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Eight-year-old Margaret O'Brien won a special Academy Award® as Outstanding Child Actress of 1944, a year when her films included Music for Millions, Meet Me in St. Louis, Jane Eyre, The Canterville Ghost and Lost Angel. Renowned critic James Agee described O'Brien at that stage as "incredibly vivid and eloquent - almost as hypnotizing as Garbo." At the Oscar® ceremonies on March 15, 1945, as Bob Hope presented O'Brien with her miniature award, he lifted her up so she could reach the microphone and jokingly complained, "Will you hurry and grow up, please?" Music for Millions was Oscar-nominated that year for Best Original Screenplay, but lost to the Swiss film Marie-Louise, starring Josiane Hegg.
A patriotic World War II musical drama from MGM, Music for Millions features O'Brien as the enterprising six-year-old sister of June Allyson, who plays string bass in Jose Iturbi's orchestra during a wartime crunch that means most of the musicians are female. The sentimental story revolves around the concerns of the Allyson character about the GI husband she hasn't heard from in months. Jimmy Durante, in an unusual bit of casting, plays Iturbi's manager - although The Great Schnozzola is given a chance to perform "Toscanini, Iturbi and Me" (a variation on his "Toscanini, Stokowski and Me") and "Umbriago," a number written especially for the film that would become one of Durante's most celebrated nightclub pieces.
Producer Joe Pasternak and director Henry Koster had recently moved to MGM from Universal, where they had created a series of musicals starring Deanna Durbin that had saved that studio from financial ruin. The team repeated the pattern of the Durbin movies with the highly successful Music for Millions, enlivening the plotline with frequent concert performances of works by Dvorak, Grieg, Victor Herbert, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Handel and Chopin. Koster thoroughly enjoyed his cast, later describing O'Brien as a "born actress," Durante as "probably the most wonderful man I have ever worked with" and Allyson as a "great, great talent - she really had the spark."
O'Brien and Allyson became so close during filming that Allyson would later recall that "little Maggie O'Brien's picture was the only one I kept on my dresser." The two actresses, who later played sisters again in Little Women (1949), both remembered being known at MGM as the "town criers" because of their ability to weep convincingly at the drop of a hat. O'Brien in particular had honed her crying skills to a fine point. In a Directors Guild of America Oral History interview, Koster recalled O'Brien asking, "Mr. Koster, do you want the tears to be just visible in my eyes or rolling down the cheeks?" When asked what she meant, the tot continued: "I can control that. I think of something very sad when I have them roll down my cheeks, or just a little sad when you just want my eyes to get wet."
Producer: Joe Pasternak
Director: Henry Koster
Screenplay: Myles Connolly
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters
Costume Design: Kay Dean, Irene
Original Music: Walter Bullock, Walter Donaldson, Harold Spina, Herbert Stothart (all uncredited)
Editing: Douglass Biggs
Principal Cast: Margaret O'Brien ("Mike"), Jose Iturbi (Himself), June Allyson (Barbara Ainsworth), Jimmy Durante (Andrews), Marsha Hunt (Rosalind), Hugh Herbert (Uncle Ferdinand), Harry Davenport (Doctor), Marie Wilson (Marie), Connie Gilchrist (Travelers Aid Woman).
BW-118m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe