It’s another busy day on the MGM lot as Vincente Minnelli directs Judy Garland and child star Margaret O’Brien in musical Meet Me in St. Louis. O’Brien moves towards her mark, unaware that in the next few moments she will face almost certain death. Far above her, an assassin is moving, planning to end her young career.
O’Brien plays Garland’s little sister Tootie and she’s loving making the movie. Many years after the 1944 musical came out, in 2019, she would tell the Los Angeles Times, “Judy was so much fun to be with on the set that she was making me laugh before the scene.” This became a problem when O’Brien was asked to cry in one scene.
There’s an old rumour around Hollywood that Minnelli had a cruel scheme to provoke tears from the young actress. He is supposed to have told her that her beloved pup was ill. But O’Brien denied this was true. She said that her mom would simply not have tolerated such cruel behavior.
Ultimately, O’Brien did manage to cry — because she didn’t want to be defeated in a kids’ game. “I’ll tell you how they got me to cry.” She said to the Los Angeles Times. “I was in a contest with June Allyson [on the MGM lot] of who was the best crier, because June cried in a lot of her movies. I wanted to win the contest.”
O’Brien was desperate to let Allyson win, so when her mom told her, “but June is such a great, great actress. She always cries on cue,” you can bet that she was fired up. Brushing aside the suggestion of fake tears, O’Brien said that her response was, “I thought, I’m not letting her win the contest. I started crying.”
O’Brien was already accomplished in the crying game. When she was six she reputedly asked a director, “When I cry, do you want the tears to run all the way or shall I stop halfway down?” Little did she know, though, that a man lurked in the shadows who wanted her to cry for real — and perhaps worse.
But O’Brien was unaware of the danger that she would face as she enjoyed working with Minnelli. In 2014 she told Vanity Fair how the experience had been. She said, “He was very gentle. He was very sweet, very nice. Knew exactly what he wanted, because, as I said, he made sure the set was decorated just right.”
O’Brien was particularly impressed by the way Minnelli treated her. “[H]e directed me like a grown-up actress and that’s what I loved about doing the movie,” she said. “I was very fortunate. Most of my directors did treat me like an adult actress. They actually did.” And it wasn’t just the director who made the shoot enjoyable. Garland also helped.
Reminiscing about working with Garland, in March 2015 O’Brien told U.K. newspaper the Sunday Express, “I adored working with Judy. She was 22 at the time and she seemed like a big sister to me. She was very sweet and always very kind to children. I’m still friends with her lovely children today. She was a lot of fun to be around even though people think of her as a serious, tragic figure. She really loved to tell jokes, and she’d play jump rope with me on the set.”
Meet Me in St. Louis was released in the fall of 1944 and was a smash hit. It was fifth on the U.S. box-office charts for that year and the second-highest-grossing film MGM had ever released at that time. Only 1939’s Gone with the Wind had made the studio more money.
It was only fitting that O’Brien should be in such a successful movie. She was MGM’s top child performer, having already appeared in nine movies since her career began at three years old. And that career would continue through the decades, evolving from child star to adult actress, from movies to TV.
In one of the slightly unusual quirks of that day, O’Brien had actually borrowed her first name from the character she’d played in her first credited appearance — in the 1942 film Journey for Margaret. Her real Christian name was Angela, and the Californian had actually made her screen debut in an uncredited, brief role a year earlier.
The youngster was very busy throughout the 1940s, appearing in a wide range of films. Before the Minnelli musical, O’Brien appeared in Jane Eyre (1943) and The Canterville Ghost (1944), and she’d go on to star in movies such as Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945) and Little Women (1949). And the Luisa May Alcott adaptation certainly had a lasting impact on O’Brien.
In December 2019, O’Brien reminisced with Yahoo Entertainment about the girls she filmed the movie with. They were Janet Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as her crying competitor June Allyson. She said, “Whenever all [four] of us would meet again at different luncheons and dinners, we always called ourselves the ‘Little Women.’”
But O’Brien’s career started to slow down somewhat after Little Women. The star’s selling point had been her cuteness as a kid, and she found the transition to adult actress difficult. Roles were harder to come by, and although she would continue to work, her final starring role in a movie was in 1960’s Heller In Pink Tights.
TV was O’Brien’s salvation. She told The Bristol Daily Courier newspaper in 1957, “The wonderful thing about TV is that it has given me a chance to get out of the awkward age — something the movies couldn’t do for me. No movie producer could really afford to take a chance at handing me an adult role.” She was only 20.
In time, O’Brien’s TV appearances became rarer — she preferred to focus on her husband and daughter. She’d turn up from time to time — including a cameo in the 1981 Disney biopic Amy — and as part of the Los Angeles Christmas Parade. Throughout her life, people loved to hear her speak, and she made many appearances doing just that.
This all seems a long way from the stardom that seemingly beckoned with the release of Meet Me In St. Louis. O’Brien’s performance was widely acclaimed. Entertainment journal The Hollywood Reporter raved, “Hers is a great talent 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.”
And this sentiment was echoed abroad too — the movie proved a huge success in London. There, the Daily Express noted, “Her quiet, compelling acting, worthy of an Academy Award, steals the show.” High praise indeed, and it turned out to be an accurate prophecy as the Oscars did come calling.
Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences liked to recognize the top child actor of the year. And it did so with a mini Oscar, just like the adult sort. Ironically, Garland had herself won the award before, along with the likes of Deanna Durbin and Mickey Rooney.
