Before she was even 10, Margaret O’Brien was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. After a bit part in the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film “Babes on Broadway,” she catapulted to fame at the age of five when she got the lead in “Journey for Margaret,” playing a traumatized orphan in the London blitz who walks around clutching a toy bomb as if it were her teddy bear. She is eventually adopted by American newspaperman Robert Young and his wife Laraine Day who lost their own unborn baby during an air raid. O’Brien's first big role provided plenty of opportunity to display what she became best known for in Hollywood: her uncanny ability to cry on command. MGM was quick to cast O’Brien in a series of parts where the little tyke could sob at the drop of a hat.
Margaret bawled her way through films such as “Jane Eyre,” “Madame Curie,” and “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes” before playing one of her most popular roles, Judy Garland’s youngest sister Tootie Smith in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” At seven years old, she received star billing above such pros as Mary Astor and Leon Ames and even won an honorary Oscar for the role. The absence of wartime bombs or severe family dysfunction in the story did not prevent Margaret from exhibiting her trademark tears. The film’s major conflict involved Mr. Smith’s decision to accept a lucrative job offer and, horror of horrors, move his family from St. Louis to New York City. Realizing that she can’t take her snow people with her to their new home, O’Brien completely loses it and runs outside in her nightgown in the dead of winter to destroy her creations.
Vincent Minnelli claimed in his autobiography that he got Margaret O’Brien to cry so convincingly by telling her that her beloved dog had died. O’Brien later refuted this, saying that he was confusing her with fellow child star Jackie Cooper. The true story was that Margaret was having some trouble with the snowmen scene. Her mother spoke to Minnelli and then came over and told Margaret that they were going to have to use fake tears in her eyes to get the scene right. “You know,” Mrs. O’Brien added, “June Allyson always cries real tears. She never needs make-up!” O’Brien and 26-year-old Allyson were fierce competitors, known in Hollywood as the “town criers.” That was all Margaret needed to run onto the set and cry so hysterically that it took Judy Garland several minutes to calm her down after the cameras stopped rolling. For a different crying scene, Margaret asked Minnelli, “Do you want the tears to run all the way down my face, or should I stop them halfway?”
Leah hasn’t had to overwork her tear ducts in too many performances although she has often reduced me to tears with her poignant portrayals of characters as diverse as Otto Frank, Aunt Eller, Bill Sikes, and Bebe, the character in “A Chorus Line” whose mother told her she was “different” (“Different is nice, but it sure isn't pretty, pretty is what it’s about. I never met anyone who was different, who couldn’t figure that out.”). Tonight I saw Leah’s final two performances as Aunt Lulu Warnicker in the play “Footloose.” This was Leah’s 14th play with her theatre troupe. It’s great to watch how her acting, singing, and dancing skills have evolved over the past few years. It’s still incredibly moving for me to me to see Leah in center spotlight singing her guts out without a trace of the debilitating shyness I suffered from at her age.
Leah told me this morning that one of her close theatre friends, a gifted young actress and dancer, was not doing any more plays with their group because she wanted to become a professional actress and this was “just for fun.” We talked about how Leah might want to pursue acting when she gets older but for now she was perfectly content to continue “having fun” and performing in these musicals without thinking about more serious training. Phew. As much as I enjoy seeing Leah blossom on stage, I am grateful that she has no desire to enter the dog-eat-dog industry that rejects most child actors, spits others out with yesterday’s trash, and causes the rest of them to get on the waiting list at the Betty Ford Clinic.
I don’t need to go into the well-publicized litany of child actors gone bad. Former child star Robert Blake (who co-starred with Margaret O’Brien in 1943’s “Lost Angel”) may have been acquitted last week of murdering his wife but his is hardly a post-moppet success story. There seems to be a special holding cell at the L.A. County jail for many of the child stars of my youth even beyond the cast of “Diff’rent Strokes.” The statistics are sad. Rusty Hamer, Danny Thomas’s cute kid in “Make Room for Daddy” committed suicide in 1990. Lauren Chapin, who played sweet little Kitten on “Father Knows Best,” became a heroin addict and dabbled in prostitution before getting help. Anissa Jones, adorable doll-hugging Buffy on “Family Affair,” died of a lethal combination of cocaine, angel dust, Quaaludes, and Seconal before her 18th birthday. The coroner said it was one of the most severe cases of drug overdose ever documented in the county.
But you've heard all those horror stories. And it's true that for every suicide, drug overdose, or case of kleptomania, there are also child actors who led happy lives following their brief dose of stardom. Some, like Jodie Foster and Ron Howard, continued extremely successful careers as actors and directors. Others, like the seven Waltons or the six Brady kids, or even the “Facts of Life” girls, didn’t all make the transition to adult fame and fortune, but they seem to be having fulfilling lives with fond memories of their stints as household names.
Many of my own childhood favorites fared well in adulthood, though they didn’t all stay in the biz. Show me a boy in America who wasn’t in love with Angela Cartwright during the 1960s. Whether it was as Brigitta Von Trapp, poor Rusty Hamer’s sister in “Make Room for Daddy,” or teen bombshell Penny Robinson in “Lost in Space,” Angela was every Baby Boomer’s dream girlfriend. She and her sister, the excellent actress Veronica Cartwright, had very successful transitions out of child stardom. Veronica still acts and Angela is a photographer and has her own online boutique called Rubber Boots.
I had a crush on Patty and Cathy Lane, both played by Patty Duke who later revealed that her famous childhood was tortuous and that she only started enjoying her stardom after her bipolar condition was diagnosed. I also had the hots for twins Sharon and Susan in “The Parent Trap,” played by Hayley Mills, who said at the height of her childhood fame: “Acting is just a natural thing in my family. Other boys and girls go into the family business. So do we.”
Oh, the list of child actors I admired is endless. I’m sure many will make appearances in this blog at some point. One child star I must mention, although she may kill me, is Quinn Cummings, who played Marsha Mason’s 10-year-old daughter so perfectly in “The Goodbye Girl” that she was nominated for an Academy Award. Quinn went on to play brainy Annie Cooper in the popular TV series “Family” and even had a stint as the daughter of the first female President played by former child star Patty Duke in the short-lived “Hail to the Chief.” Quinn is a friend of ours and I’m happy to report that she grew up to be even smarter and funnier than the witty parts she played as a kid. Escaping the pitfalls of child stardom, Quinn started her own business after inventing a new type of baby sling called The HipHugger. If you haven’t already read Quinn’s brilliant blog, you should follow this link immediately and catch up.
As for Leah, she is working hard on her fake tears and is studying the complete works of Margaret O’Brien. Last week I went to a poetry reading at Leah’s school and laughed when I heard that Leah had titled her poem “Mr. Neely,” after the iceman character that Margaret O’Brien hangs out with in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Next on the docket is the 1949 version of “Little Women.’ In the Louisa May Alcott book, Amy is the youngest March girl, but MGM turned poor Beth into the youngest daughter just so they could give the part to Margaret O’Brien and ask her to turn on the faucets. Margaret manages to upstage rival June Allyson as well as Janet Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor at her most breathtaking. But June Allyson gets the last laugh—or cry. After Beth is dead and gone, June sobs her way to the closing credits.