By 1940 the child star box office bonanza known as Shirley Temple was hurdling towards career-diminishing adolescence (she was born in 1928). Yet, movie audiences still craved a cute female tot performer who could at least for an hour-and-a-half at the local Bijou take their minds off that war raging overseas.
Who could possibly fit the bill? When Margaret O’Brien hit the screen in 1942 the search was over.
MGM’s Journey for Margaret, was a heart-rending World War II drama of homeless children during the London bombings. (Yup, that’s O’Brien pictured above with her “Journey” costar Robert Young, who plays her adopted father.)
Significantly, although she was paired in the film with another child actor, William Severn, it was O’Brien who seized stardom. Journey For Margaret not only launched her career but gave O’Brien her screen name.
(Despite her Irish surname, Margaret proudly points to her family’s Hispanic ancestry; her aunt, Marissa Flores, was once the lead flamenco dancer with Xavier Cugat’s orchestra. A Hedy Lamarr lookalike, Flores was hired by MGM but her movie career, unlike that of her niece, went nowhere.)
When Margaret was born — mid-January 1937 in San Diego, California — her name was Angela Maxine O’Brien. Often actresses under studio contract adopted the names of the characters they played in their first credited performance. Thus, the professional birth of Margaret O’Brien.
Before “Journey,” Margaret made her movie debut (lasting about a minute of screen time) in director Busby Berkeley’s Babes on Broadway, the first picture of her 10 rich years at MGM. Joe interviewed the legendary studio producer-executive big wig Arthur Freed many years ago, and Freed told him that he remembered auditioning O’Brien.
“Her Mother stood her on a chair and said ‘cry for these gentlemen’ and the waterworks started,” Freed related. “She was the most serious, intense little girl I’d ever encountered.”
O’Brien was also an accomplished scene-stealer. In 1944’s The Canterville Ghost, she was again costarred with Robert Young, who later remembered that “the fact that she stole scenes from me cannot be disputed. This pain was eased only by my knowledge of her great talent, and the lovely surprise that she was such a very nice person.”
Young also said on the studio lot one day he came across veteran Charles Laughton looking downcast “after he had been bested by little Margaret.” When Young inquired, “What’s the matter, Charles?,” Laughton looked at him forlornly. “I really must kill that child,” he said.
O’Brien was good to MGM and the studio was good to her, paying the child star a fortune. She grew up on the lot, and was schooled in the famous white stucco bungalow with a red-tiled roof called the “Little Red Schoolhouse.” Among the school’s graduates were Jackie Cooper, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Freddie Bartholomew, Roddy McDowell, Jane Powell and Elizabeth Taylor.
“Under the regulations of the State Board of Education and the Producers Association, Metro’s young stars worked an eight-hour day at the studio: four hours each for schooling and performing,” according to the recently-published “M-G-M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot,” a marvelously informative picture book put together by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester and Michael Troyan.
Heading up the MGM school was head instructor, Mary McDonald. O’Brien recalls, “I think everybody was scared to death of her. She was very strict and none of the children liked her, and the studio didn’t like her either because she obeyed the law and yanked us out of a scene when the time came, even if they wanted to get that one last shot.”
Whatever, O’Brien’s career soared in its early years with a high point coming in 1944. British-born critic-writer David Thomson maintains that any honest viewer of director Vincente Minnelli’s musical classic shot that year, Meet Me in St. Louis, cannot come away unimpressed with Margaret’s performance.
As ‘Tootie,’ O’Brien with her sister, ‘Esther’ (Judy Garland) “performs a gorgeous front parlor cakewalk to the tune ‘Under the Bamboo Tree.’ We need not be too surprised that a seven-year-old could carry that off without disrupting the marvelous grace of (Minnelli’s) camera,” write Thomson. “The cakewalk sequence never loses sight of Tootie’s moment of glory nor the light of nostalgia that warms the entire film.
Among her best films, besides Meet Me In St. Louis, were 1944’s Jane Eyre costarring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles; 1949’s Little Women, shot on a snowy soundstage with June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh costarring; and 1949’s Secret Garden in which O’Brien got top billing with Herbert Marshall and Dean Stockwell.
By the early Fifties, her movie career was pretty much over (although she has over the years since appeared onstage and in a host of tv shows and series). Thomson writes that O’Brien at 18 auditioned for the Natalie Wood role opposite James Dean in 1955’s Rebel Without A Cause.
O’Brien “lost the part because ‘she answered all the questions by professing love for parents and teachers.’ The mood and pace of a cakewalk can last a lifetime.”