A Conversation with Margaret O'Brien at TCMFF 2022
July 28, 2022
One thing I love about the TCM Classic Film Festival (TCMFF) is the level of access it affords fans to see and hear from movie stars.
This year, getting shut out of a new discovery, Fly-by-Night (1942), unexpectedly allowed me the chance to hear child star Margaret O’Brien speak at the Roosevelt. I must say, what a lucky break! (As I wrote in my Sunday fest recap, when you get the opportunity to hear an actor from the Golden Age speak, you take it.)
Randy Haberkamp and Margaret O'Brien at the 2022 TCM Classic Film Festival. (Photo by Kim Luperi)
Though I’ve seen O’Brien in a few movies, I knew little about her life and career. Below are some highlights from her conversation with the Academy’s Randy Haberkamp.
Working on Little Women (1949)
“Little Women was one of my very favorites,” O’Brien revealed to a loud round of applause, and she said it was a favorite among co-stars Janet Leigh, June Allyson, and Elizabeth Taylor, too. Apparently, one reason Taylor enjoyed the experience was because she was 18 while filming and no longer had to have their schoolteacher, Miss McDonald, following her around! “Miss McDonald was very strict, and Elizabeth was not real fond of Miss McDonald,” O’Brien laughed. “So, Elizabeth was happy.” The star also spoke about the support she lent both Leigh and Taylor’s many charitable causes, particularly the AIDS Foundation, and how much she enjoyed working with her co-stars. “We always stayed little women, and we always stayed friends,” she said.
I'm not sure if this is O'Brien's dog, but you get the idea.
“So I really got into movies because of my little dog.”
Yes, it’s true. The story goes like this: Her mother and aunt were famous flamenco dancers with the Cansinos, future star Rita Hayworth’s mother and father’s dance company. They were having photos taken for a show, but her mother couldn’t find a babysitter or a dog sitter, so both the toddler and pup accompanied the ladies to the shoot.
“When they walked into the studio, the photographer said, ‘That’s the face I’m looking for. I’m doing a cover for the Saturday Evening Post, and that’s the perfect face.’ Well, my mother thought it was her; it was the dog! My mother said, ‘The baby’s not too bad, either. Can you put the baby in with the dog? And we made the cover, and then I did four or five covers with my dog,” O’Brien recalled. When it came time for MGM to cast the lead in A Journey for Margaret (1942), the studio remembered those photos. (Before that, though, O’Brien appeared in a small part in 1941’s Babes on Broadway as a little girl auditioning for a role. O’Brien revealed that her mother actually wrote her dialogue, which was, “Please don’t send my brother to the chair! Please don’t let him burn!”)
Why she almost didn’t appear in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
The answer: money. “My mother went in when I was going to be cast for Meet Me in St. Louis and said I want the top salary at MGM. At that time, the top salary was $5,000 a week, and Mr. [Louis B.] Mayer started to cry,” O’Brien said. “When you asked him for money, he cried better than I could cry!”
Mayer gave various excuses for not paying O’Brien more, and her mother left Mayer’s office; she didn’t know how long her daughter’s career would last and wanted to make sure she was paid what she was worth. Back then, they always had a lookalike, the actress revealed, “in case you became temperamental.” So, the family of O’Brien’s lookalike was informed that she was going to star in the movie and O’Brien was out. They costumed the other girl, but eventually Mayer decided, “‘We have to have Margaret O’Brien,’ and they came and brought me back and told this little girl’s family that she couldn’t be in the movie. Well, the father had a nervous breakdown. That was a terrible thing that they used to do in those days, which they do not do anymore, thank goodness.”
O'Brien and Judy Garland in a publicity photo for Meet Me in St. Louis.
On working with Judy Garland
“Judy was wonderful,” O’Brien said. “She was like a big sister to me.” Besides Garland being a ball on set and playing Jacks with all the kids, she also apparently had a lot to do with writing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The song originally had different lyrics, but Garland wanted something happier, so she asked the writer to alter the words; she showed a talent for writing songs, too. “So, we have Judy to thank for that every Christmastime,” O’Brien revealed.
Her dance background
O’Brien was born into a dancing family. In fact, she danced so well that one of her teachers wanted to take her to Russia to train as a ballerina when she was young! Her mom nixed that idea, though, explaining to her how hard a dancer's life is and the toll it takes on their bodies. So, they brought in another teacher to continue her lessons, and O’Brien went on to dance in a number of movies, including The Unfinished Dance (1947). “Maybe that’s what’s wrong with my knee today!” she quipped. “But it was all worth it, it was all worth it.”
