Maragret O’Brien – The ‘Original Tootie’ Turns 77 Today…

by Shannonn Kelly
06:35PM, EST, January 15, 2014

Margaret O'Brien, the 'Original' Tootie
Margaret O’Brien, the ‘Original’ Tootie

Known as one of the most popular child stars in cinema history, Margaret O’Brien turns 77 today.

One of the reasons I like to blog about old Hollywood is simply for the fact that if you don’t record and write about pre Gen X, Gen Y or Millennial contributions to the film and music industry, people will be forgotten and their names will not come up easily in conversation.

Similar to my heritage, Margaret O’Brien is of ½ Spanish, ½ Irish ancestry, her mother was an accomplished Flamenco dancer and her father a circus performer, sadly who died before Margaret was born.

Her first role (albeit un-credited) was in “Babes on Broadway” (1941), where she played “Maxine”, a little girl at an audition when she was only 4 years-old.

When she was five, O’Brien, garnered critical praise for her acting chops playing “Margaret” in “Journey for Margaret” (1942). It was because of this role that O’Brien became known as “Margaret” and no longer called by her birth name “Angela”.

In 1943, O’Brien made five films, the most memorable being “Jane Eyre” where she sang and spoke with a French accent as the character “Adele Varens”. In 1944, O’Brien made “Music for Millions”, and “The Canterville Ghost”, starring the great Charles Laughton as a ghost doomed to haunt an English castle and Robert Young as his American descendant.

A fast study for accents, O’Brien also added singing and dancing to her skill sets, which served her well in her most unforgettable role as the ‘original’ “Tootie” in “Meet Me in St. Louis” opposite the venerable Judy Garland. The song ‘Under The Bamboo Tree’ (Words and music by Robert Cole and The Johnson Bros., 1902) is to this day, still one of the most fondly remembered moments of the film.

O’Brien was rewarded with an Academy Juvenile Award for “outstanding child actress of 1944.”

Her Oscar was stolen by her mother’s maid 10 years after receiving it. O’Brien had searched for years through memorabilia and antique shops hoping her statuette would appear, but to no avail.

According to Wikipedia:

Memorabilia collectors Steve Neimand and Mark Nash were attending a flea market in 1995 when Neimand spotted a small Oscar with Margaret O’Brien’s name inscribed upon it.

The two men decided to split the $500 asking price hoping to resell it at a profit and lent it to a photographer to shoot for an upcoming auction catalogue. This led to Bruce Davis’ discovery that the statuette had resurfaced and, upon learning of the award’s history, Nash and Neimand agreed to return the Oscar to O’Brien.

On February 7, 1995, almost fifty years after she’d first received it, the Academy held a special ceremony in Beverly Hills to return the stolen award to O’Brien.

Upon being reunited with her Juvenile Oscar, Margaret O’Brien told the attending journalists:

“For all those people who have lost or misplaced something that was dear to them, as I have, never give up the dream of searching – never let go of the hope that you’ll find it because after all these many years, at last, my Oscar has been returned to me.”

O’Brien made a few more films, but was unable to fully transition to adult roles, working steadily but not memorably through the 1950’s to the 1970’s, then sporadically from 1981-2010 in film, TV and MOW’s.

One factoid you will not find in Wikipedia: Margaret O’Brien auditioned for the role of “Judy” in “Rebel without A Cause” (1944) . The role went to Natalie Wood.

According to film historian David Thomson, O’Brien lost out to Natalie Wood because when casting directors asked her questions about what she thought about parents and authority she answered: “All the questions by professing love for parents and teachers”, thus answered wrongly and thereby showed zero rebellious spirit.

People who know me, know how I feel about type casting. Had stodgy Hollywood at the time, thought “outside the box’ and cast O’Brien (not to take anything away from Wood’s performance), I think we would’ve been in for a quite a treat. Actors want a challenge they can rise to. Look at Charlize Theron and Sandra Bullock. They both stepped outside their ‘known characters’ to play gritty roles. They both won Oscars with that gamble. If O’Brien had it in her at age 5 to learn a French accent, she certainly could’ve shown a rebellious side.

The fact that Margaret O’Brien celebrates her birthday today shows me she has plenty of ‘spirit’…

Happy Birthday Ms. O’Brien 🙂