Posts Tagged ‘Lost Angel’

An Interview with Margaret O’Brien – PART ONE

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

INTERVIEWS

Margaret O’Brien: The MGM Years –

PART: ONE

 

 

  

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

Child stars have been an enigma since the first celluloid shadows flickered across the silver screen more than 100 years ago. From little Mary Pickford to Macauley Culkin, they have created images to adore and cherish. Unfortunately, in real life, some were more like the Bad Seed.

 

Many actors have dreaded working with child stars, if not for their precociousness then for their ability to steal scenes. The famous line attributed to W.C. Fields sums up the attitude of many actors: “Any man who hates small dogs and children can’t be all bad.”

 

Contempt for child actors did not only lie with actors. Producer Nunnally Johnson once claimed he would like to charge $500 for just looking at a talented child. “For talking to the same,” he added, “$50,000!” Ironically, Johnson’s grandson is a child actor who appeared as Will Robinson in the feature film Lost In Space (1998).

 

During the Thirties, Shirley Temple was the most popular child star. In the Forties, a new crop of youngsters popped up to challenge the young moppet, including Virginia Weidler, Bonita Granville, and Jackie “Butch” Jenkins. But the one who was arguably the most talented of all the child stars of her day—or since—was Margaret O’Brien.

 

O’Brien was voted one of the Top Ten Box Office Stars two years in a row. The National Board of Review twice named her as Best Actress, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed upon her their Most Outstanding Child Actress Award. These honors and countless others were given to Margaret O’Brien—all before the age of ten.

 

Margaret did not have the precociousness of Shirley Temple or the impishness of Jane Withers, but she possessed something that many adult actors desperately lacked—she had talent!

 

I first met Margaret O’Brien seventeen years ago when a mutual friend, MTV film star Randal Malone, made the initial introduction. At the time, I was researching my biography on silent screen star Ramon Novarro, who worked with Margaret in Heller In Pink Tights (1960). Margaret was gracious enough to relate her experiences with the former Latin lover and from that grew a series of interviews for another book, this one on Margaret’s film career, Margaret O’Brien: A Career Chronicle and Biography (McFarland, 2000). Today is Margaret’s 74th birthday and to celebrate, the following interview is the first part from our numerous meetings about her MGM films and the legendary people she has met.

 

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AE: You’ve been in show business for almost 70 years now. How did you get started?

Margaret O’Brien: My mother had taken me to photographer Paul Hesse, who used some of my pictures on magazine covers. From those pictures, I got an audition at MGM for a very small role in Babes On Broadway (1941). At the audition I used the phrase, “Don’t send my brother to the chair. Don’t let him fry.” You see, I had an uncle who had got into some problems—my mother’s brother—and she had to go down to the court house and try to get him off. So my mother prompted me to say to the lawyers, “Please don’t send my uncle to the chair.” So, I used that line when I auditioned for Babes on Broadway, and they used it in the film. And it was that line that later got me the part in Journey For Margaret.

 

 

 

AE: And “Journey For Margaret” (1942) was the part that brought you to everyone’s attention.

Margaret O’Brien: Yes, I wanted that film so bad because I really felt I was that child. My name was not Margaret at the time. It was Angela. But I really became Margaret, and when I got that part, I had my named legally changed to Margaret. I was also able to cry easily, and the film called for a heavy crying scene. That also helped me get the part.

 

 

 

 

AE: You worked with the late Robert Young in “Journey For Margaret” and “The Canterville Ghost” (1944). What was he like?

Margaret O’Brien: When I first met Robert Young, we became very close, and we have stayed friends through the years. In fact, I felt if I ever wanted to be adopted, I’d like to be adopted by Robert Young. I just felt at home with everyone I worked with in the movie.

 

AE: In the movie you always carried around an empty incendiary bomb casing.

Margaret O’Brien: Yes, that sort of became my toy. It was like a doll to me. But afterwards when the movie was finished they took it away because they thought it was best that I didn’t go to sleep with a bomb at night.

 

AE: You worked with the legendary Lionel Barrymore in “Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case” (1943) and “Three Wise Fools” (1946). What was he like?

Margaret O’Brien: He became the grandfather that I never had because I never knew my real grandfather. Lionel Barrymore and I became very close, and he would make me rag dolls. He was very respectful of me and treated me as an actress. I became very fascinated with the Barrymore family, and Lionel would tell me stories of his family’s life in the theater. At the wrap party for Three Wise Fools, Lionel gave me his mother’s pin that had been worn by all the Drew women on opening night. He had been looking for someone to give this pin to, which he called one of the crown jewels of the theater. So, he gave it to me. It was a great honor.

 

AE: He comes across as a little crotchety sometimes in his films. Was he really that way?

Margaret O’Brien: He’d pretend to be sometimes, but he wasn’t at all. Not at all. All you’d have to do is get a sad look, and he’d try to do something for you.

