Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them about.
The actor: In the early days of cinematic child stars, Shirley Temple had some competition. Margaret O’Brien wasn’t much of a tap dancer, but from the moment she hit the big screen at the age of 5, she had acting chops that performers decades older envied. Blessed with a photographic memory, a delightfully raspy voice, and an expressive face that could wring tears from even the most hardened viewer, O’Brien became a quick hit on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio lot. She appeared in movies still held up as classics today: The Secret Garden; Jane Eyre with Orson Welles; Little Women with June Allyson, Janet Leigh, and Elizabeth Taylor; and a film that’s very popular this time of year: Meet Me In St. Louis. Although the tale of the Smith clan spans all four seasons in the movie, O’Brien’s snowman scene as Tootie is the one most people remember, as Judy Garland, playing her older sister, sings “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” creating a wistful holiday classic.
Fathom Events and TCM are re-releasing Meet Me In St. Louis this month for its 75th anniversary (playing big screens on December 8 and 11). In honor of the movie’s anniversary and re-release, the now 82-year-old O’Brien talked to The A.V. Club over the phone from her home in Seattle. Still able to rattle off the names of cast members from 70-plus years prior, she took us back to the studio days of MGM: having dinner with Orson Welles, giggling with Judy Garland, and exercising that innate ability to cry on cue that helped make her famous.
Journey For Margaret (1942)—“Margaret”
AVC: That was such disturbing subject matter: children left behind after the blitz in World War II. Do you remember what it was like filming it?
Margaret O’Brien: Well, it was my first film at MGM, and I love the character in Journey For Margaret. I really felt for that little girl, and I wanted that part so badly. And in fact, I wanted it so badly, my name was actually Angela. Angela Maxine. After the movie, I wanted to change it to Margaret, because I felt I was Margaret. So from then on, I’ve always been Margaret. My last name was O’Brien, but I had it legally changed to Margaret.
AVC: Did your parents get you into performing, or did you really want to? What got you into that audition in the first place?
MO: The funny part of it was because of my dog. My mother was a quite famous dancer. So they were having some pictures taken to go in front of the marquee of the theater, and my mother didn’t have a babysitter for me or my little dog. So she brought us both along for the photograph sitting, and the photographer came out and said, “That’s the face I’m looking for. That’s exactly the face I am looking for.” And my mother thought it was her, but it was the dog. He said, “That’s the dog I’ve been looking for to be on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post.” And he said, “Well, the baby’s not so bad either. Do you mind if I put the baby in the picture with the dog?” And my mother said, “Well, that’s all right.” And we made that cover and then several covers for Paul Hesse, the photographer. And they all made covers, all the pictures he took of us. So my little dog and I became kind of famous for being on magazine covers. And the studio was looking for someone, of the many thousands of children to come out to MGM to audition for Journey For Margaret. And they saw my magazine cover and called me out to the studio. And that’s how it all started, really.
AVC: How were you old enough to read your scripts and be able to react the way that you did?
MO: Well, I memorized everything. As a matter of fact, I learned to read quite young. But even when I did the radio shows, those hour radio shows, I memorized all my lines. I memorized instead of reading. It seemed easier for me to do. I had a photographic memory. So that made it so much easier than actually reading it.
AVC: You were able to cry on queue and emote so much, even in your first movie.
MO: I was just able to do that. But once the scene was over, I was right back to myself. You know, I was a very easygoing child. I enjoyed everything. And I would just go back to talking to people on the set and going to my dressing room. And I loved to draw, at the time—draw little pictures. And so I didn’t carry it with me once the scene was over. And, of course, I can still do that today.
The Canterville Ghost (1944)—“Lady Jessica de Canterville”; Lost Angel (1943)—“Alpha”; Babes On Broadway (1941)—“Maxine, Little Girl at Audition”
AVC: Who were your favorites you got to appear with?
MO: I’ve worked with so many wonderful people. It’s hard to say which one I enjoyed the most. I loved working with Jimmy Durante. Then, of course, Lionel Barrymore, who was like a grandfather to me. He would make me these beautiful rag dolls. They were just gorgeous.
My first big movie [Margaret] was with Robert Young. The other one I worked with Robert Young was The Canterville Ghost with Charles Laughton. At first, I thought I’d be a little intimidated, but I wasn’t at all. And I loved working with [Laughton] because he treated me like a grown-up actress. Tried to steal my scene, and I tried to steal his scene, and we became great friends.
Of course, my very, very first little part that they had called me out on at MGM was with Mickey Rooney, but I didn’t get a scene with him. It was Babes On Broadway. It was about a stage mother bringing her little girl in to try to get a part. So that was actually my very first movie. And, of course, Mickey was the star. And I also did Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde , which was Mickey’s last movie. So we were friends for many, many years.
AVC: You have such great chemistry with Keenan Wynn, too, in Lost Angel, playing a brilliant but isolated girl in a think tank.
