Meet Me in St. Louis
American actress of Irish and Spanish lineage Margaret O'Brien made a name for herself in the 1940s thanks to her memorable performances in such vehicles as “Journey for Margaret” (1942), “The Canterville Ghost” (1944), “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes” (1945), “The Secret Garden” and “Little Women” (both 1949). Her turn as the feisty sister Tootie in the Judy Garland musical “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) brought the legendary child star a honorary Oscar. However, O'Brien failed to make the transition to adult roles. After leaving MGM and an unsuccessful effort with Columbia Pictures in “Her First Romance” (1951), the San Diego native rarely returned to the big screen. Other movie roles include 1956's “Glory,” 1960's “Heller in Pink Tights,” 1968's “Annabelle Lee,” 1974's “Diabolic Wedding,” 1981's “Amy” and the direct-to-videos “Sunset After Dark” (1996) and “Dead Season” (2002). Although her glory days are gone, O'Brien has never retired from the entertainment industry. She focused on television and enjoyed a prolific career as a guest star during the 1950s to early 1990s. Some of her credits include appearing in “Ironside,” “Love, American Style,” “Adam-12,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” “Hotel” and “Murder, She Wrote.” She also acted in the TV film “Little Women” (1958) and the miniseries “Testimony of Two Men” (1977).
Best recalled for her natural, emotional style and her surprising readiness for tears, O'Brien is often quoted as having asked the directors who instructed her to cry whether they wanted the tears to run all the way or they should stop halfway down. She said, “How they really got me to cry is kind of interesting. June Allyson also did a lot of dramatic films. We were known as ‘The Town Criers of MGM.’ We were always in competition. I wanted to cry better than June and June wanted to cry better than me. The way my mother got me to cry was if I was having trouble with a scene, she'd say, 'Why don't we have the make-up man come over and give you false tears?' Then I'd think to myself, 'They'll say I'm not as good as June,' and I'd start to cry.”
One of the most highly respected child actors in cinema history, O'Brien has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was handed the Former Child Star Lifetime Achievement Award from Young Artist Award in 1990 and the Women's International Center (WIC) Living Legacy Award in 1996. In 2006, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the SunDeis Film Festival.
O'Brien lost her miniature Oscar in 1954. More than four decades later, in 1995, her Oscar was found by two baseball memorabilia collectors at a trade meet in Pasadena, California, who bought it and returned it to her. In 2001, she donated the statue to the Sacramento AIDS Foundation to be sold as a fundraiser. Her act received protests from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and caused the actress to remove the Oscar from the auction.
O'Brien has been married twice. She was married to first husband Harold Allen, Jr. from 1959 to 1968. She and current husband Roy Thorsen currently live in California. They have one daughter together, Mara Tolene Thorsen.
San Diego Girl
Childhood and Family:
Angela Maxine O'Brien, who would later be popular as Margaret O'Brien, was born in San Diego, California, on January 15, 1937. Her father, a circus performer, passed away when she was still an infant, leaving her under the guidance of her mother, Gladys O'Brien, who worked as a flamingo dancer.
Angela was married for the first time at age 22 to Harold Allen, Jr., but they divorced after nine years in 1968. She remarried on June 8, 1974, to present husband Roy Thorsen. The couple welcomed their daughter, Mara Tolene Thorsen, in 1977.
Journey for Margaret
Margaret O'Brien kicked off her film career at age 4 in a civil defense film starring James Cagney and with a bit part as Maxine in the musical “Babes on Broadway,” starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Recognizing her promising talent, MGM put her under contract and after changing her first name from Angela to Margaret, the studio starred her in the based-on-book drama “Journey for Margaret” (1942). Playing a five-year-old panic-stricken London war orphan adopted by an American journalist (played by Robert Young) and his wife (played by Laraine Day), she offered a full-grown, brilliant and somewhat chilling performance that subsequently made her a star.
