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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
“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!”