Margaret O’Brien’s Stolen Oscar

Margaret O’Brien, on stage at Grauman’s Chinese Theater receiving her juvenile Academy Award for Meet Me in St. Louis

Oscar. The Academy Award. Regardless of its name, it evokes the same emotion of respect for those who have been fortunate enough to receive one. And for those lucky ones, whether deserved or not, it is the brass ring, the ultimate in praise from their peers.

And so it was for little eight-year-old Margaret O’Brien, arguably the most talented of all the child stars of her day – or since – who received the coveted award for most outstanding child actress of 1944 for her performance in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). The special Oscar, which was a miniature version of the acclaimed award, was given sporadically in the 1930s and 1940s. Previous winners included Mickey Rooney, Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland, who was Margaret’s co-star that year.

Robert Young and Margaret O’Brien in Journey for Margaret

Born Angela Maxine O’Brien, Margaret’s rise to fame was meteoric. When her photograph was seen on a magazine cover, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive signed her for a one-line scene in Babes on Broadway (1941). The powers-that-be at MGM saw the four-year-old’s raw talent and cast her with Robert Young in a war-time drama called Journey for Margaret (1942), from which she took her stage name. Small parts in three films followed until her starring role in Lost Angel, (1944) which was the first film written specifically for her.

At the request of director Vincent Minnelli, the studio cast her in the role of Tootie Smith in their new Technicolor musical, Meet Me in St. Louis. MGM had big hopes for this film and spent an astronomical $100,000 to build the St. Louis street on their back lot. Besides Margaret, the film included Judy Garland, Lucille Bremmer and Mary Astor, and introduced such musical standards as “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and the holiday classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which Garland sang to Margaret.

When the film was released near the end of 1944, critics across the country praised her performance. The Hollywood Reporter claimed that she was the hottest thing on the MGM roster.

“Hers is a great talent,” the Reporter continued, “as distinctly outstanding as the greatest stars we have. The O’Brien appeal is based on her naturalness. She’s all America’s child, the type every person in an audience wants to take into his arms.”

But it wasn’t only America that raved. In London, the film was the biggest hit that city had seen in months. The Daily Express prophetically declared, “Her quiet, compelling acting, worthy of an Academy Award, steals the show.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shared that opinion and awarded her a Special Oscar for the Most Outstanding Child Actress of 1944. At the ceremony, which was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on March 15, 1945, Margaret was given her Oscar by director Mervyn LeRoy.

The emcee for the evening, comedian Bob Hope, lifted Margaret to the microphone so she could be heard by the listening radio audience.

“Will you hurry up and grow up, please?” Hope said as he struggled with the young winner.

As LeRoy handed her the Oscar, he said, “To the best young actress of the whole year of 1944. Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” she replied. I really don’t know what to say. Thank you very much.”

However, she did know what to say. Her mother had written her an acceptance speech, but at the last-minute Margaret decided to improvise her very own thank you to the Academy.

Margaret O’Brien and her mother Gladys at the footprints ceremony in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater

During her career, Margaret O’Brien was bestowed with many awards and accolades, including the honor of placing her hands and footprints in cement in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese, but the Oscar would be her most prized and valued possession. Unfortunately, the little statuette would not stay around for long.

At the O’Brien home on Beverly Drive, Margaret had a separate room for her awards. One day in 1958, their maid took the Oscar and several other awards to her home to polish – a practice she did on several occasions. After three days, the maid failed to return so Mrs. O’Brien dismissed her and asked that she return the awards.

Not long after, Mrs. O’Brien, who was not in good health, suffered a relapse and died. Grief stricken, Margaret forgot about the maid and her Oscar until several months later when she tried to contact her, only to find that her phone was disconnected. The maid had moved and did not leave a forwarding address. Margaret considered the Oscar was gone forever. A few years later, the Academy graciously replaced the award with a substitute, but it was not the same.

Over the next thirty years, Margaret attended memorabilia shows searching for her lost Oscar. Then, in early 1995, a friend saw her Oscar in a an upcoming memorabilia auction catalogue. Margaret contacted the Academy’s legal department and they acted swiftly to have the Oscar returned.

Margaret O’Brien with her stolen Oscar that was returned to her by the Academy, and me in my younger days (no I’m not drunk it’s just one-of-those-pics) Michael Schwibs photo.

On February 7, 1995, nearly fifty years after receiving it, the Academy returned the stolen Oscar to O’Brien in a special ceremony at their Beverly Hills offices. Margaret told those attending:

“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.”

 

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