A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to take a tour of about ten historic homes in St. Louis. It was in the Lafayette Square neighborhood–an entire block filled with grand old homes like the ones from Meet Me in St. Louis. I thought I had died and gone to house heaven!
If you’re a long-time reader of my blog, you may remember that my original header was a photo I took there. Watching this movie is like going back in time and seeing how that neighborhood must have looked like in its heyday.
The story takes place at the turn of the century in St. Louis, Missouri, when the World’s Fair was right around the corner (1904). The Smith family lived in this grand Second Empire Victorian home on 5135 Kensington Avenue with their five children (and Grandpa!).
Kensington Avenue, lined with beautiful, stately homes, was constructed at great cost by MGM for the movie. Known as “St. Louis Street,” it can also be seen in films like Cheaper by the Dozen, In the Good Old Summertime, and Good News.
Judy Garland was 21 years old when she played Esther Smith. She famously turned down the role at first because she was tired of playing the ingenue and wanted a “grown-up role.” She was finally talked into it by the screenwriter, Irving Brecher, who was a friend of hers.
The movie changed her life because she met–and married–the director, Vincente Minnelli. (His real name: the less romantic-sounding Lester Minnelli.)
Rose Smith was played by newcomer Lucille Bremer, who only spent four years in Hollywood before retiring from show business to start a family.
A lot of the action takes place around this beautiful staircase in the entry:
At the end of the movie, when they are packing up their belongings to move to New York, we get this view of the staircase looking kind of bleak and sad with the paintings removed:
The movie was based on Sally Benson’s collection of short stories for The New Yorker. Benson (whose maiden name was Smith) wrote about her life on Kensington Avenue where her family lived from 1891-1910. The stories were adapted for film by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe . She helped the filmmakers get all of the period details right, from the clothes to the sets.
Benson’s home in St. Louis was demolished in 1994 after standing empty and uninhabitable for years. Here’s what it looked like:
Here is a house that just sold on the real Kensington Avenue, a few doors down from where Benson lived. It was built in 1903, and you can see similarities to the illustration above (asking price in 2009: a paltry $24,000):
Back to the movie, which is so much prettier than reality…
In this scene, the family gathers to discuss the move to New York City. The dad, played by Leon Ames, has decided not to take the job in New York after all because he realizes how important home is to his family.
In reality, Sally Benson’s dad had no such revelation, and her family did move to New York, leaving their beloved Kensington Avenue house behind. They didn’t return for the World’s Fair.
A sequel called Meet Me in Manhattan was talked about, but it never came about.
I was surprised to read that Leon Ames, who played Mr. Smith, was only 42 when it was filmed.
I love all the detail over the fireplace and the windows flanking it:
The dining room:
Rose gets a long-distance phone call during dinner, which is a big deal (I love how they shouted into the phone at each other). The family listens in:
There’s a pass-through into the kitchen that the maid used (Marjorie Main, of Ma and Pa Kettle fame):
A glimpse of the back hall that leads to the kitchen:
“Nowadays,” Esther Smith says in the film, “you can’t get a maid for less than $12 a month!”
I read that pots and pans were usually stored on open shelves because they were greasy. Closed cabinets would attract mice and other critters.
I wonder if there was really a bird in that birdcage by the window?
The movie’s costume designer reportedly created many of the movies costumes right out of the Sears & Roebuck catalog from the time period.
The house as it looked at Christmas time (the striped awnings are gone):
The snowman scene wasn’t the most realistic in the movie. There were no tracks in the snow where they walked in it, and no sign of snow having been scooped from the ground to build their snowmen. But it sure was pretty to look at! Love the neighbor’s house in the distance:
The upstairs landing:
A scene was cut that had taken place inside the master bedroom. Unfortunately, the film they took no longer exists. I would have loved to have seen that room!
The bathroom was only in the movie for less than a minute, but it wowed me with that window!
Grandpa’s room–with all of his hats:
Tootie, the youngest Smith, was memorably played by Margaret O’Brien. She turned 7 during the filming, and went on to star as Beth in Little Women a few years later.
Sally Benson, the author of the stories that the movie was based on, was called “Tootie” as a child. In real life, Tootie’s older sister Agnes pulled most of the pranks attributed to Tootie in the film.
Esther’s room is so girly, there’s even lace on the mantel:
This scene between Esther and Rose primping at the vanity mirror was the first one Minnelli shot. I read that he had to do many takes because he couldn’t get Judy Garland to be as “sincere” as he wanted her character to be. Once she understood what he was going for, the rest of filming went much more smoothly.
The movie took 5 months to shoot, from December 1943-April 1944.
Some of the kids’ antics on Halloween night seem bizarre to us today. Instead of trick-or-treating for candy, the kids carried bags of flour to the homes of their “enemies.” Back then, if you hit someone with flour on Halloween night, you could say that you “killed them.” Grandpa advises Tootie to get the flour wet first so it’ll stick.
The night was filled with mischief and bonfires in the streets. (I think I prefer our current Halloween traditions…)
Tootie pulls some pretty serious pranks and tells some pretty big lies that cause trouble on Halloween night. Her punishment? She only gets one bowl of ice cream for a treat. That’ll teach her!
The house in summer (at the end of the film):
All the Smith women were dressed in white and ready to go to the World’s Fair:
Sweet Sunday Mornings is a blog that does a really nice job with movie posts, including one about Meet Me In St. Louis that I enjoyed. She also gets into the costumes, which is interesting. I used a few of her screen shots here.
Here’s a photo of how the Meet Me in St. Louis house looked years later, in 1970, just before it was demolished:
St Louis Street, the MGM back lot where the streets were lined with Victorian homes built for Meet Me in St. Louis, is now sadly gone.
In 1970, MGM auctioned off most of its property, including St. Louis Street. Lot 3 was 80 acres with a lake, where they filmed Meet Me in St. Louis and all the MGM features. Now it’s lined with condos instead. (Thanks to Derek for the photos and information. I swear he knows everything!)
Vincente Minnelli’s childhood memories of his grandparents’ house in Delaware (below) was the inspiration for the house in the movie. It’s where he spent a lot of time when he was growing up. Vincente and Judy’s daughter Liza Minnelli says he wanted the house in Meet Me in St. Louis to be similar, with a “rolling front yard and big front porch.” (Read more about it here.)
Here’s a clip of Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to her little sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien)–the first time it appeared in a film. If this doesn’t get you in the holiday mood, nothing will!
P.S. My Hooked on Holiday House Tours party is still in full swing. Feel free to add your link if you haven’t already, and check out what everyone else has to share!