Margaret O’Brien

Margaret O'Brien and Judy Garland.

       Margaret O’Brien was born Angela Maxine O’Brien on January 15, 1937 in San Diego, California. She weighed only 4 pounds at birth. Her film debut was a one-minute bit part at age 4 in MGM’s “Babes on Broadway” (1941)

        In the photo above she is hugging Judy Garland, fellow classmate), when they co-stared in “Meet Me IN St. Louis” (1944)

        Thanks to the strenuous efforts of her mother, a former dancer, she became one of the most popular child stars in Cinema history.

       Her father Lawrence O’Brien, a circus performer and played a trumpet in the band, they married in 1934 and he died before she was born. Margaret’s mother, Gladys Flores, was a well-known Flamenco dancer who often performed with her sister Marissa, also a dancer. Margaret is of half-Irish and half-Spanish ancestry. Encouraged by the examples of her performing mother and aunt and going to many movies with them, who were her sole companions, Margaret made up her mind to be a Movie Actress.

       Before she was 3, she had perfected imitating half a dozen actress roles, including Belle Starr, Scarlett O’Hara and Lady Hamilton, which were enacted at the slightest provocation with costumes from Marissa’s closet.  Margaret was not a product of a forceful “Stage Mother”, rather her mother was almost worn out by the force of her determination. So, in 1941 at age 4 she felt that she was ready for Hollywood and pestered her mother to go there. Mrs. O’Brien, tired of living at the expense of her sister, gave in, borrowed some money from a friend and set off with her daughter in a Double-Decker Greyhound bus. Her mother hired professional photographer, Paul Hesse who got her pictures on the cover of several magazines.

       She made her first film appearance in a bit part with “Babes on Broadway”, (1941) at the age of four.  But it was the following year when her first major role brought her widespread attention as a 5-yr. old in “Journey for Margaret” (1942) (below). She won wide praise for her convincing acting style.

By 1943 she was considered a big enough star to have a cameo appearance in the all-star military show finale of “Thousands Cheer”.

       In “Jane Eyre”, (1944), she played a young French girl, who spoke and sang all her dialogue with a French accent, I, Miss MacDonald, her teacher, spent many hours coaching her with the script lines and dialect until she could convince any French person that she was truly French. See the left photo where she is in her home getting personal French Language training with her script, while sitting next to me, her teacher.

       Her most memorable role was as “Tootsie” in “Meet Me in St Louis”, (see above top photo) (1944), opposite Judy Garland. Margaret had by this time added singing and dancing to her achievements and was rewarded with an Academy Juvenile Award, the following year, as the “outstanding child actress of 1944” …

       Her other successes included “The Canterville Ghost” and “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes”, (1945), “The Unfinished Dance”, (1947) and the first sound version of “The Secret Garden”, (1949),


       At that time, she got more fan mail than anyone at MGM except Van Johnson and June Allyson. She earned $50,000 per yr. and as much more from appearances as a guest star on the Radio and other events.

       She rarely forgets her lines more than 4 or 5 times during an entire movie filming. She enjoys talking about her acting to me and her fellow students and her stand-in, Dianne Toien. “My stand-in would go in my place to focus the cameras and adjust the lights before I would arrive on the set to save my acting time. That gave more time for acting”.

       Once, on a visit to her house, she and her mother took me to her bedroom. There, the Margaret O’Brien bed room is decorated with many mementos such as: a statue of St. Bridget, awarded by the “Gaelic Society”, 2 medals of thanks for selling USA War Bonds, a diamond ring from Jimmy Durante, a gold bracelet from Frank Sinatra and an antique statue from Charles Laughton. She was also given a signed photo from General Marshall, wishing her well., a huge wooly Panda from the Manager of the Stevens Hotel in Chicago and she is both a Brownie (Girl Scout) and an Honorary Princess of two Indian Tribes. 

       One day, Louie B. Mayer came to her table when she was eating lunch in the MGM Commissary (cafeteria) patted her on the head and said, “Margaret I want to give you a present. What do you think you would like best?” She shyly refrained from answering and said she would like to think it over. When the MGM Production Chief left the table, she turned to her mother and said” You know that was really very nice of Mr. Mayer and I think I will ask for his horse, “Busher”. In 1945 “Busher” was the best racing horse in the United States and was voted “Best Horse of the Year”, a rare feat for a Filly (female horse). 

