For Turner Classic Movies’ Margaret O’Brien Day on Sunday, Aug. 15, TCM will present the television premiere of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Joke.
But then again, I don’t think they’ve shown Meet Me in St. Louis in at least two weeks, which almost makes the Sunday showing of the classic Vincente Minnelli musical seem like a premiere.
In addition to Meet Me in St. Louis, TCM (as part of its “Summer Under the Stars” series) will be showing 12 other movies featuring the young actress, who happened to be one of the top box office attractions in the United States in the mid-’40s. (See full Margaret O’Brien film schedule below.)
Now, some people can’t stand Margaret O’Brien – smiling through her tears, crying atop her smile. Others find her the best child performer there ever was. (O’Brien won a special miniature Oscar at the 1945 ceremony.)
I’m in the middle ground. I haven’t watched many of O’Brien’s vehicles – most of those made at MGM. Of the ones I’ve seen, I found her pretty believable and not at all cloying.
Most child actors/actresses have the ugly habit (I think they do it on purpose) of bringing out the axe murderer in me. O’Brien didn’t do that in, say, the aforementioned Meet Me in St. Louis or Music for Millions (best line: “You’re gonna have a baybee”).
Among the O’Brien movies I’ve seen that TCM will be showing on Sunday, the one I’d most recommend (for those who have already watched the entertaining Meet Me in St. Louis about a dozen times) is George Cukor’s Heller in Pink Tights.
This 1960 Western made at Paramount is neither one of Cukor’s best efforts nor one of the best movies set in the American West. But never mind all that. The gaudy, overblown Heller in Pink Tights features an eclectic cast that includes Sophia Loren, Anthony Quinn, ultra-handsome Steve Forrest (excellent as The Other Man), Eileen Heckart, O’Brien (then 23 years old, as Heckart’s daughter), and veterans Edmund Lowe and Ramon Novarro.
Those names – and the work of production designer Gene Allen and cinematographer Harold Lipstein – are enough for me to recommend Heller.
“John Barrymore once told me that if I ever got a chance to appear in a film directed by George Cukor, it would be an experience I’d value,” Novarro would later say, “and I did greatly enjoy every moment working for Mr. Cukor.”
That can be seen on screen. In what amounts to a cameo, MGM’s former Ben-Hur delivers the film’s best performance as the greedy villain. Do check out Heller in Pink Tights.
Note: In Big City (1948), which co-stars Robert Preston, Danny Thomas, George Murphy, and pert Betty Garrett, Margaret O’Brien gets to sing something called “Ok’l Baby Dok’l.” The voice you hear, however, is Marni Nixon’s, who would later dub Deborah Kerr (The King and I), Natalie Wood (West Side Story), and Audrey Hepburn (My Fair Lady).
“The studio never let me sing because they didn’t think my singing voice was that good,” O’Brien would later say.
Margaret O’Brien movies: Schedule (PDT) and synopses from the TCM website:
3:00 AM Dr. Gillespie’s Criminal Case (1943)
A wheelchair-bound doctor tries to prove a convicted killer’s innocence. Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Van Johnson, Donna Reed, Margaret O’Brien. Dir.: Willis Goldbeck. Black and white. 89 min.
4:30 AM Music for Millions (1944)
A pregnant musician awaits her husband’s return from World War II. Cast: June Allyson, Margaret O’Brien, Jimmy Durante. Dir.: Henry Koster. Black and white. 118 min.
6:30 AM Tenth Avenue Angel (1948)
A child of the tenements helps an ex-con find a new life. Cast: Margaret O’Brien, Angela Lansbury, George Murphy. Dir.: Roy Rowland. Black and white. 74 min.
7:45 AM Her First Romance (1951)
A high school girl steals from her parents to be with the boy she loves. Cast: Margaret O’Brien, Jimmy Hunt, Elinor Donahue. Dir.: Seymour Friedman. Color. 73 min.
9:30 AM Journey for Margaret (1942)
An American correspondent tries to adopt two children orphaned during the London blitz. Cast: Robert Young, Laraine Day, Margaret O’Brien. Dir.: W.S. Van Dyke II. Black and white. 81 min.
11:00 AM The Canterville Ghost (1944)
A ghost who died a coward tries to inspire U.S. GIs to become heroes. Cast: Charles Laughton, Margaret O’Brien, Robert Young. Dir.: Jules Dassin. Black and white. 96 min.
12:45 PM Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Young love and childish fears highlight a year in the life of a turn-of-the-century family. Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Tom Drake, Mary Astor, Leon Ames, Lucille Bremer. Dir.: Vincente Minnelli. Color. 113 min.
2:45 PM Little Women (1949)
The four daughters of a New England family fight for happiness during and after the Civil War. Cast: June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Lawford, Janet Leigh, Rossano Brazzi, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor. Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy. Color. 122 min.
5:00 PM The Secret Garden (1949)
An orphaned girl changes the lives of those she encounters at a remote estate. Cast: Margaret O’Brien, Herbert Marshall, Dean Stockwell. Dir.: Fred M. Wilcox. Black and white. 92 min.
7:00 PM Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945)
A Norwegian farmer tries to raise two children in the Midwest. Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Margaret O’Brien, James Craig. Dir.: Roy Rowland. Black and white. 106 min.
9:00 PM Bad Bascomb (1946)
A western bandit is reformed by his love for a little girl. Cast: Wallace Beery, Margaret O’Brien, Marjorie Main. Dir.: S. Sylvan Simon. Black and white. 110 min.
11:00 PM Heller in Pink Tights (1960)
Touring actors in the wild West brave Indians and outlaws. Cast: Sophia Loren. Anthony Quinn. Steve Forrest. Eileen Heckart. Ramon Novarro. Margaret O’Brien. Edmund Lowe. Dir.: George Cukor. Color. 101 min.
1:00 AM Big City (1948)
Three bachelors adopt an orphan, then fight over custody when each falls in love. Cast: Margaret O’Brien, Robert Preston, Danny Thomas. Dir.: Norman Taurog. Black and white. 103 min.
Quotes: Margaret O’Brien (Allan Ellenberger’s Margaret O’Brien: A Career Chronicle and Biography); Ramon Novarro (Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro).
Turner Classic Movies website.