I remember sitting in the TV lounge in the dormitory in those pre-cable television days, watching "Meet Me In St. Louis" with a gaggle of college mates. The film is the 1944 romantic musical set in 1904 St. Louis, just before the World's Fair. The four Smith sisters learn their father must take a job in New York City and they will have to leave their home town.
On Christmas Eve, Judy Garland's character, Esther, comforts her distraught younger sister, Tootie, (played by Margaret O'Brien) by singing her a Christmas ballad.
I had never seen the movie or heard the song and what I heard then was a melancholy, glass-half-empty air, a Christmas song somehow grounded in reality, (OK, Hollywood reality), reflecting a nation at war and a family facing crisis, a song both hopeful and sad.
"Have yourself a merry little Christmas/
"Let your heart be light/
"Next year all our troubles/
"Will be out of sight."
It's been said that singers of ballads and sad songs should sing them as if they do not know how the song will end. The brilliant Garland, then just 22 years old, makes that happen.
"Someday soon we all will be together/
"If the fates allow/
"Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow
"So have yourself a merry little Christmas now."
The back story to the song is that from the beginnning the MGM folks and director Vincente Minnelli worried that "Merry Little Christmas" was, well, not merry enough. Upbeat changes were made, though "muddling though" somehow survived.
And in 1957, Frank Sinatra, who should have known better, lobbied for a lyric change as a condition of putting the song on a Christmas album. So "until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" was transformed into "hang a shining star upon the highest bough..." And there you have it.
By now, of course, I'm sick of the song. It's been covered by everyone from Jim Nabors to Celtic Women, from Tony Bennett to Gloria Estefan. It drones underneath holiday sitcoms and TV melodramas and crowds the radio. You cannot miss it if you try. But there was a moment.
So Merry Christmas, Judy, and thanks. And to Hugh Martin as well, who wrote the first "dark" version of the song and the one that made it into the movie.
NOTE: Hugh Martin died March 11, 2011