 

AE: You worked with some very talented directors in your career. There was George Sidney in “Thousands Cheer” (1943).

Margaret O’Brien: I think George Sidney was one of our finest directors. He directed some wonderful musicals. And I only regret that I wasn’t able to do more pictures with him. And then Joe Pasternack produced Thousands Cheer and several other of my films. Joe was very overwhelming. He was Russian, and I always wanted to make sure I wouldn’t make a mistake because I was afraid he’d get mad at me or something. But he was really—all in all—very nice and very sweet. I would see him on the lot all the time, so I was very familiar with him.

 

AE: Roy Rowland directed you in three pictures. What was he like?

Margaret O’Brien: Roy Rowland and his wife became like a part of our family. And his son, Steve, acted in some of my movies. Roy was a very nice and gentle type director who would lead you to what he wanted you to do. He never yelled or screamed so I felt very at home and comfortable.

 

AE: Roy Rowland directed you in the film “Lost Angel” (1944), that was written specially for you after your success in “Journey For Margaret.” What are your memories of making this film?

Margaret O’Brien: On Lost Angel, I had a big crush on James Craig. I was always following him around. I thought he was so handsome. And then I’d get jealous when he had scenes with Marsha Hunt, because I thought she was taking away my boyfriend. But Marsha was very nice and very understanding. She knew I had a crush on James Craig. And then I worked with Bobby Blake on the film. I also had a little secret crush on him, except he had to be mean to me in the scenes. But it was fun because I got to push him down during a fight.

 

AE: In 1944 MGM loaned you out to 20th Century -Fox to do “Jane Eyre” (1944) with the legendary Orson Welles. What was that like?

Margaret O’Brien: I loved wearing the costumes in that film because I would usually get the poor bedraggled costumes, and this was one time that I got to be dressed up and wear the wig with the curls. Also, on all my movies I never wore make-up, but on this one they put a little pancake make-up on me. I thought that was the greatest. Of course, I loved wandering through the sets. I was always fascinated, even as a child, by antiques and ancient times. I always felt I should have been born in the 17th or 18th century. They really had a big stone castle with authentic furniture.

 

 

 

 

AE:- What was Orson Welles like?

Margaret O’Brien: Orson Welles was very tall—I always thought of him as a very big gentleman that could just envelope you. Orson in his big capes always reminded me of a foreboding figure—but he wasn’t actually. I had seen Wuthering Heights, and he kind of reminded me of that.

 

AE: Did he work well with children?

Margaret O’Brien: He was nice, but he was a little more distant. There were no complaints. The only thing with Orson was that he would take about a hundred takes for one line, and that got real boring to me because I’d have to sit there. I was used to working through a scene. But there were times when he wanted a lot of takes even if I was just saying, “Hello, Mr. Rochester.”

 

AE: Was that his idea or the directors?

Margaret O’Brien: A lot of it was his because sometimes he would mumble, and they had to get the clarity and it would take some time, and that’s why they would take a lot of takes. So that part was very boring to me, and I would tire out. I’d like to get in the mood and get going and that would stop the momentum.

 

AE: How many hours were you allowed to work a day?

Margaret O’Brien: I had to be on the set at 9 o’clock. Then I had three hours of school during the time they were lighting the set. We were always busy. Then we would stop at 6 o’clock.

 

AE: When you had a break in filming, did you go back to school or could you play?

Margaret O’Brien: We’d go right to school, then we’d go back and do the scene again. Once we were finished with school, then we could play. You had to have a lot of concentration because you’d have to break right out of a scene and go concentrate on something totally different, which we all seemed to be capable of doing.

 

AE: Not many people are aware that you did a war-time short with James Cagney called “You, John Jones” (1943).

Margaret O’Brien: James Cagney was wonderful. He was very warm and understanding. You, John Jones was my mother’s favorite. I think she felt my acting was the best in that one, especially the scene where I’m in the concentration camp.

 

 

 

 

AE: Yes, weren’t audiences concerned about you because they really thought you were shell-shocked?

Margaret O’Brien: Yes, Mervyn LeRoy, who directed You, John Jones, was the one who really got me to look like I was shell shocked. It wasn’t easy to get a child to play a realistic death scene like that.

 

AE: During World War II, you volunteered your time to entertain the soldiers and help raise money for the war effort.

Margaret O’Brien: Yes, You, John Jones was where I first did the Gettysburg Address. I used it in a lot of things during the war when I made public appearances before the soldiers, especially at the Hollywood Canteen. That film brought such a realistic feeling to me about the war that I wanted to help in the effort. I really felt for some of those children just as I had learned to feel about the war orphans during Journey for Margaret. The war was something real to me.

 

On Monday in PART TWO you can read about Margaret’s experiences with Charles Laughton, Judy Garland and Wallace Beery

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