Margaret O’Brien: the MGM Years —
By Allan R. Ellenberger
AE: You worked with the wonderful Charles Laughton in “The Canterville Ghost” (1944). Is it true that he was worried that you would upstage him in your scenes together?
Margaret O’Brien: (laughs) I thought, oh my goodness, I’m going to be afraid to work with this great English actor. And I also thought that he probably didn’t like children—but he was wonderful, just wonderful. I liked him because he treated me like an adult actress. We would fight for each other’s scenes, and we’d get mad at each other and then we’d make up. Then he would cry to Robert Young and say, “I think she’s stealing my scenes, she must be a changeling.” Then Robert would say, “Look, I’m just a soldier, and you’re a ghost and come in on all these wires, so look what you have working for you. So, don’t worry about it.” But he was very insecure. And he really worried that he wouldn’t be good in the scene. But, of course, he was always marvelous. He was one of my favorite actors, and we became real good friends.
AE: Now, let’s discuss what is arguably your most famous film, the classic, “Meet Me In St. Louis.” (1944).
Margaret O’Brien: Well, Meet Me In St. Louis was one of my favorites because I got to play a bratty part. I was a pretty nice little girl and didn’t get into much trouble as a kid. I was quiet. But as Tooty I was able to say and do all the things that maybe I would not have done myself. And I loved the Halloween sequence because Halloween was always my favorite time of the year. That sequence was shot at night, and I loved that because it made me feel real grown. I didn’t have to be at the studio until four in the afternoon, and I don’t think I had to go to school so I was able to play with all the kids.
AE: What are your memories of Judy Garland?
Margaret O’Brien: Judy was wonderful to work with. She was like a big sister. I remember that just before filming started, I lost my two front teeth, and the dentist put in false ones. During the cake walk scene I was singing, and those two teeth popped out and flew across the room and hit Vincente Minnelli in the head. Well, everyone began to roar with laughter, and it embarrassed me, and I began to cry. Judy took me in her arms and comforted me, explaining that they were not laughing at me. I appreciated that. I think that was a happy time for Judy. It was during that film that she fell in love with Vincente Minnelli.
AE: How was Vincente Minnelli to work for?
Margaret O’Brien: Vincente Minnelli was very meticulous about everything including the sets. He made sure everything was authentic. I loved those sets. I used to go out and walk up and down that street and pretend I was in Victorian times. I even tried to steal the doorknobs off the doors—now I wish I had. Years later I looked for a similar street and have always wanted a house like the one in Meet Me In St. Louis.
AE: In interviews and in his autobiography, Vincente Minnelli claims that in order to get you to cry during the snowman scene, he had to tell you that your dog was going to be killed. Is that true?
Margaret O’Brien: A lot of people have asked how they got me to cry, and it wasn’t because my dog died. Vincente Minnelli told that story, but it’s not true—my mother would never have allowed that. June Allyson and I were known as the “Town Criers” at MGM, so we had a little competition going on. So, if I had a hard time crying, all my mother had to do was say that she was sure June could do it and maybe she would have the makeup man come over and spray on the “false tears,” Well, that upset me, and then I would cry.
AE: What about Mary Astor? What was she like?
Margaret O’Brien: Mary Astor was very motherly. I was always afraid that I’d do something wrong. In fact, there was one scene—dinner scene—where I rearranged all the silverware and plates between takes, and nobody knew. Then we came back to shoot it, and someone realized it was all different, and they had to shoot it all over again. So, Mary got a little bit annoyed and said, “Margaret, you can’t do that. No more changing of the silverware.” (laughs) Mary still remembered that years later when I visited her at the Motion Picture Country Home.
AE: Any more memories of “Meet Me In St. Louis?”
Margaret O’Brien: Well, I almost didn’t do Meet Me In St. Louis because my mother wanted a bigger salary. So, when Mr. Mayer didn’t comply, she took me to New York, and they replaced me with another little girl. But eventually Mayer relented and agreed to my mother’s demands, so we came back. However, the family of the little girl who replaced me was so upset over her being taken off the film that later her father somehow got on the set of Unfinished Dance and tried to drop a light on me. Ironically, that same girl was also up for Journey For Margaret, so this was just another disappointment.
AE: Your performance in “Meet Me In St. Louis” earned you a special Academy Award for Outstanding Child Actress of 1944. What was that like?
Margaret O’Brien: Well, the night of the ceremonies, my mother wrote a special speech for me to say. So, when Mervyn LeRoy presented me with the Oscar, all I could say was, “I don’t know what to say. Thank you so much.” Well, my mother wasn’t very pleased. The Oscar they gave me was a miniature one, and I remember Bob Hope (the emcee that evening) called it an Oscarette, which made me laugh.
AE: Several years later, that Oscar was stolen from your house. How did that happen?
