How Judy Garland Shaped A Showtune Into a Holiday Classic

How Judy Garland Shaped A Showtune Into a Holiday Classic

If you love your movie musicals like I do, you have no doubt fallen in love with that special niche known as "The Judy Garland Musicals." Not many fans of classic Hollywood can get away with not having at least one Garland film amongst their favorites. In fact, many of us consider Judy Garland to be the premiere female star of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer years, with her tender and deeply felt interpretations of songs such as “You Made Me Love You”, "Over the Rainbow", "The Boy Next Door" and "The Man That Got Away". And yet, of all her great performances, arguably her most heartfelt and heartbreaking came from a song she herself helped to shape.

In 1944, America was ensconced in World War II, feeling the pain and sorrow of losing so many of its young people to an overseas war. People were looking for escapist entertainment that transported them to a more innocent time. The release of a movie musical called Meet Me in St. Louis was perfectly timed, a nostalgic look at love and family life in an idealist’s world (namely St. Louis: 1903-1904). Directed and designed by Vincente Minnelli, with his signature style of elegant detail and intimate camera work, the golden, honey-hued Meet Me in St. Louis summoned up a warmth and familiarity that appealed to a patriotic, yet wayward country.

What is Meet Me in St. Louis about? That's an interesting question to explore since it is not particularly the most plot-heavy musical. It is, essentially, a slice of life, or more specifically, four slices of life, as it follows the Smith Family, a large middle class clan, during four different seasons in the span of one year's time. Particular-focus is given to the daughter Esther (Garland) and her hi-jinx to win over the shy and handsome boy next door, and to the irrepressible youngest daughter Tootie who is always having fearless adventures throughout her beloved St. Louis neighborhood. It isn't until Mr. Smith announces that they are leaving St. Louis to move to New York City for a job promotion that the plot wheels begin to turn. Each member of the family mourns what they will lose with the relocation, climaxing in a Christmas Eve meltdown by Tootie where Esther consoles her with the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". It is one of the great moments of movie musical history, with the perfect song, sung by the perfect voice, in the perfect setting and situation.

It was not always meant to be that way.

Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin, the composing team that wrote the score for Meet Me in St. Louis, crafted some unforgettable songs for the piece. The longing "The Boy Next Door" and the whimsical "The Trolley Song" are undeniable classics of the film musical genre. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", which has now become a holiday classic, once had much darker lyrics that spoke of the family’s despair over leaving their home behind. So maudlin, in fact,  that Judy Garland refused to sing the song in its original state because she feared the lyrics would make her "look like a monster", Who would consider singing such horrific things to a child?

The original lyrics were as follows:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all
Be living in the past

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Pop that champagne cork
Next year we may all
Be living in New York


One can understand Garland's reticence to sing such bleak, hopeless lyrics to a child. At that point in her career, Garland was associated with a wholesome, family-friendly brand that made her the beloved performer of many.  What is more, Garland was truly on to something. The lyrics as first-written were a little too desperate and hopeless for a film that was steeped in nostalgia and familial love. It just didn't ring true to the balance of the piece. With the support of her co-star Tom Drake and Director Vincente Minnelli, her apprehensions were finally heard and the lyrics were altered to become:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles
Will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Keep the Yuletide gay
Next year all our troubles

will be miles away.

In the end, Martin and Blane conceded that the changes were for the best. Thank goodness that the song was softened to reflect a more hopeful outcome for the Smith family. In its new form, the ditty was poised to become the Christmas classic it would eventually be, catching the despair of the moment in the film, but doing so with a way that made it feel like their tragedy was a passing one; that through optimism, the family would become stronger and survive to have happy moments again.

It is hard to recognize any other version of this song than Ms. Garland's emotionally nuanced and soulful interpretation. Others have sung it well, but no one has captured the intimacy and heart of this song quite like Judy did. It is simply a matter of the perfect voice paired with the perfect song. It is also hard to respond to the lyric "Hang a shining star upon the highest bow" replacing "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" for subsequent recordings, the original words better conveying the palpable melancholy and quiet mournfulness of the song. 

The Binge-Watching Continues: 51 More Fabulous Broadway Flops

The Binge-Watching Continues: 51 More Fabulous Broadway Flops

More On Magoo: An In-Depth Look at Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol

More On Magoo: An In-Depth Look at Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol