I had the pleasure of attending a very special screening of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). It took place in the TCL Chinese Theatre (Grauman's Chinese) and actress Margaret O'Brien was in attendance. Seeing O'Brien at the TCM Classic Film Festival was an experience I'll never forget. In fact, I saw her on three separate occasions, once at this screening and twice at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. She was probably the most approachable of all the special guests because she was very comfortable taking photos with fans, giving them autographs or even chatting with them. I get so star struck whenever I see any of the special guests. I clam up and have no clue what to do or say and I usually forget crucial information like my name and where I am. I saw O'Brien twice before I had the courage of saying something to her. I complimented her on her outfit, she has a very funky and hip style, and that was the first time I had ever spoken to a classic film star. After that experience I hope I'll be more brave and a lot more calm on my next encounter with someone famous.
Richard Corliss, author of Mom in the Movies: The Iconic Screen Mothers You Love (and a Few You Love to Hate), interviewed Margaret O'Brien at this festival screening.
Margaret O'Brien's first ever screen appearance was at the age of two in Babes on Broadway (1941) with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. It was the first time she worked with Mickey Rooney. Many years later they would work together again for one last time on the movie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2014) . In fact, they had just wrapped up filming three weeks before the festival and shortly before Rooney passed away. O'Brien says that Rooney loved being on the set and was very happy to be working again. She was impressed that he knew all his lines at the age of 93.
Journey for Margaret (1942) was O'Brien's first credited screen role. O'Brien says that she loved the character in that movie so much she willingly had her stage name changed to Margaret. She had a dog named Maggie who appeared with her in some of her early roles and even credits her dog for helping her get her start in Hollywood.
O'Brien's mother was a famous flamenco dancer and part of Rita Hayworth's father's company. Her mother was having some photos taken and because she didn't have a sitter she brought along Margaret (Angela at the time) and her dog Maggie. When they all walked into the shoot, the photographer exclaimed "what a beautiful face!". O'Brien's mother thought he meant her but the photographer was referring to the dog. Because of O'Brien's name change she could have easily been referred to as "Maggie" but refused to let anyone call her that with the notable exception of Mickey Rooney.
O'Brien's next story revealed a lot about studio era machinations and manipulation. Her mother had asked Louis B. Mayer to raise her salary to $5k a week unless they could guarantee that little Margaret would be protected. Otherwise she wanted to be on the set with her daughter. $5k was a lot during that time and Mayer refused. O'Brien's mother told him they would be moving to New York to find work elsewhere. In those days studios had look-a-likes on hand to fill in for roles that were intended for other actors or actresses. For example James Craig was Clark Gable's look-a-like.
Without naming names, O'Brien told us that MGM had a look-a-like for her under contract. The studio gave that young actress the role of Tootie in Meet Me in St. Louis much to the excitement of the actress and her family. But as we all know that didn't happen. The salary negotiations for O'Brien finally went in her favor and she got her $5k a week plus the role in the movie. The rejected actress' father worked on lighting for the film and O'Brien remembers that he had a nervous breakdown on the set and almost dropped a light on her. O'Brien was very sympathetic and doesn't speak negatively of the other actress' father. If you look at sources elsewhere it says that he intentionally tried to drop the light on her and was admitted to a mental institution shortly afterwards. O'Brien felt terrible about what happened to that family and believes that studio bait-and-switch practice was stopped after that incident.
This was my favorite interview of the festival. O'Brien was so generous with her stories and her praise for those she worked with. I always get irked when interviews consist of more questions about who the person has worked with than about the actual person being interviewed. I understand that we all want to hear stories about the people who have passed on from the people who remember them but I think we should appreciate who we have left too! Corliss's interview with O'Brien had a great balance of stories about O'Brien as well as details about other stars including Judy Garland.
After the interview we were all treated to a screening of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). I sat very close to the screen, which in Grauman's Chinese theatre is enormous. I felt enveloped in the film and transported to another time and era. I have seen the film several times before but this viewing was so special. My hands hurt from all the clapping. And there was a lot of clapping before, during and after the interview and with every screen credit, first appearance of a star and every musical number. The audience was really appreciative of the film and it showed in how much we all applauded. You don't get this kind of positive response anywhere other than at the TCM Classic Film Festival.
Here is a photo of O'Brien posing for pictures at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. To be only a few feet away from her was a true delight!