldn’t really see the point.
The oldest three children go to a dance on Christmas eve, which is marred by John telling Esther he can’t get his tux from the tailor and therefore cannot take her. Esther’s grandfather steps up to escort her, and during the dance John does turn up in a tuxedo, though we never find out where he got it. After the dance he proposes to her, and while she is glad to accept, it puts her in a dilemma as her family is on the verge of leaving. Esther goes home to find Tootie trying to wait up for Father Christmas. The following discussion ends in the beautiful song ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’, which Esther sings to Tootie in an unsuccessful attempt to encourage her. It’s a beautifully shot scene. In contrast to the other musical numbers with all their colour and movement, this scene has a static camera framing the window where the two are sitting. Their emotions of sadness and distress are clear. Esther struggles to comfort her sister because she’s not feeling very happy herself. The little girl runs out into the snow and destroys her snowmen because she can’t take them with her, sobbing hysterically throughout. But it is this that leads to the film’s Christmas miracle. The father finally realises just how distressed his children are, and he rethinks the move.
So it is a Christmas movie in the end. A difficult and upsetting situation is averted because a man finally understands that supporting his family is about more than simply making money. At the final scene the following year at the World Fair, Alonso, who has been very grumpy about the fuss caused by the fair, is there with his family to enjoy it, Esther and John are together, and all is right with the world. It is a picturesque, pretty film, and there is of course Judy Garland’s amazing voice to enjoy.
My final verdict? While it may have dated somewhat, it’s still a fun film to watch, with a good Christmas message.
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