Margaret O'Brien on the magic of Judy Garland and 'Meet Me in St. Louis' 75 years ago (2023)

If you’ve watched the classic 1944 musical “Meet Me in St. Louis,” you know it’s hard not to get misty at the poignant sequence in which Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” while her kid sister, played by Margaret O’Brien, silently cries.

O’Brien was just 7 when the film hit theaters, and in an interview timed to the movie’s 75th anniversary, she recalled how she actually couldn’t muster a tear at first.

“Judy was so much fun to be with on the set that she was making me laugh before the scene,” O’Brien said recently by phone.


Although Hollywood lore has long been that director Vincente Minnelli got O’Brien to cry by telling the young actress her dog was ill, O’Brien said her mother never would have let that happen.

“I’ll tell you how they got me to cry,” she said. “I was in a contest with June Allyson [on the MGM lot] of who was the best crier, because June cried in a lot of her movies. I wanted to win the contest.”

Her mother suggested the makeup man could just add false tears on her face, then added, “But June is such a great, great actress. She always cries on cue.”

O’Brien’s reaction: “I thought, I’m not letting her win the contest. I started crying.”

Her work in the film made O’Brien one of a dozen child performers to earn a special juvenile Oscar.

(Video) Oh Rose! You're So Stuck Up! | Meet Me in St. Louis | Warner Archive

Casting an actress of color for a key role in the Broadway-bound musical is called an important move for the project, which has Elton John as composer.


“It’s astonishing that a child that young could emote so professionally,” said film historian Jeremy Arnold, author of “Christmas in the Movies: 30 Classics to Celebrate the Season.” He noted how “you really feel like she’s giving a complete performance and not just play-acting or pretending.”

O’Brien is thrilled that TCM and Fathom have teamed up to bring “Meet Me in St. Louis” back to theaters for two days: Sunday and Thursday. The 75th-anniversary screenings will bring a new generation to the film, she said.

Based on the stories of Sally Benson, the lush Technicolor musical comedy follows a year in the life of a tight-knit St. Louis family thrilled about the arrival of the 1904 World’s Fair in their city.

(Video) Part Two: "Meet Me in St. Louis" (Lux Radio Theater) Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien

Garland plays 17-year-old Esther Smith, who falls in love with the boy next door (Tom Drake). Her older sister, Rose (Lucille Bremer), is hoping her long-distance boyfriend will propose to her, and sister Tootie (O’Brien) is a tomboy with a wild imagination who is always getting into trouble.

Their lives are upended when their father (Leon Ames) tells them they are moving to New York City.

Produced by Arthur Freed, the movie features songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Boy Next Door” and the Oscar-nominated “The Trolley Song,” as well as standards such as “Little Brown Jug” and “Under the Bamboo Tree.”

Garland and director Minnelli fell in love during the production, married the following year and welcomed their daughter, Liza, in 1946. They divorced in 1951.

Arnold noted that “Meet Me in St. Louis” is an innovative and important musical in the history of the genre “for the way it integrated the musical numbers into the story. That was a fairly new way to approach musicals at the time. It’s not a Busby Berkeley stylized extravaganza, it’s more natural.”

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Martin, however, was not happy that his much darker lyrics for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” were changed. The song originally opened with, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last,” Arnold said, but the second line was changed to, “Let your heart be light.”

(Video) The Trolley Song - Meet Me in St Louis

“Judy went and said, ‘No, I can’t sing that [darker] version to a little girl,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think people realize that Judy put a lot of her own lyrics into that.”

“Meet Me in St. Louis” is O’Brien’s best-known film, but her mother initially turned it down because she didn’t think her daughter was being offered adequate pay. Young Margaret had already made a splash at age 5 in the tearjerker “Journey for Margaret.”

The actress remembered her mother walking into the office of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer and demanding a top salary for her daughter.

“He didn’t expect her to stand up to him like that,” O’Brien said. “Of course, he started to cry. He could cry better than anybody when you asked him for money.”

Mayer then cast a young actress who looked like O’Brien but later changed his mind, agreeing to pay O’Brien more.

“They had to tell this little girl’s family that she was not going to be in it,” O’Brien said. “Her father had a nervous breakdown over it. I didn’t know about any of this until I was older.”

O’Brien recalled having a glorious time making the movie.

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“It was wonderful being on those sets,” she said. “It was like being back in time. As a little girl I loved history.”

Cast members, who also included Mary Astor, Marjorie Main and Harry Davenport, were great to her. So too was director Minnelli, O’Brien said.

“We had Saturday and Sunday off,” she said. “This is why it was such a wonderful movie for Judy, because he did not overwork her. ... I could only be here from 9 to 6. When I wasn’t shooting a scene, I’d go to school.”

Garland, she added, “got a lot of rest on that movie set and it certainly showed. She was on time. She was very happy. She looked beautiful in the movie.”

O’Brien has vivid memories of the Oscar ceremony in 1945.

“I was more thrilled to see Bob Hope,” she said, laughing. “My mother would let me see all the Bob Hope movies, so I was sort of tongue-tied when I got onstage because Bob Hope was presenting me the award. I forgot some of my speech I was supposed to make.”