       Miss O’Brien’s impulse to own Mr. Mayer’s famous top-winning filly horse is based on her devotion to horses stirred by the picture, “National Velvet”, in which 13 yr. old Elisabeth Taylor, (classmate) whom she greatly admired, impersonates a jockey. Margaret, who saw the picture 8 times, wanted to be a jockey also, until, on a recent trip to Wyoming, where she was filming a movie (on location), she tried to ride for the first time. The horse started to run away and though it was quickly caught, Margaret was thoroughly frightened, causing her to give up her idea to be a jockey.

       Next, she was contemplating a career as a dog trainer and hopes for a kennel containing a Saint Bernard, a Dalmatian, two Collies and her Chinese Cocker Spaniel “Maggie”, whom she has already taught to sit up and dance on her hind legs.

        She was not only an exceptional actress, but she had the ability to cry real tears on demand. In “Journey for Margaret”, there was a scene in which she whimpered, cried, and howled for 4 minutes. Since then, crying to order became her specialty.  “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes” (1945) starts with a scene in which she suffers remorse for accidentally killing a little squirrel. Director Roy Rowland explained the scene carefully to her,

stressing the pathetic loss and the necessity for a show of grief and finally asked whether there was anything more she wanted to know about it. “Yes, there is, said Margaret. Do you want tears just to here”, touching her eyelashes, “or do you want all-the-way-down tears?”

       She was also a comedienne, an expert in dialects and a virtuoso in simple child appeal. As a comedienne her best role was as ‘Tootsie’ in “Meet Me in St Louis”.

 Her capacity for dialect was revealed to full advantage in “Three Wise Fools” where she speaks in a lilting Irish County Cork brogue, recently acquired from MGM’s drama couch, Miss Lillian Burns. Child Appeal is a subtle, rare talent that few children master. Hers was a unique blend that captivated all audiences. Lionel Barrymore once said “she was the only person that made me take out my handkerchief in 30 years”

      Belowe is our classroom with Margaret sitting at the right, Dean Stockwell standing at phonograph record player and Claude Jarman at rear behind Margaret.

        Like other Studio people, she does most of her movie-going in private “Projection Rooms”. She prefers her own movies to those of the other child actors, though she has seen “Lassie Come Home” 14 times and whose puppy, “Laddie” she has been given and wrote a short story that is about a girl and her dog for school-work (which is printed below). Within a month she taught her dog to shake hands, dance and bow. Soon after he ran away and was found several blocks away in the William Morris Agency.

        She likes actor Van Johnson who has signed the first page of her Autograph Book. Great actors’ interest her almost as much as animals. When reading to help her sleep, her Mother alternates between animals and famous actresses.

       When she is in school 3 hours a day, it is spent in study are like those spent by all other schoolgirls of her age, in some respects. Outside the prescribed hour of rest, the other 4 hours of her workday consist principally in emotional scenes, which she enjoys thoroughly. To get into the proper mood for the scene, without prompting from the Director, she thinks of something sad. The sad thoughts are a secret but presumably I think they concern the dogs, Lassie or Laddie.

       She also starred in “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes” (1945) with Butch Jenkins, Edward G. Robinson.

She also starred in “Music for Millions” (1943), with Jimmy Durante, Jose Iturbi, and June Allyson, in “Secret Garden” (1949) and in “Tenth Ave Angel” (1948), with Elinor Donohue (fellow classmate) and George Murphy.

       Margaret chooses her playmates among those who will not boast about their friendship. Once outside her house when she was entering to keep a business appointment, she was approached on the sidewalk by a neighbor who said, “Margaret would you like to play?” I can’t just now, said Margaret, but come back in 80 minutes.”

       She likes Mexican, Indian and other spicy foods. She chews bubble gum and enjoys popping the bubbles. Her wardrobe consists of about 35 dresses which she wears for a year and then gives them to the St. Vincent de Paul charitable Society, at her Catholic church. She also likes to sew and made 3 red potholders for her mother’s Christmas presents.

