Meet Me in St. Louis: Making of Minnelli's Classic Christmas Musical
Part Three of Four Articles
The major coup was casting Margaret O'Brien, as Judy’s youngest sister, Tootie. Minnelli was sitting in Freed's office, when an agent walked in with a four-year child. "Margaret," the agent said, "Please do something special for Mr. Freed."
Read Parts One and Two
Wearing kilts, the little girl marched directly to Freed, grabbed his shirtsleeve and cried hysterically, "Don't send my brother to the chair! Don't let him fry."
Minnelli's mouth fell open. He rushed to scripter Finklehoffe and said, "I know you're writing an audition scene with a producer. I've just seen this extraordinary little girl. You must use her–just the way she is–kilts and all." Tootie’s part was then specifically rewritten with O'Brien in mind.
O'Brien turned out to be a huge success as Tootie, though Minnelli found his efforts to achieve her performance enervating and upsetting. In Journey for Margaret, O'Brien played a problematic war orphan, which was followed by other neurotic roles. But in Meet Me in St. Louis, there was no need for her to act big, since she played a "normal" girl. It took Minnelli some time to get a natural performance out of her.
O’Brien was particularly adept at doing emotionally charged scenes. Her mother and aunt would whisper something to her ears before every scene. Then, like a Pavolvian dog, she would get emotional and cry. Minnelli always wondered what precisely they were whispering to get such an intense reaction.
They were preparing to shoot Tootie’s great emotional scene, when she demolishes hysterically the snowmen in the garden. O'Brien’s mother came over to Minnelli and said: "Margaret's angry at me tonight. She doesn't want me to work her up for the scene. You'll have to do it."
"O.K., but how do I do it," Minnelli asked.
The mother said, "She has a little dog. You'll have to say someone is going to kill that dog."
"I can't do that," Minnelli said.
Since it was a cold night, O'Brien was sitting inside the house with a blanket over her shoulders.
Minnelli braced himself before walking over to her.
"Margaret," he said, "there's this little dog and somebody is going to take a gun and shoot it."
O'Brien's enormous brown eyes got even larger.
"Is there going to be lots of blood?" she asked
"Yes," Minnelli said.
Margaret's face registered stunned expression, but there were no tears.
Out of the corner of his eye, Minnelli could see that her mother and her aunt were staring at them.
Minnelli felt they expected him to go further, be even more extreme in his instructions.
"The dog is going to suffer terribly," he said with a sinister voice. "It's going to yelp and stumble around."
Working himself up to a feverish pitch, Minnelli finally said, against his better judgment, "The dog is going to die!"
"Oh, no," Margaret screamed, tears rolling down her eyes.
Minnelli turned to his assistant and said, "Turn the cameras!”
Mercifully, Margaret did the scene in one take, after which she went skipping happily off the set. That night, Minnelli went home feeling like a monster. He had never done it before, and vowed never to do it again. That sort of direction struck him as unhealthy and manipulative. By today's standards, it would be considered child abuse, a severe violation of children's work ethics.
In most scenes, however, such as the cakewalk number with Judy, which became one of the film's highlights, O’Brien was delightfully natural and spontaneous, and there was no need for special instructions or any manipulation.
Problems with Judy
Judy did not exactly throw herself into her part. Used to wisecracking her dialogue, Judy responded to the low-keyed script with mockery of her lines. However, aware that something was wrong, she complained to Freed that she had no idea what Minnelli expected from her. Freed told Judy to trust the director. But the atmosphere on the set remained cordial at best. Taking note of Minnelli’s mannerisms, Judy developed comedy routines to entertain the crew, while he was off the set. She would play two parts that of Minnelli and of a vet actor, who for decades has earned a living by speaking only one line in every movie he had made.
The actor arrives for work primed for his big moment, which calls for looking up at the sky and remarking, “I think it might rain.” He is anticipating another routine paycheck, but Minnelli runs him through his spot and suggests that he might consider the possibility of pausing between raising his eyes and speaking his line. The actor agrees.
Minnelli likes that better, but he now thinks it might be stronger if the actor made an effort to sound a trifle put out at the prospect of rain. They rehearse again. Then comes a suggestion of a sneer. That’s good, but maybe he should do it once more, this time with a hint of resignation as the line is spoken. Minnelli likes this, but now wonders how the actor feels he should play the line. This process continues indefinitely, until the skit ends with the bit player reduced to a blathering imbecile unable to remember his own name.
Judy experienced different kinds of problems with Minnelli than those with her previous directors. Minnelli rehearsed a scene over and over again until he was satisfied with every detail. He would then shoot it in as few takes as possible. A shot would be taken and retaken, until it was exactly as he wanted it.
Though he didn't scream loud at his actors, Minnelli found ways to let them know whether he was pleased with their delivery. Minnelli seemed quiet, but in fact, was even more stubborn and insistent than Busby Berkeley, who Judy didn’t like and didn't get along with (she made only one picture with him).
One morning, Minnelli shot the same scene numerous times, but each time, Judy failed. Feeling hapless, Minnelli said calmly, "We'll try the scene again after lunch." Distraught and hysterical, Judy called Freed: "Please come down? I just don't know what this man wants. The whole morning's gone by and we still haven't got a single shot. He makes me feel like I can't act." Freed comforted her. "Well, Vince is from New York, and sometimes he's a little hard to understand, but you'll get on fine with him. You'll see." With Freed’s assurances, work resumed.
There was one particularly difficult scene in which the entire Smith family sat at the dinner table and talked. Each member–the father, mother, grandfather, and three daughters–had lines of dialogue. Minnelli saw the scene as a fugue, in which the actors were to play off one another with the precision of musical instruments. Each member had to join in the conversation at a precise moment and with the right inflection. Minnelli set up the dinner table on a separate set, and each time another scene finished shooting, he had everyone sit down and rehearse the dinner scene.
Minnelli didn’t hesitate to call Judy back to do retakes after she thought she was through for the day. One afternoon, after finishing her scenes, Judy got into her car and was driving out the gate, when the doorman stopped her with a message: "Mr. Minnelli wants you back on the stage to rehearse." This was unheard of; it was like school detention.
Swallowing her indignation, Judy returned, and Minnelli asked that she take her place at the table. When they finished, Minnelli said, "Well, I know that when we come to shoot it, we'll still have to work on it."
Fuming as she rose from the table, Judy complained to Mary Astor, who played her mother, Mrs. Smith, “This is ridiculous.” But Astor surprised her with her response: "Judy, I've been watching that man. He knows what he's doing. He's absolutely right. Just go along with it." Since it was hard to fault a veteran actress like Astor, Judy calmed down and became more obedient. Grudgingly, based on the rushes, Judy could see that Astor was right.
Read Tomorrow Part Four
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