MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” nearly never existed because it was too depressing.
It comes as little surprise that the soundtrack of a film musical plays a major role in how the story is presented. We’ve discussed how the song “Let It Go” changed the entire focus of Disney’s animated blockbuster “Frozen,” transforming Elsa from a villain into a hero.
Similarly, if you don’t want to change the story of your film, then you will have problems if the songs you’re given don’t fit. That very nearly led to the classic holiday song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” never being released.
Produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincente Minnelli, 1944’s “Meet Me in St. Louis” starred Judy Garland as one of four daughters of a prominent St. Louis family at the turn of the 20th century. The film follows the family over the course of a year as the older daughters fall in love and the father nearly moves them from St. Louis to New York City. It was a massive hit and produced a number of hit songs, including “The Trolley Song” and, perhaps most famously, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Most of the songs were penned by the songwriting team of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine, who mostly worked separately at the time, each having his own office at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Martin originated the melody that would eventually become “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but through it in the trash after working on it for a few days. Blaine, working just next door, had heard the song and felt that it had legs, so he compelled Martin to save it. He later recalled to NPR’s Terry Gross, “We dug around the wastebasket and found it. Thank the Lord we found it.”
So Martin further developed the song for a major scene in the film where Garland’s character tries to comfort her youngest sister (played by Margaret O’Brien) at Christmastime about their upcoming move to New York City.
Throughout filming, Garland was quite upfront about what she thought worked and didn’t work for her. Martin and Blaine recalled that she was polite, making comments like, “Oh, I’d love to sing that song in a show – just not in this movie.”
And Garland had a problem with the original version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
You see, it initially was a good deal darker than the one eventually used, which is a bittersweet song about how life goes on and you have to go on with it. One of the early lines, was “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past.”
Garland told Martin she simply couldn’t sing the song. He recalled that the “original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, ‘If I sing that to little Margaret O’Brien, they’ll think I’m a monster.’”
Martin was a 30-year-old man at the top of his game, with all of the arrogance that comes with it, so he told Garland fine, and junked the song.
However, actor Tom Drake, who played Garland’s love interest in the film, asked Martin to reconsider, saying the song was so good otherwise that it would be a shame to discard it. Martin ultimately agreed, and wrote the version used in the movie.
Amusingly enough, years after the song became a big hit, Frank Sinatra decided he wanted to include it on his much-anticipated 1957 Christmas album “A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra” which already featured a new tune from Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne called “The Christmas Waltz.” However, Sinatra found the finished song still too depressing. Specifically, he had a problem with the line “muddle through somehow”:
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
As Martin recalled:
I got a phone call from Frank Sinatra saying I’m doing an album called “A Jolly Christmas,” and I love your song, but it’s just not very jolly. Do you think you could jolly it up a little bit for me? So then I wrote the line about have your – hang a shining star up on the highest bough. And Frank liked that and recorded it. And people, they do, sometimes they do that line, and sometimes they do the muddle through line somehow.
I’m partial to the “muddle through somehow” version over the “hang a shining star up on the highest bough” version.
The legend is…
Thanks to Hugh Martin, Ralph Blaine and Terry Gross for the information!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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