Posts Tagged ‘Margaret O’Brien’

Marsha Hunt on Anthony Dexter

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

INTERVIEWS

Marsha Hunt talks about her friendship with Anthony Dexter

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Marsha Hunt

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By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

Yesterday, January 19, was Anthony Dexter’s 100th birthday. In celebration here is a repeat of an article I posted more than three years ago about Marsha Hunts friendship with the actor.

 

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I was first introduced to Marsha Hunt by Margaret O’Brien while working on the book I wrote on her career (Margaret O’Brien: A Career Chronicle and Biography). A few years later I renewed that friendship through my late friend Jimmy Bangley. On occasion we would visit with her and talk about Hollywood and watch old films at her Sherman Oaks home.

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Marsha Hunt, who was equally at home with light romantic comedy or heavy dramatic roles, first appeared in films in 1935 in Paramount’s The Virginia Judge. Her later work at MGM included Pride and Prejudice (1940), Lost Angel (1943) and Smash-up, the Story of a Woman (1947). Her film career came to an abrupt halt due to the communist witch hunt of the late 1940s and 1950s.

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Though blacklisted, Marsha appeared on stage and occasional television roles over the next few decades. She has been seen in Matlock, Murder She Wrote and as an alien in one of my favorite shows, Star Trek: The Next Generation. She recently appeared in the short film, The Grand Inquisitor (2008) playing the widow of a possible serial killer.

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Since 1980 she has been the honorary mayor of Sherman Oaks and in 1993 she wrote, The Way We Wore: Styles of the 1930s and ‘40s, a book filled with fashion, film history and inside Hollywood stories.

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Marsha Hunt and Allan Ellenberger

Marsha Hunt and me the night we talked about Tony Dexter

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When I began researching my book on Rudolph Valentino (The Valentino Mystique), I learned that Marsha appeared in a Sacramento production of the musical, The King and I, playing the role of Anna with Anthony Dexter as her King. Dexter, of course, played the silent film idol in the 1951 bio-pic, Valentino, so one evening several years ago, I asked Marsha what she thought of Valentino and about working with Tony Dexter. What follows is her response:

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“Of course I remember Valentino. By the age of eight I had already seen The Sheik and his films with Vilma Banky. Valentino smoldered, didn’t he? That was fine with me. I got his message loud and clear, even at a young age.

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“I remember when Valentino died. There were two deaths that summer – my grandfather and Rudolph Valentino. I remember everyone being concerned and upset because one person had died and that was really quite awesome to me. That was probably the first indication of the scope of fan-hood — of hero worship — a matinee-idol-kind-of-madness that could sweep a country.

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“As for Tony Dexter, I first met him when he was the King and I was Anna. Do you know the story of my doing The King and I? I had never found the courage to do a musical. I had sung in half a dozen movies but nobody knew it was me. They assumed that I’d been dubbed by a singer. They sort of thought ‘if she could sing she’d be a singer so this must be somebody else’s voice.’

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“It was 1958 and I was in New York in a Broadway show at the time (The Tunnel of Love with Johnny Carson). Musicals and straight plays have different matinee days so actors can go see each others shows. So on one of those matinees, I was finally able to see The Music Man (with Robert Preston) and there sitting behind me was Russell Lewis and Howard Young, the producing team of the Music Circus Theatre in the Round in Sacramento. They had asked me over the years if I would do a musical and I always said ‘no thank you.’ I had done my only tour play with them when they produced T.S. Elliot’s The Cocktail Party, which I did with Vincent Price and a wonderful cast – Estelle Winwood and some great people.

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“So there was Lewis and Young sitting behind me at The Music Man and we went backstage to see Bob Preston together. And then they walked me to my theatre because there wasn’t time to go back uptown until my evening show, and the entire way they were giving me hell and saying ‘Marsha, you are the most cowardly person we know. You are afraid to do a musical and you have just seen and heard what an actor, who is not a singer, can do on stage.’

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“And of course they were right. Bob Preston was absolute magic. And I was so spellbound by Preston and what he had done that I said ‘yeah maybe so,’ and they said, ‘well you’ve seen it – you heard what an actor can do with a singing role. Now will you promise to do something for us this summer?’ And in my weakened condition I said yes. And they held me to it.

