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Margaret O'Brien

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She Might Be Your Child: Margaret O'Brien is completely natural. That's why she captivates the movie-goer.

By Helen Markel

The New York Times Magazine, October 1, 1944 pages 16 and 40


An Army captain by the name of Clark Gable went to see a movie called "Lost Angel," about a child wonder who rattled off Chinese and dabbled in the Napoleonic campaigns. The child wonder was Margaret O'Brien.

The next day Captain Gable was on the MGM lot and asked Miss O'Brien to lunch with him. Miss O'Brien sent word back that she was sorry, she would like to very much, but she was full.

The lady who turned down Clark Gable is Hollywood's newest jackpot. (The boys who should know call her "the hottest name on the MGM lot.") She is seven-going-on-eight and having trouble with her teeth. They drop out before her biggest scenes. She is exactly forty-four inches tall and weighs an elfin forty-four.

She is no glamour girl. She has neither dimples nor curls. She likes her hair plain and she braids it into two smooth brown pigtails. Her eyes are brown too, and they take up most of her face when she gets excited. She doesn't look like a Hollywood product. She looks like yours.

She can't sing. She can't dance. All she can do is act.

Even people who are allergic to child prodigies go to see her. Her appeal lies in her naturalness. Her chief claim on audiences is that she causes them either to want a child exactly like her to believe theirs is.

Margaret started out as a cover girl at the age of 3. Before she was 5 she had made four transcontinental flights with her mother and her dancer aunt, Marissa Flores, with whom Mrs. O'Brien used to dance before Margaret's birth in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 1937. Margaret's father died four months before she was born.

She got into pictures by accident. Her mother had gone to see her sister's agent and Margaret trailed along. The agent took one look at her and came up with a bit part in "Babes on Broadway," in which Margaret foundered on a sea of bedimpled darlings.

A year later, when she was 5, came "Journey for Margaret," which stared the gold rush. Now the stories lined up for her will carry her through the age of 88. The studio insists on "natural" stories. Anything that Shirley Temple could have done is out.

It was during the filming of "Journey for Margaret" that she decided to change her name. Up to then it had been Maxine. On the set everybody called her Margaret. When the picture was finished she asked to have it legally changed.

The judge who took care of it asked her what would happen if she should play in a picture called "Tea for Susie."

"Nothing at all," said Margaret O'Brien soberly. "I just know my name ought to be Margaret."

I visited her on the set of "Music for Millions," where she is currently filching scenes from Jimmy Durante and José Iturbi. The scene in progress was the wings of Carnegie Hall, where Margaret was supposed to be watching her older sister get her first big break.

"You're so happy," the director, Henry Koster, was explaining to her, "that you cry."

Margaret listened, her small body tense with concentration. She hesitated.

"Do you want the tears inside or out?" she asked.

It was Mr. Koster's turn to pause.

When she finished giving him her outside tears she came into her dressing room to chat. It is a brand-new dressing room presented to her last month when she became a star on the studio's twentieth anniversary. It has blue gingham walls and a peppermint-striped ceiling. The thing Margaret likes best about it is that it has a toilet which you don't know about until she tells you. It looks more like a little blue closet.

"My last one," she explained in her prim little voice, "was right out in the open. I used it in emergencies because it embrassed [sic] me. This one nobody can tell about ‘less they're in on it."

Margaret's sketch book was lying on a peppermint-striped couch, open to a crayon drawing of two girls running out of a house with a wildly smoking chimney. Margaret picked it up and frowned at it.

"That's Judy Garland and me in ‘Meet Me in St. Louis' (her last picture). They cut out that scene and I liked it so I drew a picture to remember it. It's not very good."

Margaret does a great deal of painting. Charles Laughton is so impressed with it he has made a deal with her to get one picture a week. This is easy since she is very prolific. There is one called "The Manger," which he has framed in his dressing room.

She likes religious themes best. Many of her pictures show the bad man laid low and the good man en route to heaven reeling in clouds lined with pink-- "the Virgin Mary's clouds," Margaret says proudly.

She started to paint a long time ago, she says-- when she was 5.

Margaret is a devout Catholic. She reads the funnies, but prefers Bible stories, which she makes her mother read her by the hour. She cannot read by herself yet. She learns her lines by having Mrs. O'Brien read the script aloud twice, She has to memorize everybody else's lines too, so she will know her cues.

