I just adore Margaret O’Brien, and I’m beyond thrilled to be celebrating her 80th birthday. Film critic James Agee once said she was “almost as hypnotizing as Garbo”, but I’d go further and say she really was just as hypnotic. Her performances were characterized by an intensity that’s so surprising for a small child. She was the greatest child actress in my opinion. I can’t help but be mesmerized when I watch her onscreen. She was ethereal.
Inspired by Samantha of Musings of a Classic Film Addict, here are my top 5 favorite Margaret O’Brien films.
Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945)
dir: Roy Rowland
A tender family drama about Norwegian farmer Martinius Jacobson (Edward G. Robinson) raising his precocious young daughter Selma (O’Brien) in a rural community. The usually gruff and intimidating Robinson shines in a sensitive role, while O’Brien’s Selma is a much more mature and conscious child character. The scene where she recites the Nativity Story is particularly affecting.
Somehow, Margaret made me feel as if I was hearing the story for the first time. It’s so powerful in a subdued, yet highly emotional way.
The Unfinished Dance (1947)
dir: Roy Rowland
One of my favorite discoveries last year, a hidden gem featuring another beloved of mine, Cyd Charisse. This might be one of O’Brien’s most intense and jarring performances. She plays Meg Merlin, a ballet student who’s enamored with prima ballerina Ariane Bouchet (Charisse). Meg idolizes Ariane to the point of obsession, but in O’Brien’s gifted hands, it never comes across as particularly odd or creepy. Her obsession is still sinister and does lead to tragedy, but Meg remains a likable character, albeit one who’s made a terrible mistake. Read more about this fascinating and too little seen film here.
Music for Millions (1944)
dir: Henry Koster
A film that I adore, because of the presence of O’Brien, June Allyson, and Marsha Hunt (who celebrates her centenary in October!) It’s one of the sweetest and most precious movies to ever exist, with Margaret and June playing sisters. They were two of MGM’s most famous and effective criers, and their prowess is on full display. There’s a funny story about the competition between them, although June was incredibly fond of Margaret, whom she called Maggie. Music for Millions is also entirely woman centered. Jimmy Durante and Jose Itrubi are the only major male leads. Its warm, uncomplicated portrayal of female friendship is just one reason to watch.
Little Women (1949)
dir: Mervyn Leroy
The criers were reunited as sisters once more in this poignant technicolor classic that just sparkles with sincerity. It’s seen as a lesser remake of the 1933 film but I disagree. O’Brien’s Beth seems to share much of the actresses’ own qualities. She’s a heartbreaking, fragile character, but with a reservoir of strength. She’s really the heart of the film.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
dir: Vincente Minnelli
A predictable choice, but understandable. I fell under this film’s spell like countless others and found it to be every bit as wonderful as I’ve always heard. Sharing the screen with Judy Garland was no small feat for such a little girl as Margaret. They’re both so luminous and unforgettable. And morbid, mischievous, brave Tootie Smith is one of the greatest characters ever committed to film.
I’d also like to give an honorable mention to Journey for Margaret (1942), O’Brien’s star making film debut at the age of five. Utterly adorable and still an enigmatic force on the screen. She even took the name of the lead character as her own.
What made O’Brien so remarkable was her dedication. I’ll borrow from Agee once more, who said she was “incredibly vivid and eloquent.” That kind of professionalism in a child is almost startling. But she’s a special star, and one I feel especially grateful for. I hope to write a letter to Margaret very soon, not only because she’s a remaining Classic Hollywood star, but because I cherish her wholly unique presence on the silver screen.
Happy birthday Margaret, and here’s to many more! ❤