Margaret O'Brien's mother wanted more money for her to play "Tootie" in the film. The studio then cast the young daughter of a lighting man working on the film, going so far as to even fit her with costumes. They then changed their minds and decided to go ahead and cast Margaret O'Brien. O'Brien was playing a scene when that lighting man intentionally dropped a heavy spotlight to the sound stage, narrowly missing the young actress. He was taken away and actually admitted to a mental institution for a time for his deed.
In "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", Judy Garland refused to sing the grim original line, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last" to little Margaret O'Brien. The line was dropped from the final version of the song.
Also going on at the time of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition were the Third Summer Olympic Games. They were the first Olympic Games to be held in the United States. Originally awarded to Chicago, President Theodore Roosevelt had the Games switched to St. Louis so that they would run at the same time as the World's Fair. This turned out to be a huge mistake. The Games merely became a side attraction to the fair's other events and turned out to be a first class disaster. They took nearly six months to complete and were very poorly run. Many competitors went to their graves without knowing that they had competed in the Olympics. As a result of these Games, the Olympic movement almost came to an end.
The book on which the film is based originally ran as a weekly feature in the New Yorker Magazine in 1942. For the film many of the actions attributed to Tootie were actually done in real life by Sally Benson's sister Agnes. Also in reality, Benson's father moved the family to NYC and they never did come back for the World's Fair.
The Halloween sequence on the street outside of the Smith home was primarily filmed from low angles, so that the movie audience would experience the Halloween night as though they were seeing it through the eyes of a child. When Tootie (Margaret O'Brien) embarks on her adventure to the Braukoff home, the houses appear to be large and looming.
Judy Garland was at first reluctant to accept the role of Esther Smith for fear of being typecast as a "girl next door" type, as she had played such a role in many of her previous films. By this point in her career, she had not only been married briefly, she was also a lover of Hollywood nightlife and had briefly dated many of the famous Hollywood playboys of the time, including Artie Shaw, Tyrone Power and Joe Mankiewicz. In real life, she was a far cry from the girl-next-door types she had played onscreen and wanted to be given the glamor treatment received by the other actresses at MGM. With encouragement from director Vincente Minnelli, who did see Garland as she had wanted to be seen for years (beautiful and womanly), make-up artist Dorothy "Dottie" Ponedel worked on Garland and brought out her natural beauty. Garland's eyebrows were modified to a more defined arch, her cheeks highlighted with a subtle blush, her nose discs and dental caps removed. Garland had worn the nose discs and dental caps in all of her previous films; the caps were worn to disguise her crooked teeth, the nose discs to turn up her nose and create a more pronounced profile. Ponedel threw away the discs and caps, telling Garland she was pretty enough not to need them. To create a glamorous effect, while at the same time drawing attention to Garland's full lips and large brown eyes, Ponedel applied a bright red lip color and false lashes, both of which became staples of Garland's signature look from that point onward. During filming, Minnelli used special lighting to display the results of Ponedel's handiwork effectively. Garland was very pleased with the results and even more impressed when she attended a screening of the film and saw herself onscreen, and later stated that working on this film was the first time she had ever felt beautiful. She would continue to work with Ponedel for the rest of her years at MGM.
The success of the film had encouraged MGM to create further movies involving the Smith family and was to be based on further tales of Sally Benson's family. MGM wanted to make sort of a deluxe color group of serials in the spirit of the popular "Andy Hardy" series. A proposed sequel titled "Meet Me in Manhattan" was in the works in which the Smith family actually moved to New York. (This happened in real life to Sally Benson's family.) However, the project never got out of planning stages and the film was never made.
Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland met on this movie, and married soon afterwards. Minnelli was the director for the film. Garland claimed she married him because she felt extremely beautiful during the film.
A flustered Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames) makes a sarcastic remark about embarking on a new career as a baseball player for the Baltimore Orioles. The major league team known as the Baltimore Orioles from 1901-1902 moved to New York City in 1903 and would eventually become known as the New York Yankees. (The scene in this film takes place in 1903, when the Baltimore Orioles was the name of a minor league team.) Oddly, the St. Louis Browns, a major league club from St. Louis at both the time the movie is set and the time it was made, would relocate in 1954 and become the modern-day Baltimore Orioles.
Judy Garland scoffed at the idea of portraying yet another teenager (she was 21 when filming began) and wanted nothing to do with the film. Her mother even went to MGM chief Louis B. Mayer on her behalf. However, Vincente Minnelli convinced her to play the part of Esther Smith, and Judy later fell in love with the story. In her later years she considered it one of her favorite roles.
