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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 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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Anita Page Tribute…

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

A TRIBUTE

Anita Page – You were meant for me

 

 

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger 

 

Anita Page, the last great silent film star from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, would have celebrated her 100th birthday yesterday. Some argue whether she was a star, an actress or leading lady —  to me she was all of the above and more. Anita was the first real actress that I had a chance to know personally.

 

 

 

Me and Anita at USC (Michael Schwibs photo)

 

SOME MEMORIES AND PHOTOS

 

I first met Anita Page in 1993 when I was researching my biography on Ramon Novarro, whom she costarred with in the 1929 film, The Flying Fleet. Her husband had passed away two years earlier, so to keep busy she came out of retirement and began appearing at film festivals and other functions.

 

At the time she was living in a retirement center in Burbank. Her good friend, actor Randal Malone, set up the interview. Anita was very sweet and accommodating to my questions. She had suffered a stroke after her husbands death which affected her short term memory. Her long-term memory was still intact, however she sometimes forgot that she had told a story and would repeat it. Other than being a little frail, that was the only noticeable evidence from her stroke.

 

Only once during the interview did she hesitate repeating information about Novarro. It was about his height. Evidently Novarro was not tall – probably about 5’8” – so he sometimes wore lifts in his shoes depending on his costar. Novarro wanted Anita to appear in the film with him, but the studio felt she was too tall and wanted to use Josephine Dunn instead.

 

Novarro told the executives, “I can always wear lifts in my shoes. Besides, I did a film with Joan Crawford and she’s as tall as Miss Page.” As we know Anita got the job, however, she thought the information about his height might be embarrassing so she asked that I turn off my tape recorder before she would tell the story – which of course I did.

 

I became friends with Anita and Randal that day and over the ensuing years was invited to their homes and to events where Anita was appearing. I also began interviewing her over a period of a year for a proposed book on her career. Whether it was at a noisy restaurant, her home or some other venue, I showed up with a tape recorder and we talked about early Hollywood. During that time she relayed stories about her films and the famous people she worked with and knew.

 

I completed a rough draft of what was to be the text for a coffee table book, but sadly it never came to fruition. I did, however, donate a copy of the unedited manuscript to the Margaret Herrick Library under the title, “Anita Page: You Were Meant For Me,” so future film historians will have access to her stories. The title is from the song by Nacio Herb Brown, her short-lived husband, who wrote it for Broadway Melody (1929) and dedicated it to her.

 

 

Anita with her parents (above), Maude and Marino Pomares. Mrs. Pomares died from cancer at her Manhattan Beach home in May 1943. A few years later her father remarried and he passed away in 1951. They are buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City. Anita also had a younger brother, Marino, Jr. who died in 1960 from a brain tumor. He was 36.

 

 Anita was Clark Gable’s first leading lady in The Easiest Way (1931)

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Above is a Los Angeles Examiner photo announcing Anita’s first arrival in California on December 7, 1927. She was a protégé of Harry K. Thaw who brought her and another starlet, Susan Hughes to California to make films. While Thaw’s plans failed, Anita (who was known then as Anita Rivers) decided to stay in Hollywood and try to make it on her own. Thaw returned to New York, as did Susan Hughes, who gave up show business.

  

 

 Josephine Dunn, Joan Crawford and Anita Page in Our Moderm Maidens (1929)

 

  

 Anita and me sitting on the steps outside her first Hollywood apartment (Randal Malone photo)

 

When I first interviewed Anita, she talked about her first Hollywood apartment that she shared with her mother. It intrigued me so I went about trying to find it using the phone book. Sure enough, there was a listing for Mrs. Marino Pomares in the 1928 directory – 7566 ½ De Longpre Avenue. Randal and I took Anita to the address for a photo shoot. Unfortunately the tenants were not home so we didn’t get a chance to look inside.

 

 Bessie Love and Anita from Broadway Melody (1929)

 

 

Actress Glenn Close as Norma Desmond and Anita Page (Michale Schwibs photo)

 

When Sunset Boulevard, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical came to Los Angeles, Anita received an invitation to attend. A real silent film actress meets a fictional silent film actress — what great publicity! Randal graciously asked me to attend along with his friend Michael Schwibs. The four of us had the best seats in the house – fourth row center – all compliments of the theatre. The play was breathtaking and the performances top rate. Afterward we went backstage to personally meet the star of production, Glenn Close who played Norma Desmond. Ms Close was still in costume and in character and had a brief conversation with Anita. It was a great experience and Ms Close kindly signed my program. What a night.

  

 

 Reportedly, at one point, Anita received more fan mail than any other actor at MGM except for Garbo

 

 

 

Anita Page

  August 4, 1910 – September 6, 2008

 

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