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Her First Romance (1951) marked two new beginnings for Margaret O'Brien, who was only 13 years old when this movie was made but already regarded as a veteran film star in need of a comeback by some of the more jaundiced film industry insiders.
This coming-of-age story was O'Brien's first film after her mother, Gladys Flores O'Brien, and powerful agent, Vic Orsatti, had ended her long term contract at M-G-M, where she had carved out a unique niche as a child actor in the Forties. The modestly budgeted Columbia Pictures movie allowed the maturing star to appear as a modern teenager on the brink of adulthood and permitted the actress to grow up just a little on screen. Finding a way to translate into adolescence the qualities that had endeared her to legions of fans proved to be a bit more difficult.
Appearing in nineteen films between 1941 and 1949, O'Brien as a child had brought to life characters who instinctively seemed to acknowledge (and often even relish) the darkness as well as the innocence in the human heart. This fascinating quality had won the eight year old a special juvenile Oscar® in 1945 for her stellar supporting performance as the cheerfully morbid "Tootie" in Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and other films of that year. In 1949, she completed her contract at M-G-M, the "Tiffany of movie studios," and her future prospects were seemingly bright. Walt Disney was eager to sign the girl to voice his animated Alice in Wonderland (1953) and a serious offer to have O'Brien play Peter Pan on Broadway was under discussion. Neither of these projects came to fruition though Margaret O'Brien did appear frequently on stage throughout the Fifties. According to the actress, in a 1998 interview with film historian Allan Ellenberger, "My mother had a big fight with Walt Disney. What it was all about I don't know. I think it was over money. And he was going to sue us-it was a big deal." Perhaps more significantly for her future, O'Brien's mother had conscientiously set aside much of her offspring's earnings for her daughter's future.
The choice to buy out the six months remaining on Margaret's contract at M-G-M may have been prompted by these plum parts, but may also have been made as a consequence of the poor postwar box office returns and the Supreme Court's Paramount decision in 1948 that marked the beginning of the end of the studio era. Star maker Louis B. Mayer, who regarded O'Brien and her mother with favor, saw his power diminished as financial considerations trumped the street savvy of that first generation of moguls, leading to his withdrawal from the active direction of M-G-M. Margaret herself was beginning to grow taller and less child-like. Margaret's mother, a former professional dancer, described by her daughter as "a gypsy...[who] lived an Auntie Mame life," asked the studio to release her daughter after her salary had been suspended for leaving for Europe with her parent-without studio permission. The alacrity with which M-G-M accepted this end of their professional relationship with a highly profitable actress who had been a star and a utility player in both A and B pictures might have been an indication of the growing girl's diminishing clout, as precociousness gave way to puberty and public tastes had begun to shift to less sentimental fare.
The newly teenage actress had been off-screen for more than a year following her appearance in the sumptuously mounted and psychologically well-acted version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1949), which turned out to be her last film at Metro under her old contract and a personal favorite of the performer. While she would continue to appear on stage, radio, television, and occasional films up to the present, (and avoid the sadly familiar public scandals that befell many child actors), Margaret O'Brien would never recapture the public's imagination as completely as she did in her pre-teen years, making Her First Romance a particularly interesting film for what it reflected about her past and future career.
Her First Romance may have been chosen to help O'Brien make the often difficult transition from child star to more mature actress, as her slightly older fellow M-G-M contract player, Elizabeth Taylor, had done so flamboyantly in her late teens. Aside from the fact that Taylor was preternaturally beautiful, even as a youngster, O'Brien's buoyantly gamine appeal was not rooted in just her comely appearance, but in her "changeling's intensity," a mercurial ability to appear both artless and willful, capable of sharing with an audience an imaginative belief in her characters' intensely real if sometimes nave experience of the world. When translated to a relatively simple Girl Meets Boy formula in this rather slight, lackluster B movie, something magical was lost, with O'Brien's familiar spark fitfully apparent when she flashes a shyly winsome smile and appears to enjoy her competition for a dubious prize of social acceptance. The filmmakers behind Her First Romance were incapable of pulling off the balancing act that had been a seamless presence in her earlier films. A carefully crafted production and a delicacy of touch were required to make audiences care deeply for Margaret O'Brien's characters while still enabling a viewer to avoid taking her too seriously.
Her First Romance was directed by Seymour Friedman, a future television executive, whose earlier credits were largely confined to entries in long-running B movie series centered around familiar crime stoppers and heroic canine stories designed to play on a double bill. Titles such as Trapped by Boston Blackie (1948), The Crime Doctor's Diary (1949) and Rusty Saves a Life (1949) were highlights of his rsum, though he had been an assistant director on more ambitious noir fare, such as Dead Reckoning(1947) with Humphrey Bogart and To the Ends of the Earth (1948) with Dick Powell. Her First Romance was a chance to rise above the level of his customary programmers, thanks in large part to the game and talented cast and some location filming at Cedar Lake in the Big Bear Valley near San Bernardino National Forest, California, USA.