MO: Keenan Wynn was just lovely to work with, and Marsha Hunt. James Craig. As a matter of fact, I had tea with Marsha Hunt a couple of weeks ago. She’s doing just wonderful. She’s an amazing person. I think she’s going to be 102.
The Jimmy Durante Show, “Christmas” (1948)—self
AVC: What do you remember about the days of radio? You were performing live. Do you remember any catastrophic things that happened?
MO: It was live, and I memorized all my radio shows. And the only time I almost sort of messed up was when I did a show with Jimmy Durante, and I said, “I want to read.” And I read, and then I dropped my script! But thank goodness for Jimmy Durante, who came and picked up all the papers. So after that, I went on memorizing for the radio shows. And what’s interesting is I’ve been doing some light radio now. There is a company, and it’s becoming very popular. It’s in Seattle, it’s here. And they do hour radio shows. They recreate the Lux Radio shows, all of them. And I’ve been doing it live, and they show it around the country for one night live. And I just did one of The African Queen, and also one called The Beetle And Mr. Bottle, which I loved, which is an old English video show. So I’ve been kind of back in radio.
Jane Eyre (1943)—“Adele Varens”
MO: I loved doing Jane Eyre because it was one of my favorite books. And Orson Welles—I felt I’d be nervous working with him. Look at what he did with Citizen Kane, which was amazing. And he was just lovely to work with. And what’s interesting is my mother danced with Rita Hayworth. Rita Hayworth’s father had a dance company. I, of course, wasn’t born yet. But after Jane Eyre, Orson Welles invited my mother and I to his house for dinner, and he was married to Rita Hayworth at the time. And she had no idea. So my mother walked in, and she was the mother of Margaret O’Brien. So it was a small world. [Hayworth] said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were Margaret O’Brien’s mother. I remember you as my dance partner.”
AVC: It looks so much like a Welles film that some people suspect that Orson Welles actually directed it or did more direction.
MO: No, he didn’t. He actually took direction just like the other actors in the movie. And I admired him for that. He didn’t try to go ahead and say, “I’m Orson Welles. I know how to direct better than you do.” I mean, it was a very wonderful director who directed us [Robert Stevenson]. No, he took direction, and it’s just beautiful to do it that way without trying to put any of his notes into the movie.
Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)—“Tootie Smith”
AVC: Was there any sense while you were making it that Meet Me In St. Louis was going to be one for the ages?
MO: Everybody in the movie was so wonderful to work with, and we all really became a family. I think that’s what makes the movie such a classic. Everybody got along, everybody liked each other. All the other people in the movie were fabulous. Joan Carroll, who was the other younger sister. Marjorie Main. Nobody could be Katie like Marjorie Main. And of course Leon Ames as the father. A wonderful mother, Mary Astor. Everybody was so perfect for their roles, and that was [director] Vincente Minnelli. He knew just the right person for the right role. And of course, Judy. That was one of her favorites. She said, “I really thought I looked beautiful in that movie.” Of course, she was always beautiful, but she didn’t think so. But she was exceptionally beautiful in Meet Me In St. Louis.
AVC: You can tell Minnelli was falling in love with her, right? During a scene like “The Boy Next Door,” she’s never looked more amazing.
MO: She was so rested in that movie, because Vincente Minnelli did not overwork her, like they had done in the past. She came in—we have our certain hours, but people did in other movies—but for some reason, they always overworked Judy. But he saw that she was not overworked. She was on time. She was happy. Everything went smoothly and beautiful.
AVC: Do you remember rehearsing your musical numbers together?
MO: Oh yes, I remember “Under The Bamboo Tree.” You know, Judy. And of course, I was so nervous, because I don’t have the best singing voice in the world, and I thought, “Oh, how am I going to sing?” She said, “Oh, you’ll be just fine. Just sing along with me.” I always could dance. I came from a dancing family. But the singing made me a little nervous. But with Judy, I was able to get through it, and we had a wonderful, happy time doing that number.
AVC: You and Judy were so close in the movie. Did you stay in touch afterward?
MO: Yes, we would see each other at different functions, and Judy was always so sweet to come over and say hello and “How are you, Margaret? How are you doing?” Because sometimes, when you finish a movie, it’s so easy to forget the person you were working with, and go on and—if you met each other at a function, sometimes it’s busy. You don’t get over to say hello. But Judy always, always made sure she came over and said hello to me and find out how I was. And I appreciated that.
AVC: You were so well-grounded even after getting so much attention at such a young age. What do you attribute that to?
MO: My mother was a bit of a performer, so we lived a little different life, even outside of the studio. My mother loved to travel. She traveled all over the world. My mother loved New York. I grew up at all the famous restaurants, which I love. I still love going today. So I lived a different life, but yet a very normal life—at home in Hollywood, I had a little girlfriend that lived next door to me.
