Today is the birthday of Margaret O’Brien (Angela Maxine O’Brien, b. 1937), not to be confused with Margaret Sullavan or Maureen O’Sullivan, who is not to be confused with Maureen O’Hara. Nor should she be; for of all those, she is the last one standing, indeed, she is very nearly the last of ALL the classic Hollywood stars to still walk among us.
O’Brien was one of the most gifted child actors of the Hollywood era. Not just cute and precocious, she was an extremely affecting and convincing actress, which gave her much wider range than most kiddie stars. She was initially billed by her given name, but it was changed to Margaret after the success of her first proper film (at age five) Journey for Margaret (1942), about a London orphan during the time of the still-raging blitz. Consider: that was over 80 years ago, and the star is still living!
O’Brien was second generation show biz. Her father Lawrence O’Brien was a circus performer who died before her birth. Her mother Gladys Flores was a Spanish flamenco dancer who performed in night clubs with her sister Marissa. Margaret’s screen debut came with a bit turn in Babes on Broadway (1941). After Journey for Margaret, she had an incredible run of success and critical acclaim that took her through the end of the decade. Her best loved role is Tootie from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), a role with more than one vaudeville touch! Other notable films (out of many more) include Jane Eyre (1944), The Canterville Ghost (1944), Bad Bascomb (1946), Little Women (1949) and The Secret Garden (1949). She also starred in major network radio programs though these years.
Later, O’Brien was in such movies as Glory (1956) and Heller in Pink Tights (1960), but starting in the ’50s, the time of her late adolescence and early adulthood, she mostly acted in live TV dramas and pilots for sitcoms that weren’t picked-up. She also did turns on major variety shows like those of Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Ken Murray, George Jessel, the All Star Revue, et al. When live TV faded into history she guest starred on filmed shows like Rawhide, Perry Mason, Adam-12, Love American Style, and Marcus Welby M.D, with her Journey for Margaret co-star Robert Young. At the age of 40 she seemed to step away from screen work for a while, but then returned for a supporting role in the 1981 Disney film Amy.
Ever the trouper, like many a former marquee name, O’Brien soldiered on through many roles in horror films and shows over her last years. These credits include Diabolic Wedding (1971), Tales from the Darkside (1986), The Craven Cove Murders (2002), Frankenstein Rising (2010), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2017), Halloween Pussy Trap, Kill! Kill! (2017), and her most recent Impact Event (2018), about a group of people who survive the apocalypse in an abandoned funhouse! You might say “what a come down”, yet her presence in these movies reminds me of the fact that O’Brien was at the center of my favorite Halloween scene in all of Hollywood movies, the one in Meet Me in St. Louis.
My friends, this is what it’s all about:
For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.
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