Thanks to the strenous efforts of her mother, a former dancer, American child actress Margaret O'Brien won her first film role at age four in the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musical Babes on Broadway (1941). MGM was so impressed by the child's expressiveness and emotional range that she was given the title role in the wartime morale-booster Journey For Margaret (1942). She was so camera-savvy by the time she appeared in Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case (1943) that the film's star Lionel Barrymore declared that had this been the Middle Ages, O'Brien would have been burned at the stake! Some of her coworkers may secretly have wished that fate on O'Brien, since she reportedly flaunted her celebrity on the set, ostensibly at the encouragement of her parents. Famed for her crying scenes, O'Brien really let the faucets flow in her best film, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), in which her character also predated Wednesday Addams by two decades with a marked fascination for death and funerals. In 1944, O'Brien was given a special Academy Award, principally for work in Meet Me in St. Louis. As she grew, her charm faded; by 1951's Her First Romance, she was just one of a multitude of Hollywood teen ingenues. A comeback attempt in the 1956 film Glory was servicable, but the film was badly handled by its distributor RKO Radio and failed to re-establish the actress. A more fruitful role awaited her in a 1958 TV musical version of Little Women, in which O'Brien played Beth, the same role she'd essayed in the 1949 film version. In 1960, O'Brien had a strong supporting part in the period picture Heller in Pink Tights (1960), ironically playing a onetime child actress whose stage mother is trying to keep her in "kid" roles. In between summer theatre productions, O'Brien would resurface every so often in another TV show, reviewers would welcome her back, and then she'd be forgotten until the next part. The actress gained a great deal of weight in the late 1960s, turning this debility into an asset when she appeared in a "Marcus Welby MD" TV episode (starring her Journey For Margaret costar Robert Young) in which she played a woman susceptible to quack diet doctors. A bit thinner, and with eyes as wide and expressive as ever, O'Brien has recently appeared in a handful of episodes of "Murder She Wrote," that evergreen refuge for MGM luminaries of the past.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Is half-Irish, half-Spanish.
- Because of her ability to shed tears practically on cue, she was known on the MGM lot as one of the "Town Criers." June Allyson was the other.
- Her first name was legally changed to Margaret after the success of her 1942 film Journey for Margaret.
- Received an honorary Juvenile Academy Award as Outstanding Child Actress of 1944. The statuette went missing from her home in 1954, and efforts to find it were unsuccessful until years later when two memorabilia collectors stumbled upon it at an auction. They purchased it and it was returned to her in 1995.
- Almost didn't do 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis because of a salary dispute with Louis B. Mayer.
- Was confirmed and made her first Holy Communion with Marlo Thomas.
- Lost out on doing the lead voice role in the animated Alice in Wonderland (1951) when her mother angered Walt Disney and he gave the part to Kathryn Beaumont.
- Hoped to make the transition from child star to young actress and campaigned to play the role of Judy in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause. The part went to Natalie Wood.
- Appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1958.