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By the mid-1940s, child actress Margaret O'Brien was a top box-office star, thanks to her superb performances in The Canterville Ghost (1944), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945). More than just a child star, O'Brien was a talented actress, and was able to meet the dramatic demands of her roles in those films. Critic James Agee called her "incredibly vivid and eloquent -- almost as hypnotizing as Garbo." She received a special Academy Award as outstanding child actress of 1944. But scripts that showcased O'Brien's acting abilities instead of her cuteness were rare, and her vehicles became increasingly saccharine.
Tenth Avenue Angel (1948) was one of O'Brien's most trouble-plagued films. Begun in 1946, this story of a New York tenement child who learns some hard truths about her family and friends took 18 months to reach theaters. It went through script and cast changes, retakes and cutting, and was not released until after The Unfinished Dance (1947), which O'Brien made after Tenth Avenue Angel. O'Brien was getting to the awkward age, no longer the adorable moppet, but she turns in a fine performance in a demanding role.
O'Brien was not the only underrated actress in the cast of Tenth Avenue Angel. By the age of 20, Angela Lansbury had received supporting actress Oscar nominations for her first film, Gaslight (1944), and for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). But Lansbury wasn't a conventionally glamorous leading lady, and MGM didn't quite know what to do with her. She was often cast as wicked women much older than herself. In Tenth Avenue Angel, she got to play the "good girl" for a change. As O'Brien's aunt, who is engaged to marry ex-con George Murphy, she even shares some touching moments with O'Brien.
Margaret O'Brien's last big hit would be the remake of Little Women (1949), in which she plays the doomed sister Beth. When O'Brien refused to go to Disney that same year for a planned live-action version of Alice in Wonderland, MGM suspended her. And in 1951, O'Brien retired from the screen at the age of 14. Later efforts at comebacks were largely unsuccessful, although she worked in dinner theater, and made some notable guest appearances on television, including one on the series Marcus Welby, M.D., starring her old MGM co-star Robert Young.
As for Lansbury, she would get her revenge on Hollywood, and find the stardom that eluded her in films on Broadway and on television. After leaving MGM in 1951, Lansbury gravitated toward the theater, at first in summer stock, and eventually in New York. In 1966, she triumphed in Mame, the stage musical version of Auntie Mame (1958). She not only won a Tony Award for the role, she went on to become the queen of the Broadway musical, scoring hits with a revival of Gypsy (1973), and Sweeney Todd (1979). But it was television that finally made Angela Lansbury a household name. In 1984, she began a long run as a Miss Marple-like sleuth, Jessica Fletcher, in the series Murder, She Wrote. The role was not much of a challenge, but Lansbury played it charmingly, and over the years, she and her producer husband gained more control over the show. In fact, Murder, She Wrote became a family affair in more ways than one. As executive producer, Lansbury had a say in casting, and often cast her old MGM friends and co-stars in guest roles. Among those who guest-starred on the show was...Margaret O'Brien.
Producer: Ralph Wheelwright
Director: Roy Rowland
Screenplay: Harry Ruskin, Eleanore Griffin, based on a story by Angna Enters and a sketch by Craig Rice
Editor: Ralph E. Winters, George Boemler
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Wade Rubottom
Music: Rudolph G. Kopp
Principal Cast: Margaret O'Brien (Flavia Mills), Angela Lansbury (Susan Bratten), George Murphy (Steve Abbott), Phyllis Thaxter (Helen Mills), Warner Anderson (Joseph Mills), Rhys Williams (Blind Mac), Barry Nelson (Al Parker).
by Margarita Landazuri