       She goes to a nearby Catholic Church every Sunday, preferring to go to the High Mass with its greater reverential pageantry and since the whole family prefers to get up late. She also enjoyed singing the hymns and meeting other children in the hall. I her teacher, Miss MacDonald, have joined them for breakfast in the hall and shared social activities later such as swimming at the beach and going to their home..

      She starred in “Unfinished Dance” (1947) with Cyd Carisse, Danny Thomas and Karin Booth and she starred in “Little Women” (1949) with Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, and Peter Lawford, Kathrine Hepburn and Jean Parker.

    Heidi was her favorite fictional character and she said she would like to play her in the movies. Her pigtails were fake when she started but grew out and were kept as a permanent trademark, until she outgrew child parts

     She starred in “Her First Romance” (1951) with Jimmy Hunt and Allen Martin Jr.

     Her student progress in literature was rapid and her first story was written just for me, her teacher. Having got good marks for it, she started writing a novel.  ‘Life Magazine’ discovered it and bought the first installment, entitled

“Four Friends” intending to publish all of it. The first installment was as follows:

                Title: “Four Friends”:                    (Margaret’s Composition story)

       Mary was a very rich little girl who lived in a village in Switzerland. She was very happy until her mother died. All she had left was her father who was away on business all the time and an aunt who had very little patience with children and dogs. Mary’s father sent for her aunt to take care of her. Mary had a little dog named “Tootsie” and a beautiful collie named “Loyal”. Aunt Gertrude thought that “Loyal” wasn’t very smart, but he was, so she sent him away to a training school for dogs. There he learned to do many errands for her.

       He learned to bring her hat when she went to the market and he would also bring her the newspaper when she wanted it. But “Loyal” was very unhappy because Aunt Gertrude was very cruel to the dog. She wouldn’t let him see Mary, his mistress. So, Mary and Loyal were very unhappy because her aunt kept her locked up all the time, however she did let her have Tootsie.

       One evening her aunt brought her dinner on a tray and she left the door open. Loyal was watching and said to himself, “now is my chance to get into Mary’s room”. He slipped into her room, quietly and hid under the bed. When the aunt went out. Mary knew that Loyal was there because she saw him slip in  (To be continued).

       Growing up, O’Brien’s awards were always kept in a special room. One day in 1954, the family’s maid asked to take O’Brien’s Juvenile Oscar and two other awards to her home with her to polish, as she had done in the past. After three days, the maid failed to return to work, prompting O’Brien’s mother to discharge her and requesting that the awards be returned. Not long after, O’Brien’s mother, who had been sick with a heart condition, suffered a relapse and died. In mourning, 17-year-old O’Brien forgot about the maid and the Oscar until several months later when she tried to contact her, only to find that the maid had moved and had left no forwarding address.

      Several years later, upon learning that the original had been stolen, the Academy promptly supplied O’Brien with a replacement Oscar, but O’Brien still held on to hope that she might one day recover   her original Award. O’Brien attended memorabilia shows and searched antique shops, hoping she might find the original statuette.

       Until one day in 1995 when Bruce Davis, then executive director of the Academy was alerted that a miniature statuette bearing Margaret O’Brien’s name had surfaced in a catalog for an upcoming memorabilia auction. Davis contacted a mutual friend of his and O’Brien’s, who in turn phoned O’Brien to tell her the long-lost Oscar had been found.

       Memorabilia collectors Steve Neimand and Mark Nash were attending a flea market in 1995 when Neimand spotted a small Oscar with Margaret O’Brien’s name inscribed upon it. Upon learning of the award’s history, Nash and Neimand agreed to return the Oscar to O’Brien. On February 7, 1995, almost fifty years after she’d first received it, the Academy held a special ceremony in Beverly Hills to return the stolen award to O’Brien.

        Upon being reunited with her Juvenile Oscar, Margaret O’Brien told the attending journalists: “For all those people who have lost or misplaced something that was dear to them, as I have, never give up the dream of searching – never let go of the hope that you’ll find it because after all these many years, at last, my Oscar has been returned to me.”

      She starred in “Adventures In Paradise” (1959) (below) with Guy Stockwell, a fellow MGM student.

      The little girl in “Pig tails” had really grown up.