Posts Tagged ‘MGM’

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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Clark Gable at 109

Monday, February 1st, 2010

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

Clark Gable would have been 109 today!

 

 

February 1, 1901, Cadiz, Ohio

 

On February 1, 1937, Judy Garland sang “Dear Mr. Gable,” to the actor at an MGM birthday party . The song was so well received it was added to her next film, The Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937). Click below to watch it. 

 

 

 

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Luise Rainer Will be 100

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

 INTERVIEWS

Cinema heavens welcome Luise Rainer, newest star

 

 

 

Tomorrow is the 100th birthday of cinema icon, Luise Rainer, the recipient of two consecutive Academy Awards. She joins the ranks of entertainment centarians George Abbott (1887-1995), Bruce Bennett (1906-2007), Irving Berlin (1888-1989), Margaret Booth (1898-2002), George Burns (1896-1996), Claire Du Brey (1892-1993), Bob Hope (1903-2003), Dolores Hope (b. 1909), Barbara Kent (b. 1906), Carla Laemmle (b. 1909), Charles Lane (1905-2007), Francis Lederer (1899-2000), Florence Lee (1858-1962), Huey Long (1904-2009), Irving Rapper (1898-1999), Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), Hal Roach (1892-1992), Frederica Sagor Maas (b. 1900), Miriam Seegar (b. 1907), George Beverly Shea (b. 1909), Dorothy Stickney (1896-1998), Doris Eaton Travis (b. 1904), Senor Wences (1896-1999), Estelle Winwood (1883-1984), Dorothy Young (b. 1907), Adolph Zukor (1873-1976). Note: Dorothy Janis will turn 100 on February 19, 2010. The following is a Los Angeles Times story about Rainer’s film debut in Escapade, almost 75 years ago.

 

By Katherine T. Von Blon
Los Angeles Times
July 8, 1935

 

A lustrous and exciting personality flashes across the cinematic horizon in Luise Rainer, M-G-M’s Viennese prodigy, appearing opposite William Powell in Escapade at the Chinese and Loew’s State theaters.

 

There’s so much emotion and dynamic energy stored in the small compact body of this wistful little lady, that one could never hope to press it into mere words. She’s a series of contradictions, and as fluid as quicksilver. One moment she’s gay and the next she’s sunk in depths of despair.

 

Luise is terrified of strangers. She has just come from one of those imposing studio luncheons, given for visiting nabobs. She huddled in a corner of the divan, like a small frightened rabbit, and managed one of her sudden, ingratiating smiles. “Luise doesn’t understand the English very welll.” She has a habit of speaking of herself objectively.

 

This same elfin creature will hold the entire studio force at bay, when it comes to a question of her artistic integrity.

 

“When I say to them, ‘Luise cannot do it that way,’ it is because I do not feel it, and I never do anything I do not feel here.” Needless to say, Luise gets her way and by the same token, those in authority admit that she has a sixth sense and is invariably right. However, there have been some stormy scenes, ending with the volatile star taking French leave.

 

Luise thinks American men are enormously fascinating, but she doesnt’ know how to take them. “Your American men, they are most charming. They all walk on little pink clouds. They are so happy and carefree. But you do not know if they love you, or if they are just your friend. The men, they are more serious in Europe.”

 

Luise has a passion for music and Beethoven is one of her mightiest gods. She said: “I have just purchased a beautiful phonograph that plays the entire Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, without interruption. It is heavenly.”

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Caryl S. Fleming at Hollywood Forever

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

HOLLYWOOD FOREVER CEMETERY

Caryl S. Fleming, an immortal of magic

 

Caryl S. Fleming

Caryl S. Fleming (above) does not find a rabbit in his hat (Photo:  IBM Ring #21)

  

The Magic Castle, located at 7001 Franklin Avenue at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, is currently observing the centennial of it’s headquarters which was built by banker Rollin B. Lane in 1909. To celebrate, I will post a biography of Lane and the history of the mansion on January 2, 2010, the 47th anniversary of the organization’s opening. Today, the last in a series of articles on magic and magicians in Hollywood, is about Caryl S. Fleming, a banker and one-time film director whose true love was magic!