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“So when I got back home they said ‘Okay, what’s your show — what are you going to do for us?’ And I didn’t know, but it seemed to me if I didn’t make history as a singer, that it better be a good acting role, and the best acting role I knew in a musical was Anna, so I suggested The King and I, and they made me do it. And that’s how I became involved in the play and first met Tony Dexter.

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“One of the first things that struck me about Tony Dexter was – and I don’t mean that it was obtrusive – but he didn’t have an ego. And I was amazed during rehearsals, this Anthony Dexter, who had played Valentino; larger than life, you know, macho man dramatic hero of all womanhood, didn’t seem to have an ego.

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“He was conscientious and professional and terribly nice, but I saw none of the ‘me first’ quality that the King was made of. He was playing the King and ruler of all that he surveyed, and I found myself wondering in rehearsal how Tony Dexter was going to succeed as the King. But he was an actor and it all came true in his performance as rehearsals progressed. He grew muscles of ego as well as insistence on having his way. I was so proud of him for not imitating (Yul) Brynner — there was nothing of Yul in his King; he found  his own King. He was awfully good.

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“I knew that he had played Valentino so I can’t honestly say whether I would have noticed the resemblance or not. I was busy trying to ‘de-Valentino-ing’ him in my mind and seeing him as the King of Siam. He wore Asian makeup to a degree – he was bronzed in that wonderful Pacific-colored skin that isn’t brown and isn’t yellow. Its Filipino — it’s a wonderful bronze shade. And he was superbly built. He did just fine in what minimal costuming he had.

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“We rehearsed for a week and then performed the show for a week, and that’s it. And if they took pictures they never sent them to us. He sang surprisingly well. I remember, of course, the moments of friction and attraction that happened between the King and Anna and the “Shall We Dance” routine was wonderful as a number. It was such an experience together because there were all types of magic going on between us.

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“For my costume, I was given Gertrude Lawrence’s hoops which were made of steel and were five foot in diameter in graduating size, and linked from one hoop to another so they all stayed equidistant from one another. Then I started twirling, and those hoops got their own momentum, they went like holy blazes. And there is Tony – poor Tony, barelegged – and through the layers of my thin petticoats, the steel hoops cut grooves into his shinbones – its not very upholstered at your shin bones, and he was bleeding by the end of our dance so they had to cover the widest link with padding so he got bumped but not cut.

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“We had almost no time together except in rehearsal and I didn’t get to know him then, but he was clearly a nice man as well as intelligent, and as I said, no ego. What surprised me was hearing from Tony out of the blue well after the show had closed. He would call me maybe once a year in the 1960s and 70s. And he just wanted to chat. It was so sweet. He knew I was married, so he was making no pitch. But I was so complemented that he remembered an experience we briefly had of intense work together, and wanted to renew our acquaintance.

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“And then after Robert (Marsha’s husband, screenwriter, Robert Presnell, Jr.) died I began to hear from him maybe three to six times a year. He was living alone and he must have been very lonely. He called just to chat. I remember my beloved friend John Anderson, a wonderful character actor, who lived just a few blocks away. The Andersons and Presnells used to do things together. We’d go to screenings at the Academy, or out to dinner — we were very fond of them.

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“Then Robert died and the Andersons looked after me. And we did things as a threesome and then Pat (Anderson) died of emphysema and that left John and me. We were such good friends and one time I asked him ‘Did you every know someone named Tony Dexter?’ And he said, ‘What made you think of that name?’ I told him that Tony had called earlier that day and wondered if he knew him. He said, ‘That’s amazing because I also hear from him occasionally (they made a movie together).’ So I don’t know how many people Tony called, but every now and then he called John Anderson as well as me. Now maybe we’re the only two people he did call but John was so touched that Tony just wanted to visit.

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“Anyway, Tony had a thing about the film I made with Greer Garson, Pride and Prejudice — he adored the film and he adored me in it. Every time it ran he had to call me and say so. And there’s nothing I could say about it. He would just carry on about my Mary. He treasured that performance.

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The Way We Wore

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“I sent him my book (The Way We Wore) because he was so devoted, and there wasn’t anything else I could do for him. I had a sense that he was lonely, and I just thought he might enjoy it. Well, he went to pieces over it and he said he was now the big man on his block — that all his neighbors and friends was dropping by to ripple through some more pages and catch up. They loved the book and he was so grateful.

