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Your Musical Advent Calendar, Part 5: "Meet Me in St. Louis."
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By Erich Vandussen
Erich Van Dussen's film reviews have been featured in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, and online for more than 20 years. He lives in the Finger Lakes region.
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Everybody loves Christmas carols and everyone loves Christmas movies, but did you ever consider how your favorite films use your favorite music? Fifth in a 12-part series.
Though it’s only associated with Christmas by an isolated sequence – assuming you think of it that way at all – Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis will always hold an honorary spot in the heart of any holiday music fan. This is the film that gave us “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” sung by Judy Garland to young Margaret O’Brien as a melancholy hymn of coping through an unhappy upcoming holiday.
And if you think the onscreen version sounded glum, you may never have heard about the original lyrics. According to a definitive article on the song published by Entertainment Weekly in 2007, composer Hugh Martin had conceived of the song as a legitimate downer: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last / Next years we may all be living in the past.” From that article:
''I often wondered what would it have been like if those lyrics had been sung in the movie,'' laughs O'Brien, now 69. ''But about a week before we were to shoot the scene where Judy sings it to me, she looked at the lyrics and said, 'Don't you think these are awfully dark? I'm going to go to Hugh Martin and see if he can lighten it up a little.'''
Martin eventually acquiesced, and the marginally less downbeat onscreen version became a huge hit – enough to attract the attention of Frank Sinatra, who decided it should be even more optimistic when he made his own recording. That’s why we now hear alternating lyrics of “Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow” or “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” depending on whose rendition is being sung on the radio.
As for Meet Me in St. Louis, its use of this modern classic carol underscores a different way of looking at Christmas: sometimes the holiday is more of a touchstone to get us through tough times. And it gave Garland (who ultimately married director Minnelli) the role of her career after The Wizard of Oz. Even with the depressing lyrics, she found a way to muddle through somehow.

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