Meet Me in St. Louis star Margaret O’Brien reveals how she was targeted in bizarre murder plot on set of Judy Garland holiday classic

Margaret O’Brien and Judy Garland in the 1944 movie musical classic, ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Margaret O’Brien learned at an early age that Hollywood can be a cutthroat place, even in the town’s long-lost Golden Age. The star of such ’40s favorites as Meet Me in St. Louis and Little Women was only 6 years old when she almost became the victim of on-set sabotage. As O’Brien was preparing to film a scene in Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 musical, crew members discovered that one of their own — a lighting technician — was in the process of loosening a heavy studio light so it would fall on the young actress below. The man was quickly escorted off the MGM lot where Meet Me in St. Louis was filming, while O’Brien continued the scene, unaware of her close brush with serious injury. “I didn’t know about it until I was older,” the now-82 year old performer confesses to Yahoo Entertainment. “They didn’t want to tell me about it as a little girl.”

The story as O’Brien eventually heard it went like this: signed to an MGM contract at age 4, she quickly rose through the ranks of the studio’s youngest employees thanks to scene-stealing roles in movies like Journey for Margaret and Jane Eyre. But even as she was becoming a recognizable face, MGM’s famously mercurial boss, Louis B. Mayer, didn’t feel the need to reward her with a raise in salary. “I was making very little money, and I had already become a name,” O’Brien says. “My mother thought, ‘We don’t know how long this studio contract will go.’ So she marched into Mr. Mayer’s office and said, ‘I want top salary for my daughter!’”

O’Brien’s mother made that demand knowing full well that her daughter was Minnelli’s first choice to play Tootie — the youngest member of the St. Louis-based Smith clan — in Meet Me in St. Louis alongside a cast that included MGM’s most famous former child star, Judy Garland, as well as Mary Astor, Leon Ames and Tom Drake. But Mayer wasn’t about to give in to either a director, or a parent, that easily. “Of course, he started to cry — he could cry better than anybody when you were asking him for money,” O’Brien says, with a laugh. “My mother said, ‘That’s fine. I’m going to New York, and I’m taking my daughter, so bye bye!’ Mr. Mayer was surprised by that.”

Despite backstage drama, O'Brien and MGM head, Louis B. Mayer, were all smiles on the set of 'Meet Me in St. Louis.' (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Despite backstage drama, O’Brien and MGM head, Louis B. Mayer, were all smiles on the set of ‘Meet Me in St. Louis.’ (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Surprised, but not defeated… yet. Mayer tried to persuade O’Brien’s mother to change her mind by falling back on a tactic that had worked with so many actors in the past: threatening to find a replacement. “MGM always had a lookalike for an actor if they wanted more money or became temperamental. For example, James Craig was a lookalike for Clark Gable, and my aunt [dancer Marissa Flores] was a lookalike for Lucille Bremer. [Bremer plays the eldest Smith daughter, Rose, in Meet Me in St. Louis.] They had a little girl that was my lookalike, but had never let her do a big role. Mr. Mayer told this little girl’s family that she was going to be in Meet Me in St. Louis, and even had a wardrobe fitting for her. So the family thought for sure that she was going to do the movie.”

In case you haven’t guessed the twist, that little girl’s father was the same lighting technician that plotted to end O’Brien’s career prematurely. He arrived at that decision after Mayer inevitably reneged on casting his daughter as Tootie. “They had to tell this little girl’s family that she wasn’t going to be in the movie, and her father had a nervous breakdown. I mean, the whole family was just so distraught. It was a really unfortunate thing that the studio used to do to keep stars in line, and not a nice thing to do to contract players.” In his unsettled mental state, the girl’s father decided that his only recourse was to drop a light on the actress who he felt stole the role that rightfully belonged to his child. “They caught him before he actually [did it],” O’Brien remembers. “He was loosening it when they caught him. They had to take him away from the set, and he did not return.”

O'Brien at a 2014 event holding the Juvenile Academy Award she won for her role in 'Meet Me in St. Louis' (Photo: Photoshot/Everett Collection)
O’Brien at a 2014 event holding the Juvenile Academy Award she won for her role in ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ (Photo: Photoshot/Everett Collection)

Even as that drama played out in the wings, the show went on for the cast and crew of Meet Me in St. Louis. The film wrapped production in the spring of 1944, and premiered to rave reviews the following November. At the 17th Academy Awards in March 1945, O’Brien won the Academy Juvenile Award, a since-discontinued Oscar specifically created for young stars. Seventy-five years later, Minnelli’s film is one of those holiday gifts that keeps on giving, featuring such memorable movie musical moments as “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song” and, of course, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” As part of the anniversary festivities, Fathom Events and TCM are hosting special Meet Me in St. Louis screenings on Dec. 8 and 11 around the country. (Check Fandango for showtime and ticket information.) We chatted with O’Brien about some of her happier memories from the set, including being sung to — and singing alongside — Garland and winning a cry-off against her future Little Women co-star, June Allyson.

There is crying at Christmas

O'Brien and Garland in the famous 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' sequence in 'Meet Me in St. Louis' (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
O’Brien and Garland in the famous ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ sequence in ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Set over the course of one year, Meet Me in St. Louis incorporates a number of songs that were popular circa 1903, when the film takes place. But Minnelli also enlisted songwriting duo Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane to pen several original tunes, including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” That song has since become a Christmastime standard despite — or maybe because of — the fact that it’s surprisingly downbeat for holiday fare, with wistful lyrics like, “Next year all our troubles will be far away” and “Someday we’ll be together/If the fates allow.”

