Not Manny Farber’s review published on Letterboxd:
Flesh and Enamel
December 18, 1944
“Meet Me in St. Louis” seemed to me a good movie as well as a cloying, callow one. At the same time that I felt a great deal of intelligence, loving care and enormous talent (especially that of Margaret O’Brien) going into the film I was exasperated by the way it restricted so much of itself to the moral level of a high-school play, sweetened and pampered with the modern Hollywood-Broadway formula for making a popular success.
It tells about the year 1903 in the life of a large St. Louis family named Smith. They had a lovely time that year—two parties, a picnic, Hallowe’en and Christmas; the older sisters and a brother were nicely engaged and the father was promoted in his firm; and there was the Louisiana Purchase Exposition which seemed to symbolize for them how perfect life could be and was. It is all genuinely sweet and happy, or colored that way, but the producers hint at far less lovely aspects of life. They point out a spinsterism and coldness in the eldest daughter, a love for power in the middle one, a lot of things in the smallest one—including egotism—and a faded depression in the mother. They don’t look very long at these facts, preferring more pleasant things like Hallowe’en, frankly tissue-paper love affairs for the kids, and a good deal of boneless comedy—all of which is talented and quite amusing. I think this should be mentioned, since “Meet Me in St. Louis” is a lot more than Andy Hardy or the average film or stage musical and obviously knew enough to be stronger than it is.
There is a great deal of wonderful perception and feeling in it and the best is in a Hallowe’en hell-raising by the neighborhood kids that is seen through a small girl’s eyes and feelings as she carried out her threat to throw flour in the face of the most feared resident of the district—a nice-seeming, blocky German professional type, who is just about the person she would imagine to be the chief poisoner, drunkard and wife-beater in the city. The whole episode is beautifully funny, but is best I think as the child starts away from the gang’s bonfire, looking like a vaudeville comic in her brother’s pants, and walks, as though toward death, down a street that has a kind of fairy-book lighting, wind and blowing autumn leaves, and ends with a terrified, crying run up to the man’s porch. Some other accurately recorded images are the account of the hysteria that hits a family when one of the children is injured (especially how glorious it is for the injured child), a moment when the middle daughter hears that her sweetheart has hit her little sister in the face and rushes at him with a terrifying, sexually driven desire to beat him to death, a similar moment when the little sister rushes at her snowmen and starts clubbing them to bits because she can’t take them with her to New York. Many of these scenes are as good as any that have been made this year in fiction films.
The filming of Sally Benson’s New Yorker stories will undoubtedly make MGM an enormous amount of money on account of these things, but also because the movie cannily follows the theory that any fact that is plain, inharmonious or less than sweet is neither appealing nor entertaining. Every second of the picture is carefully crammed with cuteness and selling points. It gives you the unpleasant feeling that the family is too talented and practises a tinny kind of humor too much, but there is a more terrifying feeling that the producers figured you out down to your smallest like and dislike and are going to show you your intelligence rating on every foot of their film. The movie also believes that the prettiest state of the detail is the most entertaining, and this leads to décor, hairdos and dresses that are merely candyish, or to photography, like that of Miss Garland, which would be turned down as insipid by film magazines that deal in idealized portraits of stars. The worst thing this attitude does, though, is to doll up the two best scenes by making the Hallowe’en masks and the bonfire too fashionable, and over-sculpting the snowmen mauled by Margaret O’Brien. The movie makes its life too much like the working of a machine. This leads to such overrefined material as Judy Garland’s performance, which is choked with effects, schooled into an enameled surface, and left that way; dance routines that are supposed to seem at least half-spontaneous never do; scenes, such as that of the family eating, which are supposed to appear completely impulsive, proceed like circus acts.
I think these latter attitudes override the goodness of the movie, but they don’t keep the goodnesses from being startlingly good; and Margaret O’Brien is much too good to miss.