charlie-oscar2A weekly feature in which my five-year-old son is let loose on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Los Angeles, and chooses a star from among the more than 2,500 honorees. His “random” picks sometimes reveal unexplained connections such as the summer day in 2012 when he sat down on the star of actress Celeste Holm and refused to budge. We later learned that the Oscar-winning actress had died only hours earlier. There are five categories on the Walk of Fame: motion pictures, television, radio, music and theater but Charlie tends to favor the movies. 

With no prompting from me, Charlie settled this week on the star of one of our favorite holiday girls, Miss Margaret O’Brien. Her two best films, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and Little Women (1949) are both seasonal favorites because of their homespun Christmas scenes.

journeyformargaretBorn on January 15, 1937, in San Diego, Angela Maxine O’Brien made her first screen appearance (a bit part in the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film Babes on Broadway) when she was just four years old.  She catapulted to fame the following year when she got the lead in W.S. Van Dyke’s Journey for Margaret, playing a traumatized orphan in the London blitz who walks around clutching a toy bomb as if it were her teddy bear. She is eventually adopted by American newspaperman Robert Young and his wife, Laraine Day, who lost their own unborn baby during an air raid. O’Brien’s first major role provided not only a new first name but also plenty of opportunities to display what she became best known for in Hollywood: her uncanny ability to cry on command. MGM was quick to cast O’Brien in a series of parts where the little tyke could sob at the drop of a hat.

Judy-Garland-sings-Have-Yourself-a-Merry-Little-ChristmasMargaret bawled her way through films such as Jane Eyre, Madame Curie, and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes before playing one of her most popular roles, Judy Garland’s youngest sister, Tootie Smith, in Vincent Minnelli’s Technicolor jewel, Meet Me in St. Louis. At seven years old, O’Brien received star billing above such pros as Mary Astor and Leon Ames and even won an honorary Oscar for the role. The absence of wartime bombs or severe family dysfunction in the story did not prevent Margaret from exhibiting her trademark tears. The film’s major conflict involved Mr. Smith’s decision to accept a lucrative job offer and, horror of horrors, move his family from St. Louis to New York. Realizing that she can’t take her snow people with her to their new home, O’Brien completely loses it and runs outside in her nightgown in the dead of winter to destroy her creations. Let’s take a look at that scene which is preceded by Garland trying to comfort her little sister by singing a song that has become a perennial favorite for yuletide carolers everywhere:

Vincent Minnelli claimed in his autobiography that he got Margaret O’Brien to cry so convincingly by telling her that her beloved dog had died. O’Brien later refuted this, saying that he was confusing her with fellow child star Jackie Cooper. The true story was that Margaret was having some trouble with the snowmen scene. Her mother spoke to Minnelli and then came over and told Margaret that they were going to have to use fake tears in her eyes to get the scene right. “You know,” Mrs. O’Brien added, “June Allyson always cries real tears. She never needs make-up!” O’Brien and 26-year-old Allyson were fierce competitors, known in Hollywood as the “town criers.” That was all Margaret needed to run onto the set and cry so hysterically that it took Judy Garland several minutes to calm her down after the cameras stopped rolling. For a different crying scene, Margaret asked Minnelli, “Do you want the tears to run all the way down my face, or should I stop them halfway?”


Ironically, it was O’Brien herself who would give her main competition her best crying jag. In Mervyn Leroy’s Little Women (my favorite movie version of Louisa May Alcott’s story), which includes several wonderful Christmas scenes, Margaret, as Beth March, manages to frequently upstage June Allyson (Jo) as well as Janet Leigh (Meg) and Elizabeth Taylor (Amy) at her most breathtaking. But Allyson gets the last laugh — or cry. After Beth contracts scarlet fever because of her heroic efforts to help the impoverished Hummel family, her health takes a nosedive causing June to let loose with the tears. O’Brien holds her own for a while, but once Beth is dead and gone, June sobs her way to the closing credits. Sorry, Margaret!

Now 77 years old, Margaret O’Brien is still very much with us. I had the great pleasure of seeing her introduce a screening of Meet Me in St. Louis last April at Grauman’s Chinese Theater as a part of the TCM Classic Film Festival. She regaled the crowd with stories of the making of the film and once again dispelled the myth about the dead dog. She said she had a fabulous time making that film and loved everyone in the cast, especially Judy Garland who she considered like a sister.

2014 TCM Classic Film Festival - "Meet Me in St. Louis" ScreeningNot that all was rosy in the studio system back then. O’Brien told us that they used to hire look-alikes of the bigger stars and use them if the stars made any demands on the studio. When Margaret’s mother marched into Louis B. Mayer’s office just before shooting was to start on Meet Me in St. Louis and demanded that the little girl get a raise to $5,000 a week, Mayer flatly refused. “Okay, that’s fine,” Mrs. O’Brien responded, “but we’re moving to New York. You can get someone else for the picture.” Mayer trotted out Margaret’s look-alike on the lot but it failed to intimidate Mrs. O’Brien so the other little girl was given the role. The unknown actress was beyond excited to get to play Tootie in such a big movie but after a few weeks the studio relented and sent word to New York that Margaret would get the salary increase. The other little girl and her family were devastated. Margaret felt awful, but what could she do — she was a seven-year-old girl! The fired girl’s father was a lighting technician on Meet Me in St. Louis and O’Brien said he ended up having a complete nervous breakdown (after nearly dropping a heavy light on her during the shoot). Oy. Another story O’Brien told us that night is how she had recently attended a movie memorabilia auction that included the cute red coat that Tootie wore in the snowman scene. “Hmm,” she thought, “I think I could still get into that.” The petite actress put it on and sure enough, it fit! Not many actors could don the same costume they wore 70 years earlier!


Margaret’s career waned in the 1950s and beyond but she never stopped working and seems to have a great attitude about her life and past success. One of her most recent appearances was as Mrs. Claus in an animated TV special. Wishing all of you a Merry Little Christmas.