SUtS: Margaret O’Brien

Carrie’s choice: Tenth Avenue Angel (1948)

Airing at 9:30AM EST

This dramatic movie is not exactly the silly comedy or musical/comedy I enjoy so much in classic film. What I like about it, though, is that it’s a story of redemption- or not.  Margaret O’Brien plays Flavia, whose aunt (played by Angela Lansbury, no less) is receiving her fiance. However, instead of the world-wide traveler Flavia has been told to expect, the fiance just got out of prison. While he works to build his life on the outside (be it socially favorable or unfavorable), Flavia has to come to terms with his past.

I love this idea. It’s the story of Les Miserables told from a personal instead of social perspective. The fiance, however, is not exactly Jean Valjean. He is a legitimate criminal and looks to some of his old criminal associates. The question here is can he redeem himself and change and can Flavia accept his past, as apparently her aunt seems to manage?

The interesting thing about this movie, among other things, is the ideas it presents within its time. In 1948, the world was still recovering from the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust. Many questions about bad, criminal, or “evil” behavior littered society and especially psychology. Who do you blame for crime and seemingly evil acts? Can you forgive them? Can people change? Psychology, literature, and film have worked hard to understand and answer these questions since before Nuremberg, and continued after 1946 when the trials were completed. Despite all of these, the debate continues today.

In this case, however, the debate appears in the form of the adorable Margaret O’Brien. Child stars are extremely common now, but few compare to her charming smile and genuine expressions. Her films are worth watching, even if only for the the gentle purity that classic film child stars provide. While many many young stars and their film plots emphasize adventures requiring some form of adult strength, and sometimes adult themes, this film brings real world experience and complex value judgments to a young child while maintaining her childlike wonder.

Brandie’s choice: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Airing at 3:45PM EST

Was there ever a cuter child star than Margaret O’Brien?

Well, maybe Shirley Temple. But she only beats O’Brien by a ringlet.

And when it comes to sheer acting ability, O’Brien takes it by a mile and a half.

If you’ve never seen today’s recommendation, it really is a shame. One of the most effective, moving musicals to come out of the 1940s, Meet Me in St. Louis combines catchy songs, a lovely setting, and great performances by Judy Garland and O’Brien, resulting in a movie that is truly something special.

But let me warn you ahead of time–if you’re looking for a suspenseful plot, look elsewhere. Hell, if you’re looking for a PLOT–seriously, look elsewhere. This film tells the story of a year in the lives of a St. Louis family. The movie opens with the father explaining to his disappointed/upset family that they will have to move to New York because of his job. And the film ends … with the family still in St. Louis, having never moved at all. And that’s about it.

But of course, that’s not really “it.” The movie may not have a very progressive plot, but it is one of the best screen depictions of family life that I have ever seen. And what is a year in the life of the average American family? Typically, there’s not a lot of upheaval. What this film does so beautifully is to simply sit back and let us observe these people as they just live their lives from day to day. We see the father go to work, the mother make homemade ketchup in the kitchen, the daughters fall in love and deal with heartbreak and sadness and celebrate their little daily victories. And the most marvelous thing of all is how deftly director Vincente Minnelli keeps us interested in all of the (non)action.

And of course, this is the movie that introduced future spouses Minnelli and Garland. After filming, they got married, and daughter “Liza-with-a-Z” appeared soon after. The union did not last, but while it did, Garland and Minnelli had one of the most talent-packed families to ever hit Hollywood.

O’Brien is one of the most talented child stars to come out of classic moviedom, and there are few since who have matched her. From her earliest roles, she demonstrates a remarkable ability to slip between complex emotions with all of the maturity and agility of an actor three times her age.  This is especially evident in Meet Me in St. Louis. Her character, Tootie, is a rather morbid five-year-old; her dolls have a habit of becoming deathly ill and “dying,” and Tootie buries them in elaborate funerals. Of all of the children, Tootie is most affected by the prospect of the move, and O’Brien plays her bewilderment and anger so perfectly, it’s difficult not to cry for Tootie’s pain.

I’ve seen this movie more times than I could possibly count, and every time, I find myself singing along, smiling, and even crying a little (Judy singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” gets me every.single.time). If you’ve seen it, you probably understand this all-over-the-map reaction. And if you haven’t, I hope you will watch it today and love it as much as I do!

The only downside? Now I’m going to have “The Trolley Song” in my head all day long.

Meh. Still worth it!

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