She rarely "blows" her lines. Her powers of concentration depress her colleagues. It was Lionel Barrymore who said despairingly, "If she had been born 200 years ago she'd have been burned at the stake as a witch."

Margaret is allowed to work only four hours a day. A supervisor is constantly on the set glaring at any interviewers who try to talk to her between "takes," when she is supposed to be resting. Resting usually means an involved game of "go fish" with her stand-in and "best-best" friend, Carol Saunders, or playing hopscotch with the adoring grips.

Margaret is the hopscotch champion of Culver City. Carol isn't bad, she says, but Guss-puss is better. Guss-puss is one of the electricians with a yen for Margaret.

"What a woman!" Guss-puss says of The O'Brien, and then he whistles admiringly through his teeth, an art which Margaret is trying vainly to master.

"It's harder for me than for him, " she explains carefully, "because his teeth are in to stay. Mine always seem to be hole-ly and they let too much air in." Margaret's teeth are a great trial to her. They finally put in a little bridge but her new ones keep pushing out.

Margaret excused herself to autograph her picture for the pilot of a Flying Fortress somewhere in the South Pacific who named his ship "Lost Angel." She can't write, really, but she can print her name laboriously, with her tongue between her teeth.

"He's flying those big silver ones, isn't he?" Margaret commented, painstakingly forming a big round O. "I think I'll draw one this afternoon and put Mr. Durante in it."

Mr. Durante and Miss O'Brien are the studio's newest twosome. Margaret laughs at all of Jimmie's jokes and Jimmie advises Margaret on her hats. He has written a song for her. He sits down at the piano and sings, "Margaret O'Brien, I love you!" And Margaret, sitting beside him, goes "Mhhmm, hmmmmh, mmhhmm." At the present writing they're working on new lyrics.

Margaret has a passion for hats. Some of them out-hedda Hopper. When she walks around the lot, visiting sets and influencing people, she always wears one, The one she likes best is a green Tyrolean pork-pie which sits on top of her brown braids, and second comes her black prelate's hat which makes her look like a small, earnest friar. She prefers them at a rakish angle, although her mother has warned her.

She wears one to lunch everyday at the MGM commissary with her mother and her "Aunt Missa," who lives with them. Sometimes she makes luncheon dates with Van Johnson or Jimmie Craig or Charles Laughton, to mention only a few of the men in her life. Iturbi has asked her to lunch twice, but had to cancel it at the last moment. The third time he asked her she turned him down.

"I just thought I'd better," she told her mother later. "It's like a game, see? Next time he asks me I'll go."

Margaret lives with her mother and her Aunt Marissa in a small apartment. She and her mother take the bus to the studio every morning. When they come home at night Margaret plays jacks with the two little boys in the next apartment while Mrs. O'Brien makes dinner. After dinner, Margaret helps with the dishes and argues about staying up "just a little longer," but she says she hardly ever wins. Her big night is Saturday, when she is allowed to "eat out" with her Aunt Marissa and go to a movie, which she still considers the best treat of all.

Mrs. O'Brien, like all mothers, regards her offspring with deep-rooted affection, amusement and frequent astonishment. She is a completely normal, intelligent little girl who thinks acting is great fun, whether it is on the set or playing "dress-up" in her mother's clothes with the other kids on the block.

When she saw herself first in "Journey for Margaret," she thought she could have done better. In "Lost Angel" she thinks maybe she improved a little, but that "Jimmie Craig was just wonderful." Mister Craig is on top of her love-list at the moment, which is subject to change without notice.

Her favorite actress is Jennifer Jones. "She's a Fox star." Margaret said anxiously, sliding her eyes around to the publicity woman who looked unperturbed. Her favorite picture is "The Song of Bernadette."

"She was so beautiful in that," Margaret sighed, her brown eyes intent. "Almost holy, sort of."

When Margaret grows up she wants to be a nun. By that time she figures she will have had enough acting. "Nuns," she says "are the most beautiful people in the world."

At the moment, though, the most important things in her life are "the Saints, my mother, my Aunt Missa, Maggie (her cocker spaniel), my Indian suit and Jimmie Craig."

Her two biggest wishes are (1) to be old enough to play a holy part and (2) to get all her teeth in.

All things considered, seven is a difficult age for a serious actress.

© 1944 The New York Times Magazine

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