PCA Interview: Margaret O’Brien

As a little girl, Margaret O’Brien walked as an equal amongst the biggest icons of Hollywood.  One of the most famous child stars of the 1940’s, Margaret was a favorite of movie goers who fell in love with the precocious girl with the long braids in some of the biggest films of the era.  But while she became a film star all her own, in her heart Margaret was still an ordinary young girl in an extraordinary world.

The daughter of a circus performer and a Flamenco dancer, Margaret was raised alone by her mother when her father died before she was born.  Making her film debut in the musical Babes in Broadway in 1941, Margaret was given a contract with MGM a year later when she was brought back for the highly successful Journey for Margaret.  A huge hit for the studio, Margaret returned to the screen year after year for the studios biggest films with its biggest stars.  Margret would go on to appear in film such as Jane Eyre, Madame Currie, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, Little Women, The Centerville Ghost and The Secret Garden.

Margaret O’Brien receiving her rare Juvenile Academy Award for “Meet Me in St. Louis” from Bob Hope in 1945. Years later her Oscar would be stolen by a housekeeper and she would not recover it until it was found at a flea market in 1995.

But to generations of film fans Margaret is best remembered and forever beloved for her role as Tootie Smith in Vincent Minnelli’s 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis where she costarred alongside Judy Garland.  Audiences were moved to tears in the iconic scene where Judy introduced the world to the song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas in an attempt to comfort a heartbroken Margaret.   For her role in the film, Margaret would be awarded a special Juvenile Award by the Academy Art of Motion Pictures in 1945.  A rare statue given to only a handful of people, the award is one of the rarest in the world.

However, when she was a teenager, Margaret’s Oscar was stolen by a housekeeper that worked for her family.  Margaret thought it was lost forever until it was found at a Flea Market by a pair of auctioneers in 1995.  Planning to put it up for auction, the Academy stepped in and had the Oscar returned to Margaret in a special ceremony nearly fifty years after she first received it..

Now guests to the Hollywood Museum at the Max Factor Building can see Margaret’s rare Oscar as part of the “Child Stars- Then and Now” exhibit which is running through to December.   The show features props, artifacts and memorabilia celebrating the history of young actors working in Hollywood.

Margaret will also be joining over 50 former child stars from across the entertainment spectrum at the museum on August 20th and 21st for a special autograph show benefiting A Minor Consideration, a non-profit organization that supports both child stars of the past and present.

A true lady, it is always a rare treat to talk to anyone who worked in the golden age of Hollywood.  I was truly lucky to have Margaret take time to talk to me about her life in Hollywood, and share memories of some of the people that she worked with.

CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS

JOURNEY WITH MARGARET: 

A CONVERSATION WITH MARGARET O’BRIEN

Margaret O’Brien in “The Secret Garden”: “I loved doing that film, because it was one of my favorite books.”

Sam Tweedle:  Last night, while preparing for today, II watched The Secret Garden for the first time.  I had never seen it before.

Margaret O’Brien:  Did you!  That was one of my favorites! I loved doing that film, because it was one of my favorite books.  It was one of only a few films where they did half the film in color and half in black and white, so it was a bit unusual for its time.  When I saw how they did the garden I thought it was very impressive.  It was wonderful that the garden was in color when they worked so hard on all the planets and the flowers.

Sam:  I understand that you are involved at the “Child Star – Then and Now” exhibit at the Hollywood Museum.  You’ve lent your Oscar to be put on display, and you’re going to be attending the autograph show on August 20th and 21st.

Margaret O’Brien will be signing at The Hollywood Museum on August 20th and 21st.”

Margaret:  I love the Max Factor building where the show is being held.  They are going to have different displays and showing a lot of movie memorabilia.  I am also showing some of my costumes and some rare pictures.   Of course my Oscar is on loan for several months now.

Sam:  Tell me how you first got involved in show business.  I read that your parents were both entertainers.

Margaret:  Well my mother was a famous dancer with the casinos.  My mother was having some pictures taken for the marquee of the theater by a very famous photographer named Paul Hesse, who took a lot of photographs of actresses and movie stars.  So my mother and my aunt, who was a dancer too, arrived at the studio, and my mother did not have a babysitter that day.  So she brought along me and my little dog.  When they walked in the photographer said “That’s the face I’m looking for, because I’m doing a cover for Saturday Evening Post.  That’s just what I’m looking for!”  Well my mother thought it was her, but he was talking about the dog!  My mother was a great dog person.  She could train them, because we would travel a lot and she would take the plane and the dog had to behave.  So the photographer said “Can I use the dog for the cover?  The baby’s not so bad either.  She’s kind of cute.  Can we put the baby in with the dog?  Do you mind?”  So they did and we made the cover.  We did quite a few covers with Paul Hesse after that.  So when the studio was casting for Babes on Broadway they were looking at magazine covers for little girls.  I was two years old and they brought me in to say some words in a casting office, and they gave me the part.  Then, two years later, they were casting for Journey for Margaret and they said “Let’s call back that little girl that did that cute little scene in Babes on Broadway.”  So I came out to the studio again and auditioned amongst many children, and I got the part which lead to the career I had at MGM.

“I remember everything. Yes. I have a very photographic memory. I can remember everything about everything.”

Despite working with some of the biggest icons in Hollywood, Margaret O’Brien never got star struck, except when she met her idol Janet Leigh: ” The studio arranged for me to go back stage and have tea with Vivian Leigh. I couldn’t even speak, and I was just awestruck.”

Sam:  Babes in Broadway is such a fun movie to watch.  Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were so larger than life.  You were only two when you did the film.  Do you have many memories of being in it?

Margaret:  I remember everything.  Yes.  I have a very photographic memory.  I can remember everything about everything.  In that movie I didn’t work with Judy or Mickey.  I was in a scene in the casting office.  But, of course I became good friends with Judy, because we did Meet Me in St. Louis.  I would see Mickey on the lot all the time.

Sam:  When I was going over the list of movies you did I was pondering over how you worked with people who I consider giants in the entertainment industry.  People who were legends and icons and untouchable.  You were on sets with Orson Welles, James Cagney, Elizabeth Taylor, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, Peter Lawford and the list goes on and on.  This was your reality, but were you ever star struck at all?

Margret:  No.  I was never star struck at all.  The only one I was star struck by was Vivian Leigh and Burt Lancaster.  But Vivian Leigh was the only person who I ever wanted their autograph.

Sam:  What was it about Vivian Leigh that made you admire her so much?

Margaret:  Sometimes when I had time off and I was still at the studio, to amuse me they would show me a film.  But for some reason they wouldn’t show me children’s films.  They would show me Vivian Leigh in Waterloo Bridge and Lady Hamilton and all of those.  So I was just awestruck by her, and wanted to be just like Vivian Leigh.  In later years, when I was about ten, when we were visiting England she was doing Antony and Cleopatra on the stage and the studio arranged for me to go back stage and have tea with Vivian Leigh.  I couldn’t even speak, and I was just awestruck.  I remember that Lawrence Olivier was so nice.  He waved to me from the wings as I was watching the show from the box and when I was having tea with Vivian Leigh he came back and he said “I know you asked my wife for her autograph.  Would you like mine too?”  I said “No.  I’m not interested in yours.  I just wanted Vivian Leigh’s.”  Of course today I wish I did have his autograph, but you know children speak what’s in their heart.

Sam:  When you were working as a child in Hollywood you worked a lot.  Did you have much time to interact with other kids?

“I had a private tutor, but I would go into the school at recess and play with the kids there.”

Margaret:  Yes.  I had a private tutor, but I would go into the school at recess and play with the kids there.  But I always had a stand in on the set, which was the same age and in all the films with me.  Her name was Maureen and she was also under contract.  We’d play together and do things together between scenes and we’d go to school on set.  She was the nicest person.  Her father was head of props at MGM.  So we kind of grew up together, but we lost track of each other when we became teenagers.  She went on to her school and I went on to other things.  But we reunited about ten years ago, and we are such good friends today.  I also had friends who were not at the studio.  I had a little girlfriend named Nancy who lived right next door to me.  So I had plenty of children.  I just didn’t actually go to a regular school.

Sam:  Now I want to talk a bit about your Oscar.  It’s become a famous story in itself.  Your Oscar was stolen by a housekeeper when you were a teenager, and you were finally reunited with it only a few years ago.  How did it feel to be reunited with it after all that time?

Margaret O’Brien’s Oscar, a rare Juvenile Academy Award given only to a handful of people, is currently on loan to the Hollywood Museum where it will be on display as part of the “Child Actors – Then and Now” exhibit through to December 2016.

Margaret:  It was quite a surprise because I never thought I’d see it again.  You never know how lost treasures turn up.  I am thankful for the Academy, who are always looking for Oscars that have gone astray or been lost over the years.  Now you can never sell an Oscar.  It either belongs to the family or you return it to the Academy.  That’s the way it is.  I never thought I’d see it again.  The Academy found out that these antique dealers had found it at the Rose Bowl Swap Meet and a little vendor had bought it from the children of the lady who had worked for us years ago.  When she passed away her kids didn’t know if it was real or not.  They just knew their mother had had it, so they sold it to this little man.  These auctioneers kept looking at it, and they figured they’d buy it

Margaret O’Brien with Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis”: “People think of her being sad and tragic, but she really had a wonderful sense of humor and loved being around kids and to have a good time.”

 

and auction it off.  So the Academy found out and said to them “No, you can’t do that.”  So I am one of the few people who were presented with the same Oscar twice.  The Academy gave me a little ceremony when I got it back.  The Academy asked if I wanted a larger one, but I said no because the small ones are very rare.  They were presented to very few people.  I think they are much rarer to have.

Sam:  I was wondering if you could talk about Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis.  When I watch that film I think it’s the most beautiful that Judy Garland ever was.

Margaret:  Judy thought it was the most beautiful she ever was as well.  She was wonderful to work with.  Very lovely and sweet.  I’m friends with her children too.  We kind of all kept to be friends through the years.  She was a wonderful mother, and Judy was a lot of fun.  People think of her being sad and tragic, but she really had a wonderful sense of humor and loved being around kids and to have a good time.  She was fun in her personal life.  The sad thing was that the studio overworked her.  Of course came problems with taxes and things, but Judy loved working and doing fun things too.  I think she would have liked a little more time off.  I thinks that’s where some of the problems were.

Sam:  Out of all the films you did, my favorite is Little Women.  The cast that you were with in that film was a powerhouse – Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, June Allyson.  My goodness.  That was just and amazing group you were with.

Margaret O’Brien with Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh and June Allyson in “Little Women”: ” Elizabeth had her 18th birthday while we were doing that film. June was the oldest, and then Janet was in the middle.”

Margaret:  That was another great book.  That was one of Elizabeth’s wonderful roles.  She was so great in it and kind of funny the way she was stuck up.  Elizabeth had her 18th birthday while we were doing that film.  June was the oldest, and then Janet was in the middle.  Elizabeth was really happy while making that film.  She was just graduating and she didn’t have the teacher hounding her on the set.  It was a happy time for Elizabeth.

Sam:  In the 1950’s you moved from film to television, which you’ve done a lot of.  Did you ever feel like you were forced to make that transition?

” I did about every television show there was. I had a big television career. I did a lot of wonderful television and worked with some wonderful actors that I would have never had the opportunity to work with…”

Margaret:  I was really lucky that television was being so big so I had another medium to go to, because studios were really closing at the time.  They were doing away with the contracts.  They asked me and many other actors at the time, to stay at the studios but take a salary cut.  My mother said “No.  Television is the next big thing and we’re going to leave.”  I’m glad that she said that because shortly after that the contracts were cancelled anyway.  That was very smart of my mother that she saw that television was in.  I did about every television show there was.  I had a big television career.  I did a lot of wonderful television and worked with some wonderful actors that I would have never had the opportunity to work with – Rod Taylor, Jeffrey Hunter and John Barrymore Jr, and Robert Young who I did some of my first films with.  I was with him on Marcus Welby.  It was a kind of reunion.

Sam:  You’ve mentioned your mother’s influence on your career a few times.  How important was she during your career?

“I’ve always wanted to be good to my fans. They are the ones who gave me a wonderful life.”

Margaret:  My mother was very important to me, but she was not a stage mother.  She knew what was what and was very attractive.  She was the one who walked into Leo B. Meyer’s office and said “My daughter is getting top salary or we are not doing Meet Me in St. Louis.”  My mother was a bit of a gypsy and had her own career as a dancer.  So she took me off to New York.  She had a bit of a Hedy Lamar look.  In fact, Louis B. Meyer asked her to marry him one time.  She said “No, I don’t think so.”  So she was wonderful in getting me the salary, because otherwise I would have been working for nothing.

Sam:  What is it like to meet with fans today?

Margret:  It’s wonderful.  Fans are just great.  I’ve always wanted to be good to my fans.  They are the ones who gave me a wonderful life.  I think we all should be nice to our fans.  I think sometimes people don’t do it today and that is a shame.  They are the ones that make you and you need to keep that in mind.

Sam:  Do you think its different today in how close that fans and stars can get?  It seems in the classic era of Hollywood that the stars on the screen seemed so untouchable and far away.  Now they seem more accessible.

Margaret:  I think that they are not as assessable in person, but they are more accessible because of the internet.  I think that stars put up to much about their personal lives, and I think that’s a bit of a shame.  I think the mystery that the studios created was nice.

Stories like those told by Margaret O’Brien are the gems that Hollywood tales are made of.  A wonderful woman who lived a wonderful career, don’t miss your chance to meet a true Hollywood icon at The Hollywood Museum on August 20th and 21st.  Tickets to the event are $10 with purchase of Museum Ticket (autograph prices will vary) and can be purchased by calling 949-439-9504 or available at http://tinyurl.com/hdxlokk. For more information visit the Hollywood Museum’s web-site at http://thehollywoodmuseum.com/.

 

PCA NOTE:  Special thanks to Harlan Boll for arranging my visit with Margaret O’Brien. This was one of those one in a lifetime interview opportunities that makes memories, and thank you for giving me that opportunity.  For information on Harlan Boll Public Relations visit his site at http://bhbpr.com/.

  1. Anny’s avatar

    Lovely interview Sam! Good to learn more about this wonderful star!

  2. Judy Larson’s avatar

    I just looked up the Movie with Joseph Cotton & Margaret O’Brien. It was called ‘SHADOW OF A DOUBT” It was a great movie. So, was Joseph Cotton. I also liked him in Gaslight where he played a smaller part. There never was an actress to compare to Ingrid Bergman. The most Beautiful Woman ever.

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