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“Then, he did a really touching thing. He looked up my birthday and sent me a twenty dollar bill. To send me money on my birthday — I found it so touching. I wanted to send it back because I had a feeling things were probably pretty tight for him and twenty dollars made a difference, however I felt it might hurt his feelings so I kept it and told him I had a splendid dinner.

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“I never saw him in person again after we did The King and I — we only spoke on the phone through out all those years. I think he developed a mild crush on me because in his letters and cards he began to sign his name rather romantically. And he left sweet messages at Christmas time, sending me cards and things. It was so dear. Never until I was widowed though, because he was quite conscientious about that.

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“But I liked him and I thought it was a pity that a man that nice and that gifted – at least from the one thing I saw him do — wasn’t having a better time toward the end. I would ask him how he was feeling and he’d make light of it, but it was clear he was not in the best of health or spirits, and so we’d talk for a long time — as long as he wanted to because I thought it mattered to him. And that’s all I can tell you about Tony Dexter.”

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Anthony Dexter died on March 27, 2001 in Greeley, Colorado.

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The making of “Little Women”

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

FILM HISTORY

The making of the 1949 film classic, “Little Women”

 

 

  

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

“Good pictures are always difficult to make,” Mervyn LeRoy once said. He should know because he produced or directed several including Tugboat Annie (1933), Madame Curie (1943) and the perennial favorite, The Wizard of Oz (1939).

 

However, the one film he always wanted to make was an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” It had been fourteen years since David O. Selznick produced the RKO version with Katherine Hepburn, so LeRoy persuaded Louis B. Mayer to buy the rights from him.

 

Selznick had attempted to produce a Technicolor remake himself a few years earlier and planned to star his wife, Jennifer Jones. However, several postwar problems and a threatened craft workers’ strike forced him to abandon his plans. So when MGM bought the rights to the film, they also bought all the sets that Selznick had built. One night during production, LeRoy’s wife Kitty was reading some of the dialogue from the script when she began to cry. “I can’t finish this,” she told her husband.

 

“My God,” he exclaimed. “Is it that good?”

 

LeRoy chose some of the finest actresses at MGM to play the March sisters. Each one had experience with big screen success: Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, June Allyson in The Stratton Story, Janet Leigh in The Forsythe Saga and Margaret O’Brien in The Secret Garden.

 

LeRoy had directed Elizabeth Taylor’s screen test for National Velvet. “And like everybody else who saw her,” he said. “I was struck by her potential beauty.” When she began filming on Little Women, Elizabeth was seventeen and her beauty was at its peak. “There was no bad side, no good side,” LeRoy said. “All sides were fantastically beautiful.”

 

Her role as the selfish Amy would require a bit more acting than she was previously accustomed. In the novel, Amy is the youngest March sister, but in order to use Margaret O’Brien (who was five years younger than Elizabeth) as Beth, Beth was made the youngest. “Film treatment,” Elizabeth explained, “will take care of that.”

 

 

 

 

Also, as Amy, she would have to become a blonde. “I don’t like myself as blonde yet,” Elizabeth said. “I think it gives me a white, faded, peculiar look. But we wouldn’t dare change Amy to a brunette. Too many people have read the book and know exactly the color of her hair. They would resent a change.”

 

“I’ve made tests for the role and everything will be all right when they finish changing my hair,” Elizabeth explained. “But I think I will always be happier as a brunette.”

 

During the filming, Elizabeth turned eighteen and no longer had to go to school, something which made Margaret very envious. “We had a party on the set for Elizabeth’s eighteenth birthday,” Margaret recalled, “and I remember her throwing away all her school books. She really disliked the school teacher and was happy that she would no longer be following her around every minute.”

 

Walter Plunkett, of Gone with the Wind fame, designed the costumes for Little Women, which thrilled all the actresses. “Oh my goodness,” Elizabeth exclaimed. “I get to wear Walter Plunkett clothes.”

 

The four actresses became good friends on the set of Little Women. At lunch, they would go to the studio commissary together and gossip – mostly about Louis B. Mayer. Elizabeth detested him, but June admired the fact that he had risen from the ranks as a junk dealer to one of the most powerful moguls in the business.

 

Three of the actresses had crushes on costar Peter Lawford. “I was out of the competition,” Margaret said, “because they were all older and I was only eleven. I sort of felt like an outcast because all three had a crush on him. Peter had a wonderful time on that movie.”

