Judy Garland is at her soft-eyed, honey-voiced, urgently empathic best in this story of an upper-middle-class Smith family in St. Louis in the year leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair. But the film’s greatness comes mainly from its detailed and relatable depiction of the emotional ups and downs of three of the family’s daughters: Rose (Lucille Bremer), a proper beauty on the brink of marriage; the emotionally labile Esther (Garland), who’s nursing an enormous crush on the boy next door; and young Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), a strongwilled tomboy who gives the film its most wrenching scene when she knocks the heads off all her snowmen, heartbroken by the thought of the family leaving their beloved city (Dad’s been offered a promotion that would involve a move to New York). Director Vincent Minnelli dances nimbly on the line between comedy and drama, keeping the camera and the story moving as he cuts from one member of the family to another.
The family’s spacious yet homey house is the site of most of the action, including Esther’s ingenious plot to woo her beloved by enlisting his help to turn off the gas lamps after a party. As we learn at the garrulous nightly dinners, everyone knows everything about everyone else—except poor Father, the titular head of the family, who’s in the dark about practically everything. Most of the songs, like Garland’s poignant rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Xmas,” are woven so smoothly into the plot that the film barely registers as a musical, depicting as it does a slower and far less tech-dominated time, when people entertained one another by singing at parties. Written for Brooklyn Magazine