Yesterday's Magazette

8 – Kissin’ Cousins

REFLECTIONS:

Kissin’ Cousin

By Madonna Dries Christensen

In a hazy vignette from early childhood, my same age cousin tap dances on a tabletop, her blonde curls bouncing, giving me jealousy pangs at the attention she’s garnering. She wears black patent leather Mary Jane slippers and her white anklets have ruffles. “Another Shirley Temple,” someone says. I can’t imagine now that I even knew who Shirley Temple was (I was four and we lived on an Iowa farm), but from the way the name was spoken I must have gleaned something magical about her.
No doubt about, it, the adorable blonde moppet had the magic touch. But as I grew older I identified more with Margaret O’Brien than with Dimpled Temple. Unlike Princess Shirley in her frilly starched dresses and bouncing pipe curls, Margaret was a commoner. Dark-eyed, dark haired, gapped toothed, freckled, and wearing cotton dresses or overalls, she would have blended into my neighborhood. Shirley? Not so much. My mother used to say that Margaret O’Brien and actor Pat O’Brien were her cousins (her mother’s maiden name was O’Brien). Although it wasn’t true, I liked to think of Margaret as a shirttail relative. I might have even boasted of it to friends.

Born Angela Maxine O’Brien on January 15, 1937 in San Diego, California, her first role lasted one minute, in Babes On Broadway (1941). Seems like hardly enough time to be noticed, but she caught the attention of producers and directors. Her first starring role was Journey For Margaret (1942), from which she adopted the name Margaret and made it legal. Her role as the bratty but beguiling Tootie in Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) won her an Academy Award as Outstanding Child Actress. After her Oscar was stolen by a household maid who fled town, the Academy replaced the statuette. Many years later, two antique dealers found the original award at a flea market and when they realized it was authentic, they returned it to O’Brien.

I’m a sucker for a Margaret O’Brien film (keep the tissues handy). Adept at laying on the drama, the child gave memorable performances in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), Tenth Avenue Angel (1948), The Secret Garden (1949), as Beth in Little Women (1949), and dozens of other movies. Although the irresistible tyke became a money machine for MGM and she amassed a personal fortune, she did not fare well as an adolescent. She retired from the screen at the tender age of fourteen. Temple lasted until her early twenties before bowing out gracefully.

Both stars developed into mature, dignified women who, if they made news, it was for something admirable. While Temple dropped show business all together, and dabbled in politics, O’Brien had a quiet but steady career on television and on the dinner theater circuit. Married twice, she has one daughter. In 1996, she received the Women’s International Center Living Legacy Award. In 2006, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the SunDeis Film Festival at Brandeis University. Today, at 71, she appears in the occasional television movie or program.

While many former child stars reminisce with negativity about those early years, O’Brien says she loved every minute of it. She concedes that Shirley Temple was a cut above other child actors of that era, but she claims the title of Best Crier. She illustrates her point with this story. When a director prompted her, at age six, to please gush some tears, she innocently asked, “Do you want the tears to run all the way down my cheeks or should I stop them halfway down?”

Now that’s a pro. That’s my cousin Margaret.

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