St. Louis came out in 1944, while we were mired in WWII, and played upon audiences' deep nostalgia for better times past. The story is simplicity itself and a prime example of MGM's most constant, potent message: There's no place like home. The film's ordinary Smith family of St. Louis lives through one year, starting in the summer of 1903, in rather mundane, Our Town nonaction. During the summer, older sisters Rose and Esther conspire for suitable beaux. In fall, father disrupts the family when he announces a new job that will move them to the big city of New York. At Christmas, the "boy next door" asks for Esther's hand. And throughout the year, everyone is frantic about the once-in-a-lifetime Louisiana Purchase Exhibition opening in the spring. Not much happens, yet everything happens. The camera literally dances, thanks to director Vincente Minnelli and the backstage studio wizards at MGM, who wove this homespun tale into the stuff of movie legend.
The movie's been a hit ever since its premiere, tugging at audiences' heartstrings as a wistful memorial to the end of the Victorian Era and the sprightly beginnings of a new century. The film's a hymn to America, its virtues and its dark underpinnings (youngster Tootie is a mass of psychotic yearning), and it fixes for eternity one of Garland's most assured performances. But in 1989, unable to let a good thing rest, South African producers Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke put this cinematic charmer on the stage, and all the fun faded out. The current version from Theatre Under the Stars is basically the same show that played on Broadway, with tinkering in the song positions and overhaul of the designs.
What kills this adaptation is the utter mediocrity of it. There's no sparkle, no color and not much movement, except for the expansive Victorian gingerbread of a house at 5135 Kensington Avenue, which opens and closes like out-of-control origami. Everyone's interchangeable: Rose and Esther, younger sisters Tootie and Agnes, brother Lon and neighbor John and Rose's suitor Warren. Everyone's much smaller. And a supremely uninspired score (by, of all people, the original writers Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane) has been slathered around the movie's famous songs. The score's all filler, with "specialty" numbers for everyone. The Irish maid struts, Mom remembers falling in love, Father romances mother, the family dreams of New York. An excruciatingly horrid dance number called "The Banjo" has been added for no purpose other than to give the corps an excuse to do something. So, instead of "The Trolley Song" and "The Boy Next Door" standing out, they're smothered amongst a catalog of third-rate songs that should have been cut in out-of-town tryouts.
Worse yet, there's no atmospheric Halloween sequence for Tootie, nor does she have her mini-breakdown at Christmas and obliterate her snowmen. The film's peculiarities have been buffed away, and what's left is a faded, out-of-focus valentine without much to recommend it. Rent the DVD.