 

One person who did not have a wonderful time was Mary Astor, who played their mother, Marmee. Astor later recalled this period of her career as “Mothers for Metro” and did not always speak of it very fondly. “My approach to the part of Marmee was not an enthusiastic one,” Astor later wrote. “Everybody else had fun.”

 

She would complain because the girls were always laughing and fooling around during every scene. She criticized Elizabeth for talking on the phone to Nicky Hilton (her future husband) all the time and became irritated when June snapped her gum. Her experience on Meet Me in St. Louis had not endeared her to Margaret and things had not changed. “Maggie O’Brien looked at me as though she were planning something very unpleasant,” Astor wrote.

 

 

 

 

During the scene when Jo cuts off her hair, Peter Lawford’s character sees her and is supposed to say, “What have you done? You look like a porcupine!” Instead, Peter would pronounce it “porky-pine.” “We must have shot that scene a hundred times,” Margaret recalled. “And then Peter and June would laugh every time she took off the hat and he saw her hair.”

 

On every take, he would say “porky-pine” and everyone would burst out laughing, including Mervyn LeRoy. Unfortunately, Mary Astor did not see the funniness in it. “My sense of humor, my sense of fun, had deserted me long ago,” she said. “And it just wasn’t all that funny.”

 

Eventually, everyone would pull themselves together and start the scene again. “Okay. I’ve got it now! I’ve got it now!” Peter would assure everyone. LeRoy would start at the very beginning and Peter would come through the door and say, “What have you done? You look like a “porky-pine!” Of course, everyone doubled over with laughter again, except Mary. She had been standing there for some time and was beginning to feel ill from the hot lights and the heavy clothes.

 

“I couldn’t say that I was ill,” she said. “I didn’t want the kind of attention that would have brought on.” As LeRoy began the scene once more, Mary had the first line and realized she could not remember what it was and stood there speechless.

 

“Cut,” LeRoy yelled. “Where’s your line, Mary?”

 

“I don’t know Merv,” was all she could say, which caused everyone to go to pieces again.

 

Janet Leigh, who played Meg, remembered that at first Margaret was hesitant to join in on the revelry. “Young Margaret O’Brien took a while before she participated wholeheartedly,” Leigh recalled. “She continually looked in her mother’s direction for approval. But gradually she loosened up and we won her over to our foolish ways.”

 

The scene where Beth reveals that she knows she is dying, took a lot out of both Margaret and June Allyson. Even Mary Astor was impressed with Margaret’s ability and proclaimed, “And was that ever a death scene.”

 

“It was hard for me because June got to cry in that scene and I had to be the strong one,” Margaret said. “It was difficult not to cry.”

 

June had the same problem – except she couldn’t stop crying. In the scene, Beth, who is dying from scarlet fever, comforts Jo and tells her not to be sad because she doesn’t mind dying. After the scene was finished, June continued crying and had to be sent home. “I got in my car still blubbering and continued to cry for hours,” June said.

 

 

Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret O’Brien

 

 

MGM premiered Little Women on March 10, 1949 at Radio City Music Hall for its opening film for their 25th Anniversary program. The film became a big money-maker that year earning 3.6 million for the studio. In their publicity, th studio mentioned that the film reunited four stars from Meet Me in St. Louis: Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Leon Ames and Harry Davenport.

 

Sadly, Little Women was the last film for veteran character actor C. Aubrey Smith, who died shortly after filming was completed. This would also be Elizabeth Taylor’s last adolescent part. Her next film, Conspirator (1950) with Robert Taylor, saw her in a more mature role.

 

Little Women was nominated for two Academy Awards and won for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color for Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse, Edwin B. Willis and Jack D. Moore.

 

Lee Mortimer of the Daily Mirror wrote, “On this photoplay MGM bestowed painstaking and loving care, adhering as much to the warm spirit and restrained actions of the book as it is physically possible in translating words into pictures.”

 

 

 

 

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An Interview with Margaret O’Brien — PART THREE

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

INTERVIEWS

Margaret O’Brien: The MGM Years —

 PART THREE

 

 

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

Continued…

 

AE: Let me ask you about some actors you worked with over the years. What are your impressions of Edward Arnold who costarred with you in “Three Wise Fools?”

