Meet Me in St. Louis: Child Star Margaret O'Brien

The major coup of casting in “Met Me in St. Louis” was assigning Margaret O'Brien to play Judy Garland's youngest sister. Director Vincente Minnelli was sitting in producer Arthur Freed's office, when an agent walked in with a four-year child.

“Margaret,” the agent said, “Please do something special for Mr. Freed.” Wearing kilts, the little girl marched directly to Freed, grabbed his shirt sleeve and cried hysterically, “Don't send my brother to the chair! Don't let him frye.”

Minnelli's mouth fell open. He rushed to scripter Finklehoffe and said, “I know you're writing an audition scene with a producer. I've just seen this extraordinary little girl. You must use her–just the way she is–kilts and all.” Tooties part was then rewritten with O'Brien in mind.

O'Brien turned out to be a huge success as Tootie, though Minnelli found his efforts to achieve her performance enervating and upsetting. In “Journey for Margaret,” O'Brien played a problematic war orphan, which was followed by other neurotic roles. But in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” there was no need for her to act big, since she played a normal girl. It took Minnelli some time to get a natural performance from her.

OBrien was particularly adept at doing emotionally charged scenes. Her mother and aunt would whisper something to her ears before every scene, and then, like a Pavolvian dog, she would get emotional and cry. Minnelli always wondered what precisely they were whispering to get such an intense reaction.

They were preparing to shoot Tooties great emotional scene, when she demolishes hysterically the snowmen in the garden. O'Briens mother came over to Minnelli and said: “Margaret's angry at me tonight. She doesn't want me to work her up for the scene. You'll have to do it.” “O.K., but how do I do it,” Minnelli asked.

The mother said, “She has a little dog. You'll have to say someone is going to kill that dog.” “I can't do that,” Minnelli said.

Since it was a cold night, O'Brien was sitting inside the house with a blanket over her shoulders. Minnelli braced himself before walking over to her. “Margaret,” he said, “there's this little dog and somebody is going to take a gun and shoot it.”
O'Brien's enormous brown eyes got even larger. “Is there going to be lots of blood” she asked. “Yes,” Minnelli said. Margaret's face registered stunned expression, but there were no tears.

Out of the corner of his eye, Minnelli could see her mother and aunt looking at them. Minnelli felt they expected him to go further, be even more etreme in his instructions. “The dog is going to suffer terribly,” he said with a sinister voice. “It's going to yelp and stumble around.” Working himself up to a feverish pitch, Minnelli finally said, against his better judgment, “The dog is going to die!” “Oh, no,” Margaret screamed, tears rolling down her eyes. Minnelli turned to his assistant and said, “Turn the cameras!

Mercifully, Margaret did the scene in one take, after which she went skipping happily off the set. That night, Minnelli went home feeling like a monster. He had never done it before, and vowed never to do it again. That sort of direction struck him as unhealthy and manipulative. By today's standards, it would be considered child abuse, a severe violation of children's work ethics.

In most scenes, however, such as the cakewalk number with Judy, which became one of the film's highlights, OBrien was delightfully natural and spontaneous, with no need for special instructions or any manipulation.

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