The TIME review in 1944 was effusive in its praise of both the film, Meet Me in St. Louis, and its youngest star: “Now and then, too, the film gets well beyond the charm of mere tableau for short flights in the empyrean of genuine domestic poetry. These triumphs are creditable mainly to the intensity and grace of Margaret O’Brien and to the ability of director Minnelli & Co. to get the best out of her.”
Nearly 80 years later, Meet Me in St. Louis remains—thanks in large part to its inclusion of Judy Garland’s rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”—a beloved Christmastime classic. The movie, based on author Sally Benson’s stories about her childhood in the Missouri city at the beginning of the 20th century, is on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and ranks #10 on the American Film Institute’s list of the Greatest Movie Musicals.
That young star, Margaret O’Brien, now 85 and living in Los Angeles, has her own theory for why the movie, which was part of the body of work that in 1944 earned her a Juvenile Oscar, has held up so well over the decades.
“We all became a family when we were making it and I think the warmth and the family unity came through in that movie,” she says, “and that’s why it’s still going strong today.”
O’Brien, who played Tootie, the youngest daughter in the family at the center of the story, almost wasn’t in the movie at all. At the time she was cast, the 7-year-old star already had two box office hits under her belt. When her mother, flamenco dancer Gladys Flores, learned that her daughter was to be paid less than the $5,000 a week that her co-stars would be earning, she walked into MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer’s office and demanded the same salary.
“She was feisty and very pretty, so Mr. Mayer kind of liked her and he would listen to her,” O’Brien remembers. “But when it came to money, that was another thing.”
Rebuffed by Mayer, she recalls, O’Brien and her mother left for New York. Another girl was cast, and even got so far as to be fitted for wardrobe, but Flores called the mogul’s bluff. “Of course, they were going to give me the money,” O’Brien says. “They had too much invested in me at the time. We came back and I did Meet Me. in St. Louis.”
She and co-star Judy Garland had a playful and supportive partnership. “I had a wonderful relationship with Judy,” she remembers. “A lot of people think of her as a very sad person, but Judy was not that way in person. She loved to tell jokes. She was lively. She loved to jump rope and play jacks with me and my stand in. She really felt like a fun big sister.” In fact, Garland’s jokes made it difficult for O’Brien, who had never had trouble crying on cue, to summon sad tears for the film’s emotional climax.
Garland looked after her pint-sized co-star, reassuring her about their ragtime duet, Under the Bamboo Tree. “The dancing was very easy for me, but I was very nervous about singing the song with Judy,” O’Brien says. “I didn’t inherit those wonderful vocal cords. But Judy was so sweet. She said, ‘Don’t worry, Margaret. You’re a little girl. You don’t have to have everything on key.’ She made me feel very comfortable.”
She also has fond memories of director Vincente Minnelli. “He was such a wonderful director, and he was so perfect for that movie because he was a Victorian historian. He picked a lot of antiques for the house, so it was very authentic.”
The accuracy of the film, in particular the elaborate sets complete with every detail down to the Victorian-era doorknobs, remains a significant part of its charm. O’Brien appreciated the painstaking care even at the time. “I was a very inquisitive child, so I wanted to know a lot about it,” she says. “I would ask Vincent Minnelli, ‘Is that true? Is that what they really did? Were they happy? Were the ladies happy at that time?’ He loved that I liked all that.”
She also had particular fun playing a character so unlike the self-described “easy” and “quiet” and well-behaved child. Throwing flour in someone’s face or knocking down a snowman was not something she would have ever done in real life. That said, she did get up to one behind-the-scenes prank, winding up in trouble for rearranging the place settings at the family’s ornate dinner table, creating extra wait time while the prop man restored the design. “That was the only naughty thing I did,” she says. Mary Astor, who played her mother (and also did so in Little Women) gave her a “motherly reprimand,” noting the prettiness of the table even as she chided the young actress. “She complimented me, but said, ‘Let’s not improve anything anymore.’”
Though the movie was at the time one of MGM’s highest grossing films, O’Brien did not see Meet Me in St. Louis until years after it was made. “As a child I never wanted to watch myself,” she says. “I really didn’t see it until TCM had it on television. That was the first time I ever saw it all the way through. It was amazing. I realized what people were talking about and saw that it was such a warm, wonderful movie. I could see why that movie became a classic.”
And, she says, she doesn’t doubt that new generations will continue to discover its charm—especially at this time of year.
“At Christmastime I always do think of what it was like to make the movie,” she says. “I have a photographic memory. I can tell you everything that happened. What people said, what they wore. That brings back all my favorite friends. I think of those people at Christmastime.”
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