O'Brian followed it up with roles in such MGM projects as “Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case,” “Thousands Cheer,” the biopic “Madame Curie” and “Lost Angel” (all 1943). The following year, she was lent to Fox for the film version of Charlotte Brontë's “Jane Eyre,” which was directed by Robert Stevenson and starred Joan Fontaine in the title role. She returned to MGM later that same year with the role of Lady Jessica de Canterville in the comedy “The Canterville Ghost” along with Charles Laughton and her “Journey for Margaret” co-star, Robert Young.
However, O'Brian did not enjoy another breakthrough until she was cast opposite Judy Garland in the Oscar nominated “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944). As Garland's spunky but frail little sister, Tootie Smith, she showcased her dancing and singing abilities and was handed an Academy Juvenile Award for outstanding child actress of 1944. She next starred in the popular movies “Music for Millions” (1944), which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Writing, Original Screenplay, and “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes” (1945), a drama co-starring Edward G. Robinson. Her subsequent MGM projects, like the Western “Bad Bascombe” (1946, with Wallace Beery), the based-on-play “Three Wise Fools” (1946, as Sheila O'Monahan) and the melodrama “The Big City” (1948, opposite Robert Preston, Danny Thomas and George Murphy) did not fair as well. She rounded out the decade with memorable performances in the family drama “The Secret Garden,” playing Mary Lennox, a role originated by Lila Lee in the 1919 movie of the same name, and the ordinary remake “Little Women” (both 1949), where she portrayed Beth.
O'Brien ended her partnership with MGM and in 1951 she played her first love scene in a low-budget romance for Columbia called “Her First Romance.” She next went to Japan to film “Futari no hitomi/Girls Hand in Hand,” which was released in the United States in 1953. She did not receive another film role until 1956's “Glory,” a drama directed by David Butler and starring O'Brien as Clarabel Tilbee. The comeback failed to re-launch the actress' fading career. As a result, she turned her attention to television. Some of her early TV work included guest starring in such series as “The Lux Video Theater,” “Ford Television Theater,” “Studio One” and “Playhouse 90.” In 1958, she recreated her role of Beth for a CBS TV movie version of “Little Women,” opposite Joel Grey, Florence Henderson and Jeanie Carson.
In 1960, O'Brien returned to movies playing the supporting role of Della Southby in the George Cukor-directed Western “Heller in Pink Tights,” adapted from the Louis L'Amour novel “Heller With A Gun.” Also that same year, she was hired to star in her own series, “Maggie” (CBS), but the pilot did not do well. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Margaret continued to have an episodic role in TV series like “Checkmate,” “Adventures in Paradise,” “The DuPont Show of the Week,” “Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre,” “Ironside,” “Love, American Style,” “Adam-12” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.” She also acted in the made-for-TV film “Death in Space” (1974) and the miniseries “Testimony of Two Men” (1977).
O'Brien made a sporadic return to film after 1960's “Heller in Pink Tights” with roles in the independent projects “Annabelle Lee” (1968) and “Diabolic Wedding” (1974). In 1981, she had a feature role as Hazel Johnson in the Disney-produced period drama “Amy,” alongside Jenny Agutter, Barry Newman and Kathleen Nolan. She filled in the rest of the1980s with guest roles in the Aaron Spelling-produced drama “Hotel” (1983), as Martha Connelly, and the anthology show “Tales from the Darkside” (1986), as Mrs. Webster.
O'Brien entered the 1990s making a guest appearance in a 1991 episode of the long-running drama “Murder, She Wrote.” Later that same year, she appeared in an episode of the adventure series “The New Lassie.” Five years later, O'Brien was discovered making a cameo appearance in the direct-to-video horror film “Sunset After Dark” (1996), directed by Mark J. Gordon and written by Frank Spotnitz. She also briefly appeared in the direct-to-video movie “Dead Season” (2002), starring Randal Malone, Ted Newsom, Ron Ford and Mark Shady.
In addition to film and TV work, O'Brien has also acted on stage with summer stock and touring companies. A few of her theater credits include “A Thousand Clowns,” “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Young And The Beautiful” (with Dirk Wayne Summers) and “Under the Yum-Yum Tree.”
Young Artist: Former Child Star Lifetime Achievement Award, 1990
Academy Award: Juvenile Award, Outstanding Child Actress of 1944, 1945