Director Vincente Minnelli worked hard to make the movie as accurate to the times as possible. Not only did its novelist, Sally Benson, give explicit directions as to the decor of her home down to the last detail, but the movie's costume designer took inspiration for many of the movies costumes right out of the Sears & Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and Marshall Fields catalogs from the time period.
In "The Boy Next Door" Judy Garland sings that the Smith family lives at 5135 Kensington Avenue, which was also the title of Sally Benson's original stories. Kensington Avenue is still a residential street, though the lot at 5135 is now vacant.
Vincente Minnelli was impressed with Margaret O'Brien's exceptional acting at such a young age, though he found some of her methods "enervating." Minnelli explained, "Her mother and aunt would whisper to her just before we shot the dramatic sequences and, like the salivating of Pavlov's dog, Margaret would get highly emotional and cry. I often wondered what they said to her to get that reaction. I was soon to learn." Minnelli, according to his autobiography, discovered one of O'Brien's techniques during the scene in which Tootie, upset over the thought of leaving St. Louis, tearfully takes a stick to the snow people in the backyard and violently knocks them down. "Her mother came to me," said Minnelli. "'Margaret's angry at me tonight. She doesn't want me to work her up for the scene. You'll have to do it.' 'But how?' I asked. 'She has a little dog,' her mother replied. 'You'll have to say someone is going to kill that dog.'" Minnelli was reluctant to do something that seemed so harsh, but O'Brien's mother convinced him that it would elicit the emotional response that was needed for her to do the important scene. Minnelli eventually told O'Brien what her mother suggested about her dog, and on cue, the tears began to flow on camera. "She did the scene in one take...mercifully for me...and went skipping happily off the set," said Minnelli. "I went home feeling like a monster...I marvel that Margaret didn't turn out to be one too. That sort of preparation struck me as most unhealthy." In her mother's defense, years later Margaret O'Brien claimed that the story was false. "My mother would never have allowed that," said O'Brien in 2004. "June Allyson was also a big crier at the studio and so we had a little contest going: who was the best crier? So all my mother would have to say if I had a hard time crying was that maybe she'd better have the makeup man come over and spray the false tears instead of my crying the real tears, and that would upset me terribly, and then I would cry."
Composer Hugh Martin did not enjoy his experience writing the film's score. Although Martin greatly admired Judy Garland and the talent of those he was working with, he did not appreciate Producer Arthur Freed's volatile temperament, or the one-upsmanship and self important attitudes shared by the MGM hierarchy. He has said that he found all that showing off and competing for attention "depressing". A devout Christian, in later years he adapted "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" into "Have Yourself a "Blessed" Little Christmas" for several popular gospel singers, including Mahalia Jackson.
According to Mary Astor, "I walked into Judy's portable dressing room one tense morning and she greeted me with her usual cheery, 'Hi, Mom!' I sat down on the couch while she went on primping, and said, 'Judy, what the hell's happened to you? You were a trouper - once.' She stared at me. I went on, 'You have kept the entire company out there waiting for two hours. Waiting for you to favor us with your presence. You know we're stuck - there's nothing we can do without you at the moment.' She giggled and said, 'Yeah, that's what everybody's been telling me.' That bugged me and I said, 'Well, then, either get the hell on the set or I'm going home.' She grabbed me by the hand, and her face had crumpled up, 'I don't sleep, Mom!' And I said, 'Well, go to bed earlier then - like we all have to do. You're not so damn special, baby!' and stalked out in my own unthinking high dudgeon. It was some years later before I really knew what she'd been going through."
A former child star herself, Judy Garland couldn't help but be concerned about young Margaret O'Brien. Garland was worried that O'Brien was being overworked and was missing out on her childhood. However, O'Brien herself said in a 2004 interview that while she appreciated Garland's concern, this was not the case. O'Brien loved her time acting, and the child labor laws had been strengthened in the time since Garland had been an underage star. "Tootie was fun because I could do a lot of the things I maybe wouldn't normally do myself," said O'Brien, "and she was really kind of bratty and mischievous, so I loved playing Tootie."
According to Mary Astor, Margaret O'Brien was quite mischievous on set. "Margaret O'Brien was at her most appealing (I might say 'appalling') age. And she could cry at the drop of a cue. Real tears, an endless flow, with apparently no emotional drain whatsoever. She was a quiet, almost too-well-behaved child, when her mother was on the set. When Mother was absent, it was another story and she was a pain in the neck."
