"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."
Another likely reason for the film's generation-spanning appeal is the vivid
performance of O'Brien, already a veteran of half a dozen movies. The actress is quick to debunk a notorious
story that circulated later about her motivation for one particularly
emotional scene when she was forced to really turn on the waterworks. It's a rumor perpetuated by
Minnelli himself, that the 7-year-old was coaxed into crying copious
tears after being threatened with the death of her dog. "Mr. Minnelli
that in his book because he thought it would be more dramatic, but that
is not what happened," O'Brien reveals. "Neither Judy nor my mother
would have allowed that to happen to me." O'Brien says that as a
precocious young actress she developed a competitive streak, especially with another MGM star, June Allyson, who could also cry on
cue. "My mother came to me and said she would have the makeup man put
false tears in my eyes. She said, 'June, of course, is such a great
actress she can always cry real tears.' I thought, I'm not going to let June get ahead of me. I'm going to win this competition. That's the true story of how I started to cry."
O'Brien says she and Garland kept in touch through the years, seeing
each other at Hollywood functions. "So many times when you work with
somebody and you see them again, they don't even take time to say hello
because you've gone your separate ways. That was not the case with Judy.
She would always take time to say, 'Hello, Margaret. How is everything
going? I want to make sure everything is all right with you.' She was a
wonderful person. She was very sweet and very trusting of people,
sometimes too trusting. She was also a wonderful mother. I'm very good
friends with Joey Luft [Garland's son], and I see Liza and Lorna. So
many people think Judy was dark, but not with her children. What a
wonderful mother she was."
It's her own mother whom O'Brien credits with instilling in her the skills and values necessary to be happy away from the Hollywood spotlight. "I had a great mother who watched out for me," she insists. "She wasn't a stage mother.
She was like Auntie Mame. She was fun. We'd pick up and go to New York. We
went to all the restaurants. I didn't have a nanny. She took me along to different countries. I grew up loving to travel. I lived in Peru and Africa by myself. I learned about different
people and foods. I never get sad. If there's too much pressure, I just
dress up and go to my favorite restaurant."
Explaining why Meet Me in St. Louis has become a holiday perennial, O'Brien suggests it's due to nostalgia for the close-knit American family. "People are so busy working and texting and running around, I think we miss the good ol' days with families
sitting down to dinner," she offers. "We get a chance to revisit those wonderful times and get closer to our families around the holidays. Movies like Meet Me in St. Louis bring that back."
Watch Garland sing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to O'Brien below.