Margaret O’Brien: Well, at our home in Beverly Hills, we had a maid whose duties included polishing some of the awards I had received, including the Oscar. One day she asked my mother if she could take the Oscar and several awards home with her to polish, and my mother agreed. After three days, the maid failed to return, and Mother called her and fired her and asked that she return the awards. Shortly after my mother became sick and died not much later. Well, I was too devastated at the time to think about the awards, but I did call the maid several months later, but her phone had been disconnected, and she had moved. I considered it gone forever. Then, several years later, the Academy graciously replaced the award, but it wasn’t the same.
AE: Then, in 1995, after 37 years, it miraculously appeared at a flea market. Is that right?
Margaret O’Brien: Yes. Two men bought it at a Pasadena flea market and put it up for sale at an auction. However, when they were told that it was real and that it had been stolen, they very graciously returned the Oscar to me. I was very grateful.
AE: You worked with movie tough guy Edward G. Robinson in “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes” (1945). What was he like?
Margaret O’Brien: I became very close with him. It was fun pretending I was his daughter and the little girl from the farm. I had seen many of his films, but I didn’t think of him as the gangster type at all. I had difficulty connecting the gangster to the loving father. He was playing such a different role, and he played it so well. He said that film was one of his favorites.
AE: James Craig was also in this film. Did you still have a crush on him by then?
Margaret O’Brien: Not as much. It had wandered away. (laughs)
AE: Did you get crushes on many of your costars?
Margaret O’Brien: No. I would feel close to many of them, like Jimmy Durante was like my uncle, and Lionel Barrymore was like a grandfather. But not crushes. And Robert Young—I felt he was nice and very handsome, but I didn’t have a crush on him—only James Craig and Bobby Blake. Oh, and I later had a crush on Dean Stockwell. But the actor who I had the biggest crush on was not at MGM and who I never worked with—Burt Lancaster.
AE: Did you ever meet Mr. Lancaster?
Margaret O’Brien: Yes, because we had the same dentist. That’s how my mother got me to go to the dentist and have my teeth straightened. And I used to have to go all the time because when I did a movie I had to have the braces taken off, and then between movies I had them put back on again. So, my mother had the dentist arrange a meeting with Burt Lancaster, and I got his autograph.
AE: How much time did you have between films before you would make another one?
Margaret O’Brien: Maybe two or three months, but you had to be at the studio all the time. I had to go to the studio every day for school, and then I’d have to do publicity shots. So you were always there except on weekends.
AE: Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay for “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes,” which was his last film before being labeled a Communist and being sentenced to jail for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Committee. What are your remembrances of him?
Margaret O’Brien: My family was very close to Dalton Trumbo. He would come by the set quite often. And later, they wouldn’t show the film because of the supposed communist overtones—which wasn’t true at all. So, we felt badly when they had to leave to go to Mexico, I believe. In fact, we saw them off when they left town on the train. Everyone was waving a flag. People warned my mother not to go down to the train station because it would ruin her and me, but we went anyway because they were our friends. That was a terrible time during the McCarthy era. So many of those writers were not communists.
AE: You made a western at MGM called “Bad Bascomb” with Wallace Beery and Marjorie Main. The studio actually sent you on location to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for this film, which must have been fun.
Margaret O’Brien: Yes, and I was made an Indian princess and stayed with an Indian family for several days. And I fell in love with an Indian boy. We had the Apache tribe there with us, and when they made me a princess it just thrilled me because I did admire them very much. I thought they were very strong and wonderful riders. Jackson Hole was a wild and rugged town then. It was out in the wilderness. Wallace Beery had a cabin up there, and bears would come up on the front porch.
AE: What about Wallace Beery? Are all the stories about him and child actors true?
Margaret O’Brien: Wallace Beery was very hard to work with. Thank goodness for the crew because he did not like children. They had to put blocks between us so he wouldn’t pinch me. So, I would turn my face away from the camera.
AE: Why would he pinch you?
Margaret O’Brien: He’d pinch me so I’d say the line the way he wanted.
AE: Didn’t the director or your mother see him do it?
Margaret O’Brien: Yes, that’s why they got after him and decided to put the blocks between us. Then, when he couldn’t pinch me anymore, he would steal my hot lunch on the set. It was the same with his adopted daughter, who was working as an extra—she broke her glasses one day, and he made her work extra hours to pay for them.
AE: This was your second film with Marjorie Main. Tell me about her.
Margaret O’Brien: Marjorie was very eccentric She was scared to death while we were there, especially of all the mosquitoes and bugs. So, she would wear toilet paper on her arms. And then we would go into this log cabin to eat, and she’d set a place for her dead husband and talk to him at the table. She was fun—she was real nice. And I loved riding on the covered wagon with her.
AE: Were there any other interesting things that happened on location?
Margaret O’Brien: Sylvan S. Simon directed the picture, and one day I got into a fist fight with his daughter who was working as an extra. That was the only fist fight I ever got into as a kid. We got into some disagreement—I forget what it was about—and our parents pulled us away. I got a spanking, and she got sent to a boarding school when she got home (laughs). Then years later we became real good friends, and she turned out to be one of the sweetest girls I ever met.
On Wednesday in PART THREE Margaret talks about Louis B. Mayer, Elizabeth Taylor and Dean Stockwell, among others.