Margaret O'Brien Remembers Judy Garland and
BY Jeremy Kinser
December 13 2011 5:00 AM ET
“It will go on for years from now, long after we’re gone,” says actress Margaret O’Brien. The 74-year-old, who reigned as Hollywood’s most popular child star of the World War II era, is talking about 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis (out on Blu-ray today), in which she played the comically morbid Tootie Smith. It's a genuinely beloved film, and O'Brien's is a still-impressive performance that would win the 7-year-old a special Academy Award as outstanding juvenile actress of 1944.
Although the film developed a reputation as required viewing each December, the story about a close-knit family whose happiness is upended by the father’s decision to move to New York City, isn’t technically a holiday film. It is, however, one of the undisputed crown jewels among the many classics MGM and its legendary Arthur Freed unit produced during its fabled golden age. While it might be unfair to say the colorful movie is permeated with a gay sensibility, as its director, Vincente Minnelli, didn’t identify as gay, it’s certainly a film that continues to resonate with LGBT audiences.
Part of the appeal is obviously its star Judy Garland, emotional and winsome in one of her most popular roles as love-struck teen Esther Smith. Garland, photographed lovingly by future husband Minnelli, here originated several songs with which she would become synonymous, including the melancholy holiday standard “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Despite Garland’s reputation as an off-screen tragedienne, O’Brien remembers the actress as particularly lighthearted during filming. “When we weren’t working, Judy would get down and play games and joke with me,” O’Brien recalls. “She was really a happy person. What happened to Judy through the years was money problems and tax problems and marriage problems and things that brought on depression. And, of course, the studio overworked her, but not on Meet Me in St. Louis. Vincente Minnelli wouldn’t allow that. That’s why she said it was one of her happiest movies and she was always on time to be on the set."