On the set of Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), the young Margaret O’Brien was faced with just such a cheerful (yet tearful) dilemma.
As the actress recalled yesterday at the TCL Chinese Theater, “Judy Garland was so wonderful to work with, and she was the sweetest person in the world. See, I was an only child, so Judy to me was like a big sister…. She loved children. We used to play hopscotch or jump rope in those days. And I’d have a very hard time crying in the snowy scenes because I was so happy playing games with Judy.”
Classic film buffs might’ve read a cruel story about Minnelli lying to O’Brien—fabricating the death of her beloved dog—in order to get a response from her, but she insists that the anecdote is untrue: “My mother never would’ve stood for that.”
Instead, O’Brien’s mother resorted to more creative and far kinder tactics to elicit a realistic performance in those tense Christmas scene. “The way they got me to cry was, June Allyson and I were in competition as the best criers on the M-G-M lot. We were called ‘the town criers.’ So, when I was having trouble crying, my mother would come over to me and say, ‘I’ll have the makeup man put the false tears down your face, but June is such a great, great actress that she always cries real tears.’ And then I’d start crying.”
So, the next time you’re watching Tootie’s third-act breakdown, remember that the decidedly fierce flood of tears are being shed by a seven-year-old star who already took her professionalism deadly serious.
As film critic Richard Corliss, who interviewed O’Brien, remarked, “What adult actors take spend years trying to learn… this person had at the age of five.” Indeed, Lionel Barrymore found O’Brien’s gifts so uncanny that he remarked, “If that child had been born in the Middle Ages, she’d have been burned as a witch.” In Corliss’s words, “Rather than performing, she seemed to live inside the characters that she played.”
The 1942 wartime drama Journey for Margaret brought the intense little girl overnight stardom and a new name: “My name was Angela O’Brien, but I loved the little girl in Journey for Margaret so much that I had it changed to Margaret.”
Nevertheless, M-G-M hesitated to give the dynamo her due. As O’Brien said, “Mr. Mayer was a lovely person, but he was a little bit stingy. When people went in to ask for a raise, they’d have to sit in the little chair and he’d sit in a great big chair.” O’Brien’s mother, a professional dancer, wasn’t deterred, however, and asked for a top M-G-M salary of $5,000 per week for her daughter—or else she’d take Margaret off the screen and resume her own career in New York.
Thinking he had a perfect back-up plan, Mayer reportedly let the bankable child star leave. As O’Brien explained, “In those days, they had people on the lot who were lookalikes, in case a movie actor got difficult… This was a terrible thing that studios used to do.” M-G-M informed O’Brien’s lookalike that her day in the sun had come and that she’d star in Meet Me in St. Louis.
At the last minute, however, the studio bosses realized they’d need O’Brien’s presence to carry the integral role of Tootie, relented, and agreed to meet her mother’s terms.
Although this story has a happy ending for O’Brien, who won a special Oscar for the role, her lookalike—and her showbiz family—was crushed: “Her father was a lighting technician on the set. He had a nervous breakdown during the film and almost dropped a light on me. So her family was never, ever the same after losing Meet Me in St. Louis, and I felt terrible about that. But I think the studio stopped the [lookalike] process after that incident.”
Despite this initial bad blood, O’Brien remembers the film’s production as a golden period for the director and star, who were falling in love. Still, fans of Meet Me in St. Louis realize that, far from a blithe musical, the film probes some rather dark times for the Smith family—and reflected the real tragedies of millions of families torn apart by World War II. And the climactic snowmen sequence was almost even darker, if you can believe it.
The original lyrics to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”—which, even in its current form, can induce serious dehydration—tended towards total devastation. Minnelli and the producers, hoping to move the audience, not depress them, decided that a rewrite was necessary. According to O’Brien, the final version that we know and love, with its message of togetherness in spite of adversity, came from both lyricist Hugh Martin and the film’s star: “Judy had a big hand in writing that song.”
It dawned on me while listening to O’Brien that any great film represents a thousand possible disasters that were miraculously averted. And Meet Me in St. Louis seemingly embraces the exquisite fragility of everything worthwhile, especially family.
On Thursday, I had the chance to ask O’Brien on the red carpet how she felt about the screening of Meet Me in St. Louis here at TCMFF. Her face lit up, like Tootie’s describing one of her moribund dolls: “I’m so glad that people still enjoy that movie and that it keeps going on for younger generations, and will keep on for many years to come.”
You also can watch O’Brien’s talk at Meet Me in St. Louis here.