Before watching the movie:
When I decided to cover jukebox musicals, I did some research to try to get some more variety. I found that Wikipedia is a bit lax with their definition of a jukebox musical. My impression is that they count any musical that has at least one preexisting song in it. However, a significant percentage of the songs in this show seem to be songs that were not originated for the production, and among those, many seem to be from the time the story is set in, if not already associated with the 1904 World’s Fair. It is at least close enough that I’ll take it.
That said, a lot of musicals from the golden age of Hollywood musicals have songs that originated with them but have become completely divorced from them and become standards. I’ve been taken by surprise by some other musicals, but in studying the musical credits I see that “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” both appear to have basically originated with this movie, but have long since come to stand on their own.
After watching the movie:
The Smith family live very comfortably in St. Louis thanks to their father Alonzo’s position as a partner in a law firm with reach across the country. The family includes four daughters and one son, as well as Grandpa. The older daughters Rose and Esther are courting age, and Rose hopes to marry Warren Sheffield, who has gone to an Ivy League school in New York, while Esther has a crush on the son of their next door neighbors the Truetts, though he has yet to notice her. In the summer of 1903, everyone in St. Louis, including the Smith family, is already excited about next year’s World’s Fair, much to Alonzo’s annoyance, and when the whole family arranges to have dinner an hour earlier so that Rose can take a long distance call from Warren on their only telephone, she can have the dining room to herself and hopefully be proposed to in private, Alonzo is further annoyed that his family doesn’t seem to respect his wishes and decisions as patriarch, and so the family is still at the dinner table when Rose’s call is a disappointment. Later, the Smiths throw a party and invite the Truetts, and Esther gets to meet John properly, though he’s either too clueless or too much of a gentleman to pick up on her attempt to engineer an opportunity after the party to let him kiss her. The girls really want to get married soon, as their father expects them to go to college and begin a career otherwise.
While I was expecting a love story in and around the fair, the story here is really just about romanticized early 20th century upper middle class life that happens to be adjacent to the construction of the fairgrounds. I recognize it’s about a generation or two of difference but the setting in combination with the story about a large family of mostly daughters being told across summer, fall, winter, and spring reminded me slightly of what little I know about Little Women.
I was looking forward to the excitement of the fair in the movie and the opportunity to talk about the World’s Fair as an institution, but it actually barely factors into the plot since it’s always impending until the epilogue. It’s just something they’re looking forward to, and a bit of a symbol of their pride in St. Louis as the next world-class city that hasn’t quite panned out 120 years on. But even though we don’t really get to see the fair, I do have a great fondness for the excited optimism of the old World’s Fairs. I was happy to see that they continue to be organized and one had been scheduled for this year but unfortunately derailed by world events. I learned of Worlds Fair Nano, which has the dual goal of making the spirit of World’s Fairs accessible to the United States and laying the groundwork for the US to host another, which has not happened since 1984, though I’m not certain they can recapture what I liked about the legendary fairs, since the kind of technology they bring out to be excited about now is things like AI, space travel, and Virtual Reality, which are currently going in a direction somewhere between dull and frightening rather than inspiring, and perhaps it is better to focus more on cultural exchange and innovation than technological. And to be fair, the legend of the St. Louis World’s Fair is more legend than reality. A lot of what actually made it so special may not be repeatable thanks to modern communication technology making the internet a 24/7 worldwide cultural exposition.
Musicals of this era have a lot more obvious tendency to collect the songs that they are allowed to include and then craft a framework to justify the collection. While many of these songs predated the show, there’s arguably more reason for most of those to be here than for the originals. The Trolley Song seems to just be a scene to get the movie out of the house and include another song. The exception to what fits and doesn’t is the title song, which though it was originally written for the actual 1904 World’s Fair, gets significantly overused and only the opening and closing scenes really justify it. While “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” most notably had its bleakness whitewashed by Frank Sinatra insisting on changing “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” to the more incongruous “hang a shining star upon the highest bough”, the version originally delivered to the movie was even more grim and had a deeply depressing opening verse replaced, but I think that’s appropriate to its original context here as a very melancholy moment that happens to be on Christmas Eve, and knowing the context makes it even more disrespectful by my view to try to make it happier.
This was nothing like what I expected it to be, but it was rather charming on its own merits. The era in history seemed just as innocent, exciting, and full of potential as the time in their lives the older Smith girls are experiencing. The music was mostly pretty fun, and the stakes are low, but cozy. It’s not my favorite era of nostalgia, but the movie sure did make a good case for it.