The street on which the Smith home stood was built specifically for "Meet Me in St. Louis." Located on MGM's vast Backlot #3 that was at Jefferson and Overland Boulevards in Culver City,it was known at the studio as "St. Louis Street" and all of the houses that were on it were used in various film and television shows throughout the next 27 years, until Lot 3 was demolished to make way for an apartment and condominium project. Even in 1970, the last year of Lot 3's existence, the Smith home still looked like it did in 1944, minus the set dressings, of course.
1940's interior sound stage and exterior set movie lighting equipment used Klegl Brothers lamp fixtures equipped with carbon-arc lamps. These lamps became famous for being so bright that it hurt the eyes of the actors, causing them to wear sun glasses during camera rehearsals. In the "Meet Me in St. Louis" after party sequence between Esther Smith and neighbour John Truett, Esther asks John to stay while she turns off the rooms lighting, gas-sourced chandeliers, in the living room, dining room, entrance hallway, and main staircase. Klegl carbon-arc lamps can not be dimmed. In the 1940's, movie studios did not have dimmer boards for the movie Klegl lighting fixtures. For this sequence, to create the illusion of the set's gas light fixtures being turned off, large Venetian blinds were hung in front of the carbon-arc set lighting fixtures. As Esther and John turn off each chandelier, the electrician-grip would close the Venetian blind hung in front of the set lighting lamp, hanging in the stage-set's overhead scaffolding cat-walk surrounding the set wall perimeter. Closing the Venetian blind closed off the light source creating the illusion of the chandelier being turned off. After John leaves the house, Esther's action is to ascend the staircase, where she turns the two staircase wall gas lamps back on! The electrician-grip, stationed at his assigned carbon-arc lamp, opened the Venetian blind in front of the carbon-arc lamp, creating the illusion that the staircase wall gas lamp fixture was re-lighted, lighting the staircase as Esther heads to her upstairs bedroom.
"The Trolley Song" was inspired by a caption in a book about the history of St. Louis. The book had a page with a picture of a turn-of-the-century trolley car, captioned "Clang! Clang! Clang! went the jolly little trolley."
After Tootie crashes Lon's going-away party, Esther asks her if she would like to recite "Did You Ever See a Rabbit Climb a Tree" for the company. This is a nonsense poem from "Father Goose: His Book" (1899) by L. Frank Baum, author of Judy Garland's most famous film, The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Mary Astor, who had previously played Judy Garland's mother in Listen, Darling (1938), recalled, "Judy was no longer a rotund little giggler, but her growing up was not maturing. "The fun was still there and she seemed to have great energy. But it was intense, driven, tremulous. Anxious. She was working way over the capacities of any human being. She was recording at night and playing in the picture in the day, and people got annoyed when she was late on the set, and when she got jittery and weepy with fatigue. Including myself. I often felt that her behavior during this period was due to bigshotitis and very unprofessional. Making a movie was a communal effort: Everyone depended on everyone else, and for one person to keep 150 other workers sitting around on a sound stage while she fiddled with her lipstick in her dressing room was just plain bad manners."
At the end of the film, John Truett, referring to the fairgrounds, says "I liked it better when it was a swamp, and it was just the two of us." This refers to a deleted scene, that took place after the trolley scene, when John and Esther visit the fairgrounds then under construction. This scene was set to the Rodgers and Hammerstein song "Boys And Girls Like You And Me" that was dropped from the final print.
First intended as a duet for Alfred Drake and Joan Roberts in the Broadway production of "Oklahoma!", the Rodgers & Hammerstein song "Boys and Girls Like You and Me" had been discarded from that 1943 Broadway triumph and replaced with "People Will Say We're in Love". MGM producer Arthur Freed then purchased screen rights to the song, planning to interpolate it into the film score as a Judy Garland solo, but her rendition was cut from the picture. Miss Garland's Decca album of songs from the film included the song in an arrangement similar to her MGM prerecording. Later, the ballad was chosen to be crooned by Frank Sinatra to Betty Garrett in another Arthur Freed production, Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), but again the tune was deleted. The footage of Judy singing the song to Tom Drake no longer exists, but on the Warner Home Video special-edition DVD, the original audio recording is played over Garland-Drake production stills. Only about two or three seconds of footage from this sequence may be seen on the trailer in which Tom Drake's name is screened. It shows a medium shot of Tom Drake, and in the background, you can see some buildings supposedly under construction as they would appear in the surviving production stills.