If you think that’s melancholic, you should have heard the original lyrics. “Originally, it was a very dark song,” O’Brien says of Martin and Blane’s initial version, which was penned to accompany the film’s emotional climax, in which Garland’s Esther comforts her youngest sister as they contemplate their family’s impending movie to New York City. It was Garland who strenuously encouraged the songwriters to lighten the mood, at least a little bit. “Judy said: ‘I can’t sing [these lyrics] to little Margaret when I’m trying to make her happy,’” O’Brien remembers. “I don’t think realized that she sort of co-wrote that with them, and then the song became what it is today.”

While Garland’s intervention may have saved the scene (and the song) for posterity, she almost derailed O’Brien’s grander ambition: claiming the title of “Best Cryer” over June Allyson. “I was in a competition with June,” she says of the MGM star, who was 20 years her senior at the time. (Allyson died in 2006.) “We had a contest going over who was the best crier on the MGM lot, because June cried in all of her movies. I wanted to win the contest, and I was really having a hard time crying during ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’ My mother said, “Why don’t I have the make-up man put false tears down your cheeks like some of the other actresses?’ But June was such a great actress, she would cry right on cue! So I said, ‘She’s not going to get ahead of me!’ and then started crying. So that’s how they got me to cry in that scene; I was thinking, ‘I can’t let June win the contest.’”

Minnelli was all about spontaneity

Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland on the 'Meet Me in St. Louis' set. The two would later marry in 1945. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland on the ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ set. The two would later marry in 1945. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Like most movie musicals, the song and dance numbers in Meet Me in St. Louis were heavily rehearsed ahead of time. But once the cast was on set, Minnelli didn’t force them to do a large number of takes. “He liked to get the scenes to where they felt more spontaneous,” O’Brien remembers. “He would rehearse us, of course, and he made sure that Judy had a lot of rest. He didn’t overwork her, so she was happy and content. He was able to get a lot of our scenes in one or two takes.” That includes Tootie’s big musical sequence in the movie, which takes place at a house party at the stately Smith residence. After being caught staying up past her curfew, she serenades the assembled partygoers with the decidedly grown-up song, “I Was Drunk Last Night,” before duetting with Esther on the popular early 20th century ditty “Under the Bamboo Tree.”

Almost anyone would be intimidated at the thought of having to sing and dance alongside Garland, and O’Brien was no exception. “I loved dancing, because I came from a dancing family, but I could not sing! I didn’t think my voice was very good, so I was very nervous singing with Judy, but she was wonderful to me. She said: ‘I’ll sing the word first, and then you follow along.’ She was very patient, and by the time we shot it, I was confident enough that we were able to do it in only a couple of takes.” As a former child star herself, Garland knew exactly how to bring the best out of O’Brien throughout production. “She didn’t sit down with me like an acting teacher would: she treated me like a grown-up actress, and let me have my own way of doing things. I loved her for that, because we’d get into a scene and just gel as two sisters. That’s what made the movie work.”

The MGM backlot was a great place to grow up

O'Brien and her on-screen sisters Joan Carroll, Lucille Bremer and Judy Garland in a scene from 'Meet Me in St. Louis' (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
O’Brien and her on-screen sisters Joan Carroll, Lucille Bremer and Judy Garland in a scene from ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

When she wasn’t on the Meet Me in St. Louis set, O’Brien was typically in school. “When I came to MGM, the Board of Education had become very strict, so we could only work for so many hours. It wasn’t like when Judy first started where they worked you as long as they wanted to! We also had to get all A’s at school, or we wouldn’t be allowed to work.” And when she wasn’t on set or in school, she would soak up the atmosphere of the storied MGM backlot, which has long since vanished into the mists of Hollywood history. “You weren’t really allowed to visit other sets, because it would be distracting for the directors. I remember that I did sneak onto the Lassie set — they let me do that. And when I was older and filming TV shows like Dr. Kildare [on the lot], I would walk around and look at the exteriors of all the different houses: the house from Raintree County and the Andy Hardy house.” She even got to revisit the front of the Smith homestead, which remained standing for use in other films. (The interiors were all filmed on soundstages.) “They made it the Little Women house and then it was used for The Secret Garden. I loved that that house. It’s a shame they tore it all down: they should have made it a tourist attraction, like Universal did.”

There’s only one Little Women

O'Brien with her co-stars Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor and June Allyson in the 1949 version of 'Little Women.' (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
O’Brien with her co-stars Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor and June Allyson in the 1949 version of ‘Little Women.’ (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Speaking of Little Women, the 1949 film version of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, just as a new adaptation — directed by Greta Gerwig — arrives in theaters. O’Brien played doomed March sister Beth in that Mervyn LeRoy-directed production, opposite a cast that included her former rival-in-crying June Allyson as Jo, as well as Janet Leigh as Meg and a young Elizabeth Taylor as Amy. The bonds that she formed with her co-stars proved to be lifelong. “Whenever all three of us would meet again at different luncheons and dinners, we always called ourselves the ‘Little Women,’” O’Brien says wistfully. Small wonder, then, that she’s not planning to rush out to buy a ticket for Gerwig’s film, though not out of any rancor towards the director or the new cast. “I want to keep our version in my mind,” she says, simply. “June was so wonderful to work with, as well as Janet and Elizabeth, who was so great as Amy. I can’t see anybody else in those roles. We held onto that experience through the years. Janet was one of my dear friends, as well as June and Elizabeth. We became the little women — we did.”

Fathom Events and TCM’s 75th anniversary screenings of Meet Me in St. Louis will take place on Dec. 8 and 11; visit Fandango for showtime and ticket information.