And then what people don’t realize, I always had a stand-in, and that was another little girl that looked like me. They had her in the same wardrobe, and she would stand under the lights while they lighted the scene. And then she’d leave, and then I’d go in and do the scene. So we would go to school together on the set. And we would be together all the time. And as a matter of fact, as an adult, we were very, very close. I would go to visit her at her house in Palm Springs, and her name was Maureen. And she recently passed away two weeks ago, and I felt so badly about it, because we grew up together. I knew Maureen longer than I think anybody in my life.
Her father was head of props at MGM. He did all the props for all the Little Women, Meet Me In St. Louis. He would get exasperated with me on the set of Meet Me In St. Louis, because I would change the dinnerware. I loved redecorating that table, and they’d have to come in and re-fix it. And he would get upset with Elizabeth [Taylor, in Little Women] because in the scene where we would have all the popovers on the table, and we were going to bring them to the poor family, Elizabeth would have eaten the popovers. So then he’d have to make new popovers. So we gave Maureen’s father a little hard time at times.
Little Women (1949)—“Beth”
MO: I loved doing all the books. Secret Garden, Little Women, Jane Eyre, and also Meet Me In St. Louis was from a book. What little girl wouldn’t love that? To be able to play characters out of your favorite books? Little Women, of course, that was another one of my favorite books. And again, all of the girls were so wonderful to work with. When we’d meet—you know, after we had finished the movie—we always would say hello and get together, because we always felt we were the Little Women. And June [Allyson] was wonderful. Elizabeth was great. Janet Leigh is such a sweet person.
AVC: You’ve said you and June Allyson were kind of competing for the best crier on set.
MO: Oh, that’s right. There was a little story that went around that I had a hard time crying, because when we did the snowman scene [in Meet Me in St. Louis], Judy was really funny. She wasn’t a sad person. She had a wonderful sense of humor, and she would make me laugh. And then I had to go into this crying scene, and I was having a hard time. So my mother came over and said, “Why don’t I have the makeup man put false tears down your eyes?” But June is such a wonderful actress, she would cry real tears. Well, I didn’t want to have her get ahead of me in our little contest, so that made me cry. And nobody told me my dog got hurt or anything like that.
AVC: I’ve heard that story, that they told you that your dog died to make you cry.
MO: My mother would not have allowed it, or Judy wouldn’t have allowed it. That kind of came from an old story with Jackie Cooper [in The Champ], and that story was true. They said his dog was hurt or something. But no, that was never allowed in my case.
AVC: There’s another quote attributed to you, when they did ask you to cry, and you said, “Do you want me to stop the tears halfway down?”
MO: I did say that. [Laughs.]
Perry Mason (1963)— “Virginia Trent”; Ironside (1968)— “Louise Prescott”; This Is Our Christmas (2018)—“Mrs. Foxworth”
MO: When all the contracts ended at MGM—and they all ended—I went into television, so I had the chance to work with so many new great actors. Earlier and later, I worked with Raymond Burr on Perry Mason and Ironside. So it gave me a chance to branch out a bit, and I think that’s what really helped my career stay in focus, because I was learning many different roles, creating different characters. So I was very grateful for that, that I was able to work with—let’s see who else—just so many of them. Jeff Hunter played my first boyfriend in television [on Climax!]. He was so handsome. I just, for last Christmas, did a show called This Is Our Christmas. And I’m going to start a new one for next Christmas. I’ve done so many Christmas things, so I really enjoy it, I love Christmas.
Also, I did a lot of stage work. I took over for Sandy Dennis in A Thousand Clowns. I did Barefoot In The Park for, like, four years. And then I worked with Tab Hunter, one of my favorite people, in Under The Yum Yum Tree. Peter Fonda was my boyfriend onstage in Under The Yum Yum Tree. So there’s so many. I got to work with so many wonderful, wonderful actors in my career. Well, I got along with everybody. I am easygoing, but then I didn’t work with anybody that was difficult, except one person, in my career. And that was all. So how lucky was I, you know?
AVC: It seems like you’ve always liked staying busy.
MO: Yes, always stay busy. And I always enjoyed other things, too. It wasn’t just movies. I was always big on history. Traveling. Meeting different cultures. I probably would have been an archeologist if I had not been an actress. And thanks to my career in movies, I had a chance to travel the world. And as I say, play some parts that were historical, like Little Women, and then go to the Little Women house and see some of the real furniture and dolls that [Louisa May Alcott] had and things. So that was really amazing. And they sent me a brick from the original house, the original Meet Me In St. Louis house. They sent one to Liza [Minnelli] and one to me. So that’s a wonderful keepsake to have.
“You, John Jones!” short (1943)—“Daughter”
AVC: Is there a movie that people don’t talk about as much as some of your others that you particularly liked?
MO: I think one of my favorites was a short that I did with James Cagney that was a war short. It was a propaganda short for the war. And I played children from all the different countries, and he was my father thinking what it would be like if his child was one of these children. And it was called “You, John Jones!” That was one of my favorites. And I loved working with James Cagney and Ann Sothern.