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

Since the early days of film, Hollywood has always been the land of make-believe where tricks and sleight of hand are evident in almost every frame. Hollywood has also been a friend to the magical arts – Harold Lloyd was a lover of magic and held meetings in his expansive estate in Beverly Hills. Other Hollywood celebrities such as Chester Morris, Sterling Holloway, Ramon Novarro, Johnny Mack Brown, Gene Raymond, Max Terhune, Bert Kalmar and Edgar Bergen also had an interest in magic.

 

Caryl Stacy Fleming is a name which may not be as familiar to the magically-challenged, but yet he was the major reason for the well-being of conjuring in the Los Angeles area from 1933 to 1940.

 

Fleming was born on October 13, 1890 (although his grave marker reads 1894, official records give his actual year of birth as 1890) at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the son of Frank Fleming and Grace Rosemary Stacy. As a child he moved with his family to Chicago, where his parents were divorced by the time he was 10 and his mother ran a boarding house on Michigan Avenue.

 

It was in Chicago that a family friend — the dean of magicians, Harry Kellar — sparked his interest in magic. He would spend time at Ed Vernello’s magic shop, learning the basics of conjuring.

 

Caryl S. Fleming

 

In 1910 he moved to New York and was educated at Columbia University. He soon found work on the legitimate stage and in early motion pictures. Around 1916 he married Constance Ethel Norton and they had a daughter, Marjorie Gladys Fleming in August 1917. That same year, he was employed by Film Craft Corporation in New York City as a motion picture director. His final film as a director was The Devil’s Partner (1923) which starred Norma Shearer. This was Shearer’s last film before being signed by Louis B. Mayer Productions (later Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios).

 

Eventually Caryl and Constance were divorced and he left for California in 1927 while Constance and Marjorie remained in New York. By all accounts it was a bitter divorce and reportedly he never saw his ex-wife or daughter again.

 

In California, he became involved with banking and was a director of several institutions, while still devoting himself to the organization of magicians. He was president of the Pacific Coast Association of Magicians and the associated International Alliance of Magicians and was a member of more than fifty magic clubs.

 

He was one of the founders and a one-time president of Los Magicos which met on Wednesday nights, sometimes at his Beverly Hills home. Caryl was the perfect host and loved to manufacture gimmicks in quantity and pass them out to his friends. He was a true friend to magicians everywhere and wanted to have the whole world share the fun he had found in magic. A lover of animals and an ardent amateur photographer, he also dabbled in chemistry and developed a rope cement and several chemicals for use in card tricks.

 

Fleming and ess Houdini

Caryl Fleming, 2nd row, far left with glasses. Bess Houdini in center front row. 

 

In October 1936, Fleming attended the tenth, and final, Houdini séance which was held atop the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. A close friend of Bess Houdini, Fleming sat in the inner circle with her and other distinguished magicians in a final attempt to contact her husband. However, no message was received from the great Houdini and it was announced that no further attempts would be made by his widow.

 

Many individual magicians were helped by Fleming’s counsel and directions. His advice was always constuctive, and usually in a humorous way. When he did not like some part of an act, he would say so and then do everything to help the magician change the act for the better. He was a stickler for accuracy. He credited audiences with having too much knowledge to allow a magician to get away with false claims.

 

On Labor Day, September 2, 1940, Fleming was entertaining at his Beverly Hills home (924 N. Beverly Drive). He was showing some card tricks to a friend, Joe Evedon when he suddenly complained of indigestion. He drank a glass of bicarbonate of soda but said that it didn’t seem to help. Then without warning, he slumped into Evedon’s  arms and died from a heart attack just a month shy of his 50th birthday.

