Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien are the liveliest of Leon Ames' four daughters; they manage to persuade their lawyer father to stay in the cozy Gateway City of 1903, rather than accept a promotion in New York. Under Vincente Minnelli's direction, Garland exudes a plangent longing and O'Brien a pipsqueak nerviness that cut against any hints of treacle. And the movie contains the best Christmas musical number ever: Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to O'Brien. The sight and sound of Garland at her peak trying to comfort O'Brien, who's stricken at the thought of her family's moving from St. Louis, captures all the poignancy of trying to be jubilant when you're feeling fragile.
"The Member of the Wedding," 1952
Fred Zinnemann and his cast -- Julie Harris, Ethel Waters and Brandon De Wilde -- create grungy, silvery poetry from Carson McCullers' novel and play about a misfit pre-teenager. The 26-year-old Harris is Frankie Adams, a lonely, motherless girl who convinces herself that her brother and his fiancée will take her away with them right after the wedding. Near the start, Frankie can't get over how "suddenly" her brother's plans alter her perception of the world. The movie is sudden, too. Zinnemann evokes the adolescent need to connect in unexpected mood changes and intense emotional effects. Frankie is smitten as soon as she serves mint juleps to the newlyweds-to-be. By the time she tells her father's cook and housekeeper, Berenice (Waters), and her six-year-old cousin, John Henry (De Wilde), how rapturous the couple makes her feel, she's already floating in a dream -- and these two pals can't bring her back to earth. Harris captures the agony and euphoria of self-dramatizing youth. As she goes from heroic declarations to pathetic sobs, she never loses an authentic note of urgency. De Wilde's alert, inscrutable deadpan gives John Henry's bouts of acting-out a startling, farcical edge -- especially when he dubs a doll Belle, kisses her, then slugs her. And Waters imbues Berenice with deep-humored empathy and wisdom. When De Wilde and Harris join Waters on the final chorus of "His Eye is on the Sparrow," Zinnemann's loving closeup becomes part of their stirring harmony.