Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas? Not So Fast…

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas… Ah, who can forget that classic scene in Meet Me in St. Louis, as the snow drifts gently past the window, and Esther (Judy Garland) comforts her little sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), who’s distraught over leaving their beloved home. And remember how Esther gently croons that she better damn well enjoy this holiday, because it may be her last happy Christmas ever? No? Not ringing a bell? You can thank Garland and her leading man for that. Here, roughly, were Hugh Martin’s original lyrics:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas…
It may be your last!
Next year we may all be living in the past!

Have yourself a merry little Christmas…
Pop that champagne cork!
Next year we may all be living in New York!

No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore!
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more!

But at least we all will be together
If the Lord allows!
From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow!
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now!

Yikes.

Garland was the first to approach Martin—suggesting that, however accurate those lyrics may have been, only a stone-cold sadist would sing them to a sobbing child. “Judy said—and she was right of course—that they were too depressing!” recalled O’Brien at the 2014 TCM Film Festival screening of the film. “She told Hugh, ‘I would never say things like that to her when she’s already so upset!’”

You’d think Judy—who, even at 22, knew a thing or two about the emotional wallop of a song—would’ve been able to sway Martin. But he staunchly stuck to his original lyrics, leaving the two at an impasse—and the production limping along for weeks with no Christmas song. Then Tom Drake, who played Judy’s love interest, happened upon the most foolproof solution in the world: appeal to the songwriter’s ego. “You know,” he told him, “this could be an immortal Christmas song if you weren’t so stubborn…”

That did it. So now we have this:

Oh and have you heard the popular story about how they got O’Brien to cry for that scene? At the TCM Fest, she thoroughly demolished it.

“That rumor, it’s out there everywhere—that to get me to cry, my mother told me my dog was hit by a car or something like that,” O’Brien said, rolling her wide brown eyes to the rafters of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. “Well she would never do anything like that. And anyway, what she did do was much more effective.”

haveyourselfamerrylittlechristmas-5

It seems O’Brien and June Allyson were known around MGM as “the sob sisters,” thanks to their uncanny knack for crying on cue. But O’Brien was having such a great time making the film—and working with Garland, who took her big-sister role to heart—that in take after take, she couldn’t shed a drop. “My mother took me aside and said, ‘Now honey, don’t worry, they can just use glycerin drops if you can’t cry,” O’Brien said. “But you know, June would be able to make real tears.’ And that made me burst out crying!”

If they really wanted to see waterworks, they could have had Judy sing her the original version of the song.

On that note, to my classic movie family of friends,

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Pop that champagne cork!
Sending lots of loving wishes from New York!

3 Comments

  1. Beautiful behind-the-scenes story. I wrote about this memorable song myself on my blog a couple of years ago: https://moviemovieblogblog.wordpress.com/2016/12/18/judy-garland-singing-have-yourself-a-merry-little-christmas-a-holiday-experience/

  2. Nothing works better than a little professional rivalry!

    Merry Christmas, Janet.

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