Her little Oscar statuette was stolen from her home when she was 17. But in 1995, it was returned after a collector bought it at a Pasadena flea market.

“I think I’m the only actress who has ever been presented the Oscar twice by the academy,” she said. “That was a thrill. They threw me another ceremony.”

As for her crying contest with Allyson, the two cried their eyes out together in 1944’s “Music for Millions” and 1949’s “Little Women.”

“I have to say that we called our contest even!”

'Meet Me in St. Louis'

For theaters and show times of the Sunday and Wednesday screenings, go to

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How old was Margaret o brien when she made Meet Me in St. Louis? ›

In 1944, MGM released Meet Me in St. Louis, directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Judy Garland and six-year-old Margaret O'Brien.

Is anyone from Meet Me in St. Louis still alive? ›

Margaret O'Brien's movie siblings in “Little Women” are all gone, but she's glad that Joan Carroll, who played her next-older sister in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” is alive and living in Nevada.

What is the story of Meet Me in St. Louis? ›

How old was Judy Garland when filming Meet Me in St. Louis? ›

The part required her to portray a teenager, and, at age 21, she longed to be rid of the juvenile roles in which she had traditionally been cast. She finally relented when director Vincente Minnelli convinced her the film would be a highlight in her career.

What happened to Margaret O Brien? ›

She continued to make brief personal appearances and give occasional interviews. Her last public appearances were in the early 1980s when she rode on floats in the Los Angeles Christmas Parade. She cameoed in "Amy" in 1981. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

How old is Margaret O Brien today? ›

Is the Meet Me in St. Louis house still standing? ›

The Benson house at 5135 Kensington Avenue in St. Louis no longer exists. After being sold, it fell into disrepair, eventually became uninhabitable, and was demolished in 1994. The house had also been used in the film Cheaper by the Dozen.

Why did Judy Garland have a sad life? ›

Fast-tracked through childhood, Judy Garland was unable to enjoy the frivolities of youth and was forced into crash diets and drugs from the pressure of her mother. During an interview, Judy Garland expressed her true feelings about her mother, describing her as “the real Wicked Witch of the West”.

Does Esther marry John in Meet Me in St. Louis? ›

Their plan backfires when Lucille turns out to be nice and insists that Rose be with Warren, while she goes with Lon, Jr. Embarrassed, Esther gives Lucille her dance card, then braves the clods. To her delight, John eventually shows up and, under a wintery moon, kisses her and proposes.

Did Judy Garland like Meet Me in St. Louis? ›

Judy Garland considered Meet Me in St. Louis her favorite film, and rightly so, as it introduced three of her classic songs: “The Boy Next Door,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “The Trolley Song.”

Where is the house they filmed Meet Me in St. Louis? ›

The home at 5135 Kensington was depicted as a grand Victorian, much as you would see here, at Lehmann House Bed and Breakfast in Lafayette Square. And yes, there actually was a “5135 Kensington Avenue”.

Why was dinner to be an hour early in Meet Me in St. Louis? ›

Upon request from Esther, Katie asks Mrs. Smith if they could have dinner an hour earlier because her sister is having trouble with her husband.

How old was Judy Garland before she died? ›

By THE NEW YORK TIMES. ONDON, June 22- Judy Garland, whose successes on stage and screen were later overshadowed by the pathos of her personal life, was found dead in her home here today. The cause of death of the 47-year-old singer was not immediately established, and an autopsy was scheduled.

How old was Judy Garland when she was discovered? ›

She sounded more like a woman than a child, with a loud, booming voice that commanded the room. Lane told Louis B. Mayer, of Metro Golden Mayer studios, about the young actress, and at age 13, she was signed. Six weeks later, her father passed away from meningitis. Garland, who loved her father dearly, was crushed.

What year how old was Judy Garland when she died? ›

Garland died from an accidental barbiturate overdose in London on June 22, 1969, less than two weeks after her 47th birthday.

How old are the characters supposed to be in Meet Me in St. Louis? ›

Seventeen-year-old Esther (Garland) is in love with the boy—John Truett (Tom Drake)—who just moved next door. Eighteen-year-old Rose (Lucille Bremer) is waiting for her boyfriend away at college to propose; 19-year-old Lon (Harry H.

How old are the kids supposed to be in Meet Me in St. Louis? ›

Meet Me in St. Louis presents an idyllic picture of a family, consisting of parents, a college-age son, two teenage daughters, two young daughters, and a grandfather. The sixteen-year-old Esther and the seven-year-old Tootie are the focus of the film.

Who played the youngest girl in Meet Me in St. Louis? ›

Judy Garland plays Esther, one of five children in a happy middle-class family, and Margaret O'Brien, who plays the youngest daughter, “Tootie,” won a Special Award as “outstanding child actress of 1944.” Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote the charming original songs, including the perennial “Have Yourself A Merry ...

How old are Rose and Esther in Meet Me in St. Louis? ›

Seventeen-year-old Esther Smith falls in love with boy-next-door John Truett and tries to get him to notice her. Meanwhile, twenty-year-old Rose is preoccupied with getting her long-distance beau to propose before she is deemed an old maid.


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