 

Tributes poured in from around the country:

 

“Caryl S. Fleming was the true magician,” wrote Edward Saint, past-president of Los Magicos. “He recognized neither race, creed, nor color; and his magic vision drew no geographical borders. Anyone, anywhere in the world, if they had the love of magic in their heart, Fleming called them ‘brother.’ He was of the world, for the world, of magic.”

 

Bess Houdini wrote:

 

“Marble may coldly mark the name and passing of our friend Caryl, but the memory of his prodigious efforts and intense love of magic, the warmth of his handclasp, and his kindly friendliness is engraved on our hearts as one of the Immortals of Magic.”

 

Fleming’s funeral service was held on September 4th from Dayton’s Mortuary in Beverly Hills. Amidst an array of floral tributes, more than 250 magicians gathered to pay last homage. A Universalist minister spoke first (Fleming’s great-great-grandfather established the Universalist church). Then, Bill Larson (the father of Milt and William Larson, founders of the Magic Castle in Hollywood) spoke to those gathered:

 

“Caryl would have been successful in anything he wanted to undertake,” Larson said. “His achievements in the fields of the theater and motion pictures were pronounced. Retiring, he turned his genius to magic. In a few short years he built, in the West, one of the largest and most prosperous organizations of magic the world has ever seen.”

 

Gerald Kosky then gave the S.A.M. ritual and wand breaking rites. Later Caryl S. Fleming was interred in the Cathedral Mausoleum at Hollywood Cemetery.

 

 

Caryl S. Fleming grave

 

 

Caryl S. Fleming grave

 

 

Fleming left an estate worth almost $100,000 to his mother, Grace R. Glaser but bequeathed only one-dollar to his daughter Marjorie, who resided in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania. It was understood that a property settlement, making provisions for his daughter and former wife, was effected when the Flemings were divorced several years earlier.

 

 

Caryl Fleming and mother graves

Fleming’s mother, Grace is interred below him. She remarried shortly before her death in 1948.

 

In 1947, Fleming’s mother, Grace, married James E. Miller. When Grace died just a few months later in February 1948, she left her considerable estate to her new husband. Grace’s secretary, cousin and Irva Ross, Fleming’s fiance at the time of his death, all were named benefieciareis under an earlier will. They contested the new will, claiming that Miller, who also had an alias, had married the wealthy widow in order to obtain control of her property. The court awarded each of the three contestants a specific amount and allowed Miller to inherit the remainder of the estate.

 

The Caryl S. Fleming Trophy for the most original amateur trick of the year was soon created and awarded yearly. In 1938, Fleming had helped charter the International Brotherhood of Magicians Hollywood RING 21 which, after his death, was changed to the Caryl Fleming RING 21 and is still in existence today.

 

fleming-ring21-a 

 

A year after his death, a tribute in Genii magazine memorialized Fleming saying:

 

“Years will pass. But the name Caryl Fleming will remain firmly in the minds of magicians. We, along with hundreds of others of our conjuring craft, will see to that.”

 

I would like to thank Bill Goodwin of the Magic Castle for providing  biographical information on Caryl S. Fleming for this article.

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‘The Green Hornet’ Filming Site

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

FILMMAKING

‘The Green Hornet’ begins filming in Los Angeles

 

The Green Hornet

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger
September 20, 2009

 

The Green Hornet, scheduled for release on December 17, 2010, stars Seth Rogen as Britt Reid, the newspaper publisher turned vigilante crime fighter, Jay Chou as Kato, his martial arts sidekick, and Cameron Diaz as Lenore Case. Michel Gondry is the director.

 

Filming began two weeks ago at Sony Pictures Studios (old MGM Studios) in Culver City and in Chinatown where Kato’s apartment is located. Other Los Angeles locations will include Sun Valley, Holmby Hills, Bel-Air, Hawthorne and various downtown locations including City Hall and the Los Angeles Times building, which will stand-in for the fictional newspaper where Reid works.

 

A key scene  for The Green Hornet was filmed at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, a popular location for filmmakers. I am not familiar with the back-story of the Green Hornet, however the scene in question is for the funeral of James W. Reid. Would that be the father of Britt Reid, otherwise known as the Green Hornet? Albeit, here are some photos for fans to look for in the film when it premieres in December 2010.