Margaret O’Brien: Edward Arnold would get fussy sometimes and get after me if I wasn’t listening in a scene. He’d look me in the eye and say, “Margaret, you’re not listening. Pay attention.” But, of course, he was right too.

 

AE: Another child star you worked with twice was Butch Jenkins. Did you become friends?

Margaret O’Brien: We were good friends, but we were not real close. He was real boyish and liked to play baseball, and I wasn’t interested in that. But we got along well.

 

AE: How was it to work for MGM boss Louis B. Mayer?

Margaret O’Brien: He was very nice to me. But a lot of people were really scared of him. He didn’t scare me, and my mother could walk in and be real independent. He could be very intimidating, especially if you asked for more money. It was like being taken to the guillotine. He governed it all, but he wouldn’t come down to the set much because his producers were pretty influential. That’s what made him more scary. There are lots of stories about Louis B. Mayer.

 

AE: Danny Thomas’ first film appearance was opposite you in “The Unfinished Dance” (1947). What was he like?

Margaret O’Brien: Yes, that was Danny Thomas’ first film, and he was wonderful. Of course, he had kids of his own—he had a daughter my age, Marlo, who would come on the set sometimes. Marlo and I graduated our first Communion and Confirmation together, so we knew each other as we grew up. But Danny was great with kids—he was fun.

 

 

 

AE: In the film “The Unfinished Dance,” you play a young ballerina. You did your own dancing, didn’t you?

Margaret O’Brien: Yes, I loved doing that film because I came from a dancing family. At first the studio was going to use a double because they didn’t realize that I was a dancer, so they dismissed the double. There were lots of kids on that one which was fun, including Elinor Donahue, who became a good friend. We worked together again after that, and we still see each other from time to time. And I also got to wear these beautiful ballet costumes, which I loved.

 

AE: Did your mother teach you the ballet?

Margaret O’Brien: No, I had been to dancing school, but my mother was a dancer. She had taught me the flamenco and other dances, but not ballet. And my aunt (Marissa) was a Spanish dancer with Xavier Cugat for many years. He would have a Spanish dancer on his show at the Waldorf. And then my mother was a Spanish dancer with Eduardo Cansino, the father of Rita Hayworth. My mother even taught Rita some dances in her early years.

 

AE: Were you friends with Rita Hayworth?

Margaret O’Brien: No, I only met Rita Hayworth once during a pool party at Orson Welles’ house during the filming of Jane Eyre, and she was there. She knew my mother, of course, but not me.

 

AE: So did you study ballet?

Margaret O’Brien: I had not studied like the other kids, but I seemed to have a natural ability at dancing, so I learned all the steps in no time. In fact, the head of the Ballet Russe, who did most of the choreography wanted me to join the company. Of course, I wasn’t going to leave MGM, and the dancer’s life is very difficult. So, my mother said no. But I was really into the ballet at that time, carrying my toe shoes with me everywhere.

 

AE: Another one of your films which has become a classic is “Little Women” (1949). What was it like working on that film?

Margaret O’Brien: “Little Women” was my favorite book, so when I was told that I was going to do it, I was just thrilled. I loved Beth, and I loved all the costumes. Walter Plunkett designed the costumes and had also done the costumes for Gone With the Wind. I remember Elizabeth (Taylor) saying, “Oh my goodness, I get to wear Walter Plunkett clothes.”

 

AE: What was Elizabeth Taylor like?

Margaret O’Brien: She was really fun to work with. I first worked with Elizabeth on Jane Eyre, but we didn’t have any scenes together. Speaking of costumes, usually I had to wear poor bedraggled clothes, but on Jane Eyre I got to be dressed up and wear the pretty ones. Well, I would see Elizabeth on the Fox lot, and I was just so happy I could put my nose in the air and go past her and Peggy Ann (Garner) because they had to wear the raggedy clothes. We were only kids, but Elizabeth was envious of me for once. But that changed on Little Women because now I envied her because she had her 18th birthday during the filming and didn’t have to go to school anymore. She threw away her school books and didn’t have the teacher following her every minute. That was a big deal for her because she really hated that school teacher.

 

 

AE: How was Peter Lawford to work with?

Margaret O’Brien: Peter Lawford was so handsome. All the girls had a crush on him, but I was out of the competition because I was only 11. I felt like an outcast, so I kind of spied on them to see who was going into whose dressing room. Peter had a wonderful time on that movie (laughs).

