5135 Kensington Street:

The Evolution of an American Classic

 

Open up a newspaper from the year 1904, and you’ll discover a world vastly different than the one in which we live. It will reveal a seemingly idyllic America that had not yet been exposed to glossy lip-stick ads, stock market crashes, the horrors of two World Wars, the television set, or Hollywood movies. Instead, you’ll find a world where people still took Sunday morning rides in their horse and buggy, families entertained each other with sing-alongs around the piano, and young lovers courted on the porch swing, not internet chat rooms. It is therefore no surprise that so many people inundated with the complexities of the modern world still enjoy escaping to this simpler time through plays and films like the MGM classic Meet Me in St. Louis over sixty years after its premiere.

            Like most films, however, Meet Me in St. Louis did not begin as a Hollywood screenplay, or a Broadway musical for that matter, but as a series of eight autobiographical vignettes entitled “5135 Kensington Street” that ran in the New Yorker magazine between 1941-42. Written by Sally Benson, a former bank-teller turned magazine writer, these stories drew from her memories of growing up in an 11-room Edwardian home in turn of the century St. Louis. Although her previous work had been known for its sophistication and sharp-edged wit, it was, ironically, these sweet, homespun tales that made a name for Benson. At one point, she actually even considered abandoning them, but their popularity was too great for her to give them up so easily. Not only did she eventually compile the stories into the book Meet Me in St. Louis—adding four more to make a complete set of twelve, one for each month of the year—but she also collaborated on the film treatment for the movie, which ultimately opened the door to a more lucrative screenwriting career that included a collaboration with playwright Thornton Wilder on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 noir thriller Shadow of a Doubt.

            However, the road from treatment to film was not a smooth one for Meet Me in St. Louis. Not only did studio executives feel the story had very little plot, but the series of treatments they commissioned never seemed to work until the team of Irving Brecher and Fred Finklehoffe were brought in. After making several substantial changes that included focusing the setting primarily on the family house and changing the ending so that the family stayed in St. Louis rather than move to New York, as Benson’s family had in reality done, these two veteran screenwriters worked with the musical team of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane to create a groundbreaking script.  Unlike previous Hollywood musicals in which the songs seemed inserted into the story, Meet Me in St. Louis seamlessly integrated the music so that the songs were motivated by the character’s situation. It set the bar for all the Hollywood musicals that would come after.

            With the script finished, shooting began, and a whole new set of problems surfaced, most notably a persistent battle of wills between novice director Vincente Minnelli and MGM star Judy Garland. At age 22, Garland had just begun to be accepted as more than a child star, and so she rebelled against this step backward into the role of a high school student in love with the boy next door. This frustration coupled with Minnelli meticulous direction, forcing her to do take after take to get the right performance, provoked Garland to not only complain to studio executives, but also entertain cast members on break with her impersonation of their dictator/director. However, once she began to see the remarkable performance he was bringing out in her during the dailies, Garland’s opinion of Minnelli took a 180 degree turn. By the time the film premiered in St. Louis on November 22, 1944, they had not only produced one of the greatest Hollywood musicals of all time, but also one of the most legendary Hollywood romances as well.