The first – and last – time she had a birthday party at Mary Pickford’s house
O’Brien enjoyed working at MGM, and she liked Louis B. Mayer, but one thing she didn’t like about him was that he forced her to have a big birthday party one year at Mary Pickford’s house. O’Brien never liked birthdays, even as a little girl, and this one was more of a publicity stunt anyway, with stars like Clark Gable and Lana Turner in attendance. With no one her own age there, O'Brien got bored, wandered upstairs, and set foot in the most beautiful bathroom she’d ever seen… complete with a bidet, which she had really never seen before. She promptly began playing around and ended up flooding Mary Pickford’s bathroom! “She was not happy; she never spoke to me again,” O’Brien laughed, “and I never had to go to another birthday party!”
Marjorie Main, Wallace Beery, and O'Brien in Bad Bascomb (1946).
A few actors she loved working with – and the one she didn’t
Marjorie Main was “the nicest person in the world,” O’Brien proclaimed. After Meet Me in St. Louis, they made Bad Bascomb (1946) together. O’Brien loved working on Bad Bascomb, a Western shot on location, save for one thing: Wallace Beery. “He did not like children,” she recalled. One way he exhibited that displeasure was by stealing her hot lunches. “My mother would steal it back, though!” O’Brien also told us that they had to put a box between her and Beery so he wouldn’t pinch her. “But he was a great, great actor,” she said, “because when I did a scene with him, he looked like he loved me so much.”
O’Brien also had fond memories of working with Lionel Barrymore on Three Wise Fools (1946). Barrymore often napped on set, and O’Brien sometimes used that down time to play piano… except she didn’t really know how to play and just made a lot of noise. So, “one day I sat down at the piano, and he had the prop man tape it up!” she laughed. “He felt so bad about it that he made me these beautiful rag dolls after that.. and then he gave me a wonderful pin that had belonged in his family for generations, so he was one of my favorites to work with.”
On the topic of fellow actors, there was one star she didn’t work with but longed to meet: Vivien Leigh. While on a trip to London, MGM arranged for O'Brien to have tea backstage with Leigh when she and Laurence Olivier were appearing in Caesar and Cleopatra. “I couldn’t speak, I was just in awe, and I just said, ‘Oh, Miss Leigh, can I please have an autographed picture?” she remembered. “So Laurence Olivier came backstage too and peeked in the dressing room and he said, ‘Would you like my autograph too?’ and I said, ‘Oh no, I don’t want your autograph!’ So I missed out on Laurence Olivier’s.”
O'Brien and her mother Gladys in the 1940s.
Remembering her mother
O’Brien fondly recalled life with her mother Gladys, a fun woman who believed in enjoying life, traveling, and seeing different cultures, which sometimes didn’t thrill the studio. Algiers (1938) was her mother’s favorite film, so one day she told her daughter: “‘We’re going to the Casbah, whether the studio likes it or not,’ and the studio said, ‘Oh, you can’t go there, it’s a bit dangerous.’” Guess who won? “My mother was very pretty and got away with a lot of things,” O’Brien chuckled. She also expressed gratitude that her mom wasn’t a typical stage mother; she looked out for her daughter and made sure she was protected and paid well.
On working in the film industry as a kid
“I think that movie children are a little bit different,” the actress started. “You have to know that you really want to do it. People count on you. It is a job.” She was well aware that everyone on set had their own jobs – and they needed them. “My mother said to me, ‘You can leave at any time, but if you’re going to be an actress and you’re going to be at the studio, you have to be disciplined, and there’s some things that you have to give up.” She was happy to do that, but she always had a life outside the studio, too.
O'Brien with her Oscar in 1945.
Winning her special Oscar in 1945
O’Brien was thrilled when she heard the Academy was awarding her with a juvenile Oscar in 1945 for Meet Me in St. Louis and doubly happy that Bob Hope was giving it to her. “When he presented me with the Oscar, it was more like, ‘Oh, Mr. Hope, I love seeing you. You’re so wonderful, I love your movies. I didn’t say anything about the Oscar!’” she laughed.
Unfortunately, at one point her Oscar got lost and ended up at a swap meet, but the Academy helped retrieve and return it; they even hosted a small ceremony to re-present it to her. The Academy asked if she wanted a regular sized statue, but she said no – she wanted hers because the juvenile figures are so rare. After the award was returned to her, O’Brien appeared on an Oprah episode about lost treasures, and wouldn’t you know, Oprah accidentally dropped her Oscar! The statue survived the accident but it now has a small dent in its head. “So it’s been through a lot, but I love it,” O’Brien exclaimed. “The more dents the better!”
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