The winner in 1945 was O’Brien, as her turn in Meet Me In St. Louis wowed the Academy as well as audiences. And when she was awarded the Oscar at the ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, presenter Bob Hope had to hoist her up to the mic so that she could say a few words.
“Will you hurry up and grow up, please?” quipped Hope, struggling with the effort. O’Brien was so excited that she completely forgot the speech her mom had written for her. So when director Mervyn LeRoy gave her the award, she burbled that she didn’t know what to say and left it at “Thank you.”
The Oscar was by no means the only award that O’Brien would win throughout her career. But it was her favorite by some distance. In her family home, her awards had their own room, although they were sometimes taken home by the maid when they needed cleaning. And that’s just what happened in 1958 — only this time with an unexpected outcome.
Three days later and the maid still hadn’t come back, so O’Brien’s mother phoned to sack her — and demand the return of the awards. But shortly after, the elder O’Brien — who did not enjoy good health — became poorly and ultimately died. Margaret O’Brien was so shaken by grief that she didn’t even think about the maid for months. When she finally did phone her, the number was inoperative, and she now had to face up to the loss of the Oscar.
Even though the Academy gave her a substitute, it wasn’t the same. And for years, O’Brien would hunt for her missing award. She visited countless movie collectors’ sales in the hope of finding it. In 1995 she finally saw the Oscar again, in a memorabilia auction catalog. So, after alerting the Academy who quickly reclaimed it, the award was returned to her — 50 years after she was first presented with it.
A delighted O’Brien told the press, “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.” But this was not O’Brien’s only brush with crime.
No, O’Brien’s previous experience of criminal intent was rather more serious — almost fatal, in fact. Let’s turn the clock back to 1944 and revisit the set of Meet Me In St. Louis to find out how O’Brien faced danger. It all begins a few years before when the young actress signed a contract with MGM. But as her star grew, studio boss Louis B. Mayer didn’t match her rise in fame with an increase in wages.
“I was making very little money, and I had already become a name,” O’Brien told Yahoo Entertainment. “My mother thought, ‘We don’t know how long this studio contract will go.’ So she marched into Mr. Mayer’s office and said, ‘I want the top salary for my daughter!’” And O’Brien’s mother knew that she had an ace in the hole.
That “ace” was the knowledge that Minnelli wanted O’Brien for the part of Tootie. But Mayer simply didn’t care. He refused to accede to any demands and instead responded in a quite remarkable way. “Of course, he started to cry,” O’Brien said. “He could cry better than anybody when you were asking him for money.”
Well, Mayer was in for a shock when O’Brien’s mom — far from impressed with his waterworks — told him that he could stick it. As the actress recalled, “My mother said, ‘That’s fine. I’m going to New York, and I’m taking my daughter, so bye bye!’ Mr. Mayer was surprised by that!”
Still, Mayer had a card of his own up his sleeve. He didn’t have to give the child star the role in Meet Me In St. Louis after all. And this was a ploy he’d used many times with other stars — and it had worked. He simply threatened to recast the part.
MGM had a stable of stand-ins for their star actors — so there was a ready replacement for O’Brien. As she told Yahoo Entertainment, “They had a little girl that was my lookalike, but had never let her do a big, big role. Mr. Mayer told this little girl’s family that she was going to be in Meet Me in St. Louis, and even had a wardrobe fitting for her. So they thought for sure that she was going to do the movie.”
Well, the other little girl’s hopes were dashed pretty quickly, as Mayer decided that he did — after all — want O’Brien for the role. Turns out the standby’s dad was pretty upset by fact that his daughter wouldn’t be getting her big break too. And it turns out that he himself was part of the crew on the movie — working as part of the lighting crew.
O’Brien told Yahoo Entertainment that this man was truly broken by the news. “They had to tell this little girl’s family that she wasn’t going to be in the movie, and her father had a nervous breakdown,” she said. “I mean, the whole family was just so distraught. It was a really unfortunate thing that the studio used to do to keep stars in line, and not a nice thing to do to contract players.”
The father was not going to take this lying down, and he blamed O’Brien. He started to think about revenge — and a deadly scheme began to take shape in his mind. If his daughter couldn’t have the role, no one would. He crept up into the lighting rigging, where he could operate unseen, hidden from view.
The lighting engineer was perched high above the unsuspecting O’Brien. And he held a wrench — the ideal tool to loosen a bolt that kept the lights in place. If unfastened, the heavy light would crash down through the rigging and hit the young actress. The collision between illumination and little girl would, he hoped, be fatal.
Luckily for O’Brien, the man was not the only person up in the rigging. Another member of the crew caught him in the act. The murderous technician was dragged from the set never to return. Meanwhile, O’Brien played out her scene, completely oblivious of her close encounter with death.
Turns out, it would actually be years before O’Brien found out about the incident. She told Yahoo Entertainment, “I didn’t know about it until I was older. They didn’t want to tell me about it as a little girl.” Although strangely, in 2011 O’Brien’s memory was rather different, as she told the New York Post, “He dropped a huge light that almost landed on me and my stand-in!”
Whatever the exact truth of the story is, O’Brien survived the incident without coming to any harm. So she was able to enjoy a career that saw her recognized with stars on the Walk of Fame for both her film and TV work. And she avoided much of the excess of Hollywood, with her parents tucking away most of her earnings in a trust fund that she couldn’t touch before she turned 40.
Although O’Brien might still be best known for Meet Me In St. Louis, you can still catch her in a role here or there as she continues to work. Her latest movie, the romance Love Is In Bel Air is scheduled for a December 2021 release. It’s just lucky this Hollywood star survived the murderous rage of a jealous showbiz parent.