TCM went turn-of-the-century this afternoon with a presentation of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) at the TCL Chinese. Projected in pristine digital, the film, which marks its 60th anniversary this year, has never looked or sounded better. And the enthusiastic audience certainly agreed—they couldn’t resist humming along to the film’s now standard tunes, including “The Boy Next Door” and “The Trolley Song.” Plus, adding to an already delightful experience, Tootie herself, Margaret O’Brien, was on hand to introduce the film. O’Brien sat down with journalist and film critic Richard Corliss before the screening to reminisce about her experiences making MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.
Mr. Corliss gave O’Brien a nice introduction, pointing out that today’s film is part of TCM’s Sister Acts series (films about sisterhood), but he called O’Brien “one of the great daughters of the movies.” He also went on to compare her to the legendary “child performers” we have lost recently—Deanna Durbin, Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney. Corliss praised O’Brien as a “child actress” instead, saying she lived inside a child’s world of wonder and fear. Margaret O’Brien looked wonderful in a lovely red lace blouse and received a standing ovation from the crowd. She spoke briefly about her seventy year friendship with Mickey Rooney, who died just last week. O’Brien discussed her first small role in 1941’s Babes on Broadway where she met Rooney. And how they had just finished their second picture together after all these years, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2014).
Of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, O’Brien called him nice but stingy. “He could cry better than I could,” she joked, referring to the studio head’s negotiating tactics. And speaking of crying, O’Brien was widely known for her ability to cry on cue. But as the story goes, she was having difficultly bringing the tears for one key scene in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS—knocking down the snowmen post “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The version of events that has become Hollywood legend is that director Vincente Minnelli told O’Brien her dog had died and brought the tears. But she discredits this account, saying “my mother never would’ve allowed it.” According to O’Brien, she was in a competition with June Allyson for best crier on the lot (they were apparently called the MGM town criers). Her mother simply suggested that Allyson might be the better crier and the tears appeared.
O’Brien touched on one negative turn of events during production for MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. Before she was cast in the film, her mother was playing a bit of hardball with the studio for more money. MGM, in return, called up O’Brien’s stand in and promised her the role. Of course, the poor girl never got the part, and O’Brien eventually got her raise. The stand in’s father, however, recalled O’Brien, worked at MGM and had something of a nervous breakdown. He almost dropped a light on O’Brien on the set. But despite this incident, O’Brien has fond memories from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, like playing hopscotch on set with Judy Garland. And, she loved the red coat she wore on screen so much that she purchased it and wore it for years (and apparently it still fits!) “I hope you’re as happy watching it as we were making it,” O’Brien wished the audience.
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS proved to be an enormous success. It was the second highest grossing movie of 1944 (Going My Way was number one). It was nominated for four Oscars and earned a Special Academy Award for O’Brien as Outstanding Child Actress of the year. It also produced a marriage—Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli met on the production. They were married the very next year, in June of 1945. The music from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS has also had a lasting impact. On the 2004 list of the 100 Greatest Songs in American Film by the AFI, “The Trolley Song” was ranked #26 and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was at #72.
Margaret O’Brien will also appear on Sunday morning for TCM’s tribute to Mickey Rooney and screening of National Velvet (1944) at 9 am in Multiplex 1.