 

AE: I understand there were some problems filming the scene where Jo (June Allyson) comes home after cutting off all her hair and selling it.

Margaret O’Brien: We had to shoot that scene about a hundred times because Peter Lawford would break up and laugh every time he looked at her hair. And when he had to say that she looked like a porcupine, he would always say porky-pine. He couldn’t seem to say it right, and then everyone would start laughing.

 

AE: Your last film at MGM, “The Secret Garden” (1949), has become a children’s classic and also one of my favorites. What are your remembrances of that film?

Margaret O’Brien: I was so lucky to do all these films from great books that I had read. Doing this film made me very good in history because it would pique my interest to learn more about it. In The Secret Garden I loved playing the part in India—I’ve always enjoyed Indian antiques—I especially loved the dolls from the scene and was allowed to keep one, which I still have. And, there were two really nice boys in the film—Brian Roper, who was really from Yorkshire—I really liked him a lot. Then, of course, I had a big crush on Dean Stockwell—I thought he was so good looking. I always loved doing the English castle-type films. Again, I wished I had taken some of the things off the set of that one.

 

AE: Do you still see Dean Stockwell and Brian Roper?

Margaret O’Brien: Yes, and then I did a couple of television projects with Dean later on. I still had a crush on him for a long time. And Brian Roper I saw again several years ago. I was doing an appearance at a Palo Alto theater where they were showing The Secret Garden, and he was living near there. He was in the audience and came up to see me—just as nice as ever—and he still had a watch that my mother had given him on the last day of filming. If we were really close, we would give each other gifts when a film was finished—I still have the gift Dean gave me, a little gold good luck charm on a pin.

 

AE: After you left MGM, is it true you were almost signed to be the voice for the Disney animated film “Alice In Wonderland” (1951)?

Margaret O’Brien: I almost did it, but another little girl who was under contract to MGM for a while did it. My mother had a big fight with Walt Disney. What it was all about I don’t know. I think it was over money. And he was going to sue us—it was a big deal. Somehow he didn’t, and at that point neither one of us wanted to do it.

 

AE: Did you have a favorite film that you did at MGM?

Margaret O’Brien: I’d say Little Women and The Secret Garden. Of course, Meet Me in St. Louis was fun too. Those were my three favorites.

 

AE: Do you have a favorite actor that you worked with?

Margaret O’Brien: It’s hard to say because I loved Lionel Barrymore, and I loved Charles Laughton. I loved Robert Young. They were all very special. It’s really hard to pick. I had very few that I did not like to work with. Some were not as warm, like Orson Welles, who kept a lot to himself, but he wasn’t mean to you. The only one that was difficult was Wallace Beery—that I worked with as a kid. Of course, I worked with some later that were pretty unpleasant.

 

AE: Well, Margaret, I really appreciate you taking the time to discuss your career at MGM.

Margaret O’Brien: I’ve enjoyed every minute. Thank you so much, Allan.

 

Margaret O’Brien left MGM when the studio no longer knew what to do with her. She was growing up—which was a sin for a child star. Once, after returning from a two month trip to Europe, it was noted that Margaret had grown three inches. An MGM executive reportedly pointed at her in the commissary and said, “Don’t look now, but the kid’s growing awfully fast. We’ve got a headache on our hands.” With no projects in sight, Margaret’s mother asked to be released from her contract, which still had six months to go. MGM released a statement saying that the parting was “mutually friendly.”

 

Margaret O’Brien continued to appear sporadically in films over the years, including one in Japan and two in Peru. However, her main body of work would be on the stage and in television, where she would work nonstop for the next decade.

 

Margaret O’Brien is no longer a child star, but she still continues to shine. She lives today in the San Fernando Valley and occasionally accepts acting roles. Much of her time is spent lecturing on her film career or attending functions in Hollywood. She says she has no intention of ever retiring completely.

 

“Actresses often say that they’re going to give up acting,” she once remarked, “but I always stare at them open-eyed when they say it. I could never say I’ll never act again. I always loved acting, and I still do. I’ve lived a wonderful life.”

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An interview with Margaret O’Brien — PART TWO

Monday, January 17th, 2011

INTERVIEWS

Margaret O’Brien: the MGM Years —

PART TWO

 

  

By Allan R. Ellenberger 

 

Continued…

 

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.