 

Green Hornet funeral set

 The funeral of James W. Reid.

 

 

Green Hornet funeral set

 The tomb in the foreground is also fake — movie magic

 

 Green Hornet funeral set

The face on the statue resembles actor Tom Wilkinson who was recently named as joining the cast.

 

 

Green Hornet funeral set

All surrounding tombstones have false name plates covering their true name.

 

 

GH-FuneralE

Another fake tombstone for the Green Hornet family

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‘Wizard of Oz’ at 70

Friday, August 28th, 2009

FILM HISTORY

“Wizard of Oz,’ still magical after 70 years

 

Oz travelers

 

It was 70 years ago this week that “The Wizard of Oz” arrived in theaters and even in this CGI-jaded era those old red ruby slippers still shine brightly.

 

Geoff Boucher
Los Angeles Times
August 28, 2009 

 

The anniversary will be celebrated over the next year with numerous events, including a national tour by a seven-story Oz-themed hot-air balloon, a Sept. 23 one-night theatrical re-release of a newly restored version of the film in 450 theaters and the release next month of an “ultimate collector’s edition” package on Blu-ray and DVD with that remastered version and 16 hours of bonus material.

 

That may sound like a lot of attention for an artifact from the FDR administration, but there’s a timeless quality to the cinematic adaptation of  L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s novel that still transports new generations over the rainbow. The movie remains an essential reference point — this December in James Cameron’s much-ballyhooed sci-fi epic “Avatar,” for instance, when the main character arrives on a dazzling jungle planet, moviegoers will hear a familiar line : “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” Cameron chuckled when asked about the line. “Yeah, it’s my favorite movie; I had to get it in there somewhere,” he said. Cameron is not alone in his ongoing romance with “Oz.” To mark the anniversary, The Times interviewed creators in film, television, music and books who have never wearied of the cinematic trip down the yellow brick road.

 

Click here to continue reading

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Margaret O’Brien’s Stolen Oscar

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

Margaret O'Brien and her Oscar

By Allan R. Ellenberger

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 thirties and forties. Previous winners included Mickey Rooney, Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland who was Margaret’s co-star that year.

 

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

Meet Me in St. Louis

Joan Carroll, Lucille Bremmer, Judy Garland, Tom Drake and Margaret O'Brien 
in a scene from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

 

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 applauded Margaret’s 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.”

 Margaret O'Brien and Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis

 

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.

 

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 called and told her that she was dismissed 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 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 would attend memorabilia shows searching for her lost Oscar. Then, in early 1995, a friend saw that Oscar in a catalogue for an upcoming memorabilia auction. Margaret contacted the Academy legal department who acted swiftly in having the Oscar returned.

Margaret O'Brien and Allan Ellenberger

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 since she first received it, the Academy officially returned the stolen Oscar to Margaret O’Brien in a special ceremony at their headquarters in Beverly Hills. Once reunited with her award, Margaret 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.”

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Trouble in Oz…

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

Trouble in ‘Oz’: the Munchkins’ dirty secret

 

 

Betty Ann Bruno, 77, left, Priscilla Clark, 79, and Ardith Todd, 78 were Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.

 

Snubbed at a Hollywood event, women hold own reunion to share memories of film shoot.

 

By Stephen Cox
Los Angeles Times
December 2, 2008

 

If you thought you knew everything there was to know about the iconic film classic The Wizard of Oz, then here’s a twister for you.

 

Everyone knows about the Munchkins, portrayed by 124 pituitary midgets in the 1939 motion picture starring Judy Garland. These days, the word “Munchkin” — now included in some dictionaries — is synonymous with small. Credited in the film as the Singer Midgets, the diminutive cast was comprised of little people from all over the United States, with the core group being part of the famous troupe of performing midgets managed by Leo Singer.   (Click on ‘Continue Reading’ for more)

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(more…)

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