Throughout the 1930s, Shirley Temple sang and danced her way into the hearts of depression-weary movie audiences. A decade later, adorable Margaret O’Brien endeared herself to millions seeking Hollywood diversions as World War II came and went.
In acknowledgement of her influence on other young actors, O’Brien will be presented with the Actors Fund Shirley Temple Award on December 4. And on December 8, she will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern California Motion Picture Council.
Far from retired at 77, this year O’Brien completed work on a new film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, due for release next spring (see http://socalemc.com/jekyllhyde/?p=194), which also features Mickey Rooney.
“It’s called the ‘Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’” said O’Brien. “I’ll always cherish this movie because it’s the last film Mickey made.”
O’Brien’s connection to Rooney goes back to the 1941 film “Babes on Broadway.”
“That was my first movie when I was only three years old,” said O’Brien. “Mickey and I didn’t have any scenes together, but I can still remember him walking by and saying ‘Hello, what a cute little girl!’”
In her second film, “Journey for Margaret” based on the William L. White novel, O’Brien’s acclaimed performance was significant both professionally and personally.
“I so connected with the character that I legally change may name from Maxine to Margaret,” she explained.
An avid reader as a child, O’Brien was thrilled to tackle more roles based on the books she grew up with – “Little Women,” “Jane Eyre,” and “The Secret Garden.”
“How many children get to play a character from their favorite books?” asked O’Brien. “I knew them so well, it was just fabulous to create them on the screen.”
Starring in almost 20 films throughout the 1940s, little Margaret astonished audiences with a display of adult emotions though she was not yet even a teenager.
“I think movie kids are just a little more mature in some ways,” she said. “I knew it was a job, not playacting, and that others depended on me to know my lines. I took my work very seriously.”
Her range of emotions was evident in the MGM classic, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” but also in less widely known films such as “Our Grapes Have Tender Vines.”
“The screenplay was by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, so it was not shown for many years. But now people know and love this great story. Edward G. Robinson played my father and said it was one of his favorite roles.”
In one rather dangerous flood scene, O’Brien’s character is swept away in a tin bathtub by the rising river waters.
“They put braids on Jerry Maren who was my stand-in,” said O’Brien. “So I was doubled by one of the ‘The Wizard of Oz’ munchkins!”
In her teen years, O’Brien’s cuteness blossomed into youthful beauty. At 19, a stunning photo was featured on the cover of Life Magazine. However, throughout the ‘50s, she only appeared in three feature films including the horse racing drama “Glory.” But, she says, it wasn’t because her ‘cuteness factor’ had evaporated.
“Movie contracts were ending and television came along,” she explained. “My mother thought I should get into television, so I worked on many great shows from that period.”
In recognition of her film contributions, O’Brien was one of only a dozen children to receive a Juvenile Academy Award when the prize was intermittently given from 1935-1961. However, in 1954, a family maid who took the statuette home to clean, vanished with it. Forty years later, it was found and returned.
“It’s safely locked in a cabinet now – never to be polished again!” joked O’Brien.
For much of her adult life, O’Brien has also been committed to charitable causes, including AIDS awareness and programs that assist actors.
And while she considers herself conservative, O’Brien dresses flamboyantly and still sports a nose piecing acquired some years ago.
“I love creative fashion and hunting for unusual items to make jewelry from. That’s about as offbeat as I get!” she said. “My mother raised me to be pretty well-grounded, so I never had the problems that a lot of child actors faced. Acting has been a wonderful career, and still is.
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 450 magazines and newspapers.