According to Mary Astor, Margaret O'Brien liked to have fun with the prop master. For instance, when shooting a scene at the Smith family dinner table, all of the dishes and utensils had been laid out meticulously. "It was Maggie's favorite form of mischief, when his back was turned," said Astor, "to put things in disorder again, to reverse knives and forks, to put two napkin rings beside a plate. It would drive him nuts. And remember the strong caste system on the sets: she was a star and he was just a lowly property man, so all he could do was to smile and say, 'Please, Maggie dear!' when he'd have liked to have shaken her."
The Broadway stage version of "Meet Me In St. Louis" opened at the George Gershwin Theater on November 2, 1989, ran for 252 performances and for nominated for the 1990 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Book and Score.
The entire cast and crew were immediately impressed with Vincente Minnelli's attention to detail in every shot. He had consulted author Sally Benson on how the interiors of the Smith home should look, and she had provided a wealth of first-hand information. As a result, the look of each set was near perfection according to the time period. According to Mary Astor, "The only anachronisms were the girls' long-swinging hairdos. Girls 'put their hair up' as soon as they got out of pigtails, the first instant they were allowed to by reluctant parents. It was a symbol, like the first long pants for boys."
Judy Garland hated rehearsing for her scenes, and Vincente Minnelli liked to have a lot of rehearsals. She took to sneaking off the set early in order to avoid them. "She'd get in her car and zoom off before I had a chance to call a run-through;" said Minnelli. "I'd phone to the studio gate to intercept her."
According to Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland initially didn't care for the film. When they first started shooting, she was reading her lines in a way that poked fun at the script. At that point Minnelli believed that Garland's co-star Lucille Bremer was doing a better job than she because Bremer understood the role better and delivered every line with utter sincerity. Minnelli took Garland aside and asked her to do the same. "I want you to read your lines as if you mean every word," he advised her.
Throughout the shoot, Judy Garland continued to have problems. Arthur Freed had a talk with her one day in her dressing room and then told Vincente Minnelli what was on Garland's mind. "She said she doesn't know what you want...She doesn't feel she can act anymore," said Freed. Minnelli was worried, but Freed reassured him. "Don't worry," Freed said. "It'll work out. I told Judy you know what you're doing and to trust you." Minnelli remained determined to coax a good performance out of her. "I didn't give up trying to reach her," said Minnelli. "I eventually could tell Judy what I wanted her to do with just a look, but at first I had to find the key words to get her to react. What seemed obvious to me was perplexing to her. Though the lines seemed silly to her, she had to believe in them. Each of Esther's crises, no matter how minor, had to be treated like the 1929 crash. Finally the message got to her...I still don't know how. Once she grasped the motivation, she was as brilliant in the dramatic scenes as she's been in the musical numbers. She was alternately wistful and exuberant, but always endearing."
Introducing Tootie riding in the horse drawn cart with Mr. Neely, this single camera sequence was filmed on the MGM sound stage in film process. The "moving background projected screen action" had been previously filmed by a second unit filming company, coordinated with extras, horse drawn and motorized vehicles moving as background action. The exterior MGM-Culver City back-lot set's background reveal the existing Culver City foothill terrain, located behind the exterior Victorian street set. Ignoring the fact that St. Louis is flat land country, the back-lot newly constructed Victorian Saint Louis street had "foothills". The "Trolley" sequence was also filmed on the same MGM sound stage in film process. The "process plates" are projected by a motion picture projector onto a "rear screen" set directly in center line with the film camera's lens. The distance between the projector and the rear screen requires approximately 200' of separation. The film process requires a huge stage for the process projector/screen set-up, which also must include the vehicle and actor's film action occurring in front of the screen projection screen.
After principle photography was completed, Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland visited NYC during the production process period of the film. Staying at the Plaza Hotel, Vincent and Judy attended the S.M. Berman (author) Broadway comedy, in three acts, "The Pirate". Minnelli's "Meet Me in St. Louis" art director, Lemuel Ayers, recommended the play for Minnelli's future project. "The Pirate", produced by The Theatre Guild, (177 performances) featuring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, with a cast of 38. The play's Scenic Designer was Lemuel Ayers. The play's costume designs were by Miles White, with the costumes executed by Madam Barbara Karinska. Directed and staged by Alfred Lunt, the comedy was performed at the Martin Beck Theatre. Enamored with the comedy, Minnelli called the studio asking MGM to purchase "The Pirate" filming property rights for him, as a follow up project after "Meet Me in St. Louis" was completed. After investigating, the MGM production office responded "we already own it!" Minnelli and Garland repeatedly attended the play's performances during their NYC stay, with Minnelli inscribing sketches and notes of the sets, costumes, and production details.