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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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Margaret O’Brien’s 74th Birthday

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

Margaret O’Brien turns 74 today

  

 

 

 Born January 15, 1937 in San Diego, California

 

 

 

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Margaret O’Brien’s Birthday…

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

Margaret O’Brien

 

Margaret O'Brien

 

January 15, 1937, San Diego, California

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Happy Birthday Anita Page…

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

HAPPY ‘BELATED’ BIRTHDAY

Anita Page

 

 

“I must say that I enjoyed being a movie star, but I have never had to look back. My life has been happy, rewarding and fruitful. Today I still receive fan mail and applause from fans all over the world and it gives me a warm feeling to know that I am remembered after all these years. It has been a pleasant life… what more could I ask for?”

— Anita Page, 1994

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger 

 

“The King,” Clark Gable compared her to the beautiful Grace Kelly. Talk show host, Jack Paar spoke of her to his late night viewers as his “dream girl.” Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, hounded the studios for years for a photograph of her, and Prince Ferdinand of Germany would not stop until she agreed to go out on a date with him.

           

Anita Page, the object of desire for all these men, (and more) was a bright star in the Hollywood heavens for more than seven years. Of that, five of those years were at the legendary Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer-Studios, where she appeared in twenty-one films. With numerous public appearances, and friendships with many of Hollywood’s most celebrated people, Page secured a career that is legendary in its own right.

  

RECOLLECTIONS OF A PAST BIRTHDAY

            

Yesterday, August 4, was the 98th birthday of Anita Page. I first met Anita in 1993 while researching my book, Ramon Novarro: A Biography of the Silent Film Idol. Anita costarred with Ramon Novarro in The Flying Fleet (1929) and was one of his last living co-stars, so naturally I was thrilled when she agreed to meet with me.

 

That same year, on her 83rd birthday, I was invited to join her family, friends and former costars at what was then called the St. James Hotel, on the renowned Sunset Strip. Once known as the Sunset Towers, it was at one time the home to countless Hollywood stars and executives, including Anita’s first husband, composer Nacio Herb Brown, who lived in the penthouse.

            

The guest list that evening looked like a Hollywood Who’s Who and included Cesar Romero, Milton Berle, Hugh Heffner, Margaret O’Brien, Betty Garrett and Mel Torme, to name a few. They all came to toast one of the last remaining silent film stars from that once great studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

 

Hugh Heffner, who is a silent film fan, recalled that Anita “fell down the stairs well,” referring to her bravura performance in the hit Our Dancing Daughters (1928), which put Anita on top.

            

Hefner, who has helped to preserve old films said, “Well, I think one of the things that are fascinating — because of the technology — things are being reproduced on laser and tape and there’s a kind of rediscovery. I suspect as we move into the next millennium, this last century will be seen as very special. It’s really the dividing point in which the magic of an era has been captured and saved and I suspect as we move forward, the past is going to look better and better.”

            

Betty Garrett, who costarred in such films as On The Town and My Sister Eileen, recalled going to the movies as a child with her mother and spoke about the way movies used to be. “I became a movie fan in those days,” Betty recalled. “I saw Anita’s films and adored her. We’re all longing for movies the way they used to be. I don’t know what there was about them that was so intriguing – maybe it was because it was a new industry. It was so exciting to see a movie in those days. It was magic.”

            

Cesar Romero told everyone gathered that, “Her legs are just as beautiful today as when she was a top MGM star!”

            

Anita’s husband of fifty-four years, Admiral Herschel House, died in 1991 but Anita told the packed room that evening that her beloved husband was there in spirit. “I thought I’d never, never get over it. And I never will,” Anita said. “But I appreciate the beautiful daughters he gave me.”

            

“Mother left the business for many, many years, but people didn’t forget,” her oldest daughter Sandra said. “She had a combination of sweetness and sensuality. It’s what Marilyn had and it’s what Harlow had. It seems to be quite a good combination. She has all different ages of people that love her and remember her. It’s been a complete resurgence, and she’s so happy about it.”

            

At that time, Anita had a resurgence of her popularity, making personal appearances at film festivals, and taking time to answer her mail from a new generation of fans. As Margaret O’Brien said that evening, “That’s the wonderful thing about Hollywood. You can always come back!”

  

EMAIL ME: hollywoodland23@aol.com

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