In a real departure from the source material, the filmmakers transformed what had been an observant,slyly funny and true snapshot of a New York boy's youth into a fairly estrogen-charged storyline in Her First Romance. Based on novelist Herman Wouk's second novel, City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder, the film of Her First Romance was fashioned from the former radio gag writer's 1948 book, which had sold a paltry 6,000 copies, compared to his later bestsellers, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Caine Mutiny, as well as Marjorie Morningstar and The Winds of War, among others. The author had little to do with the film, other than cashing the check for the material's sale to Hollywood. Tinsel Town's tinkering with the story's essence led to a series of changes, beginning with the title, which was initially entitled City Girl, The Romantic Age and finally became Her First Romance. In a later preface to a subsequent edition of City Boy Wouk wrote tersely, "I did not see [the film version]. I have never met anybody who did."
Wouk's book had told the serio-comic, semi-autobiographical story set in the 1920s from the point of view of an 11 year old Jewish boy growing up in the New York suburb of The Bronx and followed the overweight youth's misadventures at summer camp. By the time that Columbia Pictures and screenwriter Albert Mannheimer were finished with the screenplay that formed the basis of Her First Romance, the New York ambience and Judaic roots of the story were completely gone and the story was set in 1951. The central focus of the story had shifted to a character created just for the movie--Betty Foster (Margaret O'Brien). A Herbie still existed in the film, in the form of her somewhat irksome little brother named Herbie, who was played by busy child actor of the period, Jimmy Hunt. The role of Herbie was quite small but key to the action, though the freckled, red-haired child who played him brought a deft way of expressing his own anxiety and annoyance with the world he lives in, overshadowed by his sister. (Hunt is probably best remembered today for his iconic role a few years later when he played a small boy who tried valiantly to save humanity from invading aliens in William Cameron Menzies sci-fi classic, Invaders from Mars(1953) - if he could only get the adults to heed his warnings).
The 72 minutes of Her First Romance focuses on a bright but socially awkward girl, Betty Foster as she grapples with her first romantic crush on an athletic "dreamboat." O'Brien's character was a "brain" whose first bout with pubescent emotions leads her to suppress her natural intelligence, adopt several "hep" phrases, don an off-the-shoulder dress, dance a frenetic Charleston, and even wheedle her way into a trip to a swanky summer camp. Her determination to make her way through a teenage maze of emotional turmoil eventually leads her to risk her father and her family's welfare in a misguided effort to please a boy, Bobby Evans, (Allen Martin, Jr.). Joining her in these adventures and travails are Sharyn Moffett, a sweet looking and tart-tongued actress who may be best remembered as one of Cary Grant and Myrna Loy's savvy daughters in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). As Betty's tomboy friend and ally, Leona Dean, Moffet seems hell-bent on foiling the wiles of a vixenish Lucy Stewart, the chief rival for the attention of that revered object of pubescent desire, Bobby. Lucy, a villainous character who was presented as a truly nasty piece of work, was played with some melodramatic relish by a blonde Elinor Donahue, when she was still being credited as Mary Eleanor Donahue. This malicious role came Donahue's way a few years after she had appeared in The Unfinished Dance (1947) and Tenth Avenue Angel (1948) with O'Brien at Metro and before the television series, Father Knows Best, when her almost too perfect "Princess" helped to make her a fondly recalled if slightly intimidating figure for Baby Boomers. Donahue's on-screen brother in that classic TV show, Billy Gray, also pops up as an uncredited camper in Her First Romance as well.
The appealing 14 year old Allen Martin, Jr. as Bobby Evans, was, along with his youthful female cast mates, a show biz professional with several Broadway plays, including appearances on stage with Charles Laughton, the Lunts and Walter Hampden under his belt before making this film. The son of a New York Daily News editor and a former actress, the boy actor had received good reviews for an appearance in an independently made movie about a boy's prison, Johnny Holiday (1949), just before playing a fairly clueless boyfriend in Her First Romance. This Margaret O'Brien movie proved to be his second and last appearance in a motion picture to date.
Adults in the cast who had the most effective roles were often familiar actors with long careers already behind them making bricks without straw from underwritten roles in movies of all types. The cherubic-faced character actor Lloyd Corrigan, as Mr. Gauss, the wheedling school principal whose efforts to line his own pockets in the summertime leads him to become a camp director - despite his disdain for children - was more of an ineffectual Uriah Heep figure in the film than originally written. Gauss was a fairly ruthless, even desperate character in Wouk's original story, revealed as a true hypocrite rather than the pathetic buffoon he appears to be throughout Her First Romance. Ann Doran, an actress who literally played hundreds of film roles, gives a good account of herself as O'Brien's mother, lending her customary blend of gentle maternal warmth and guidance spiced with some perplexed humor, occasionally bordering on the sarcastic, to the proceedings. Doran would also play a key part in later film history as a very different maternal figure of a teenager when she played a castrating wife and mother to James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) in the same decade. Actors who eventually became directors can also be glimpsed in the cast briefly when Jerry Paris and Joseph Sargent appear as camp counselors.
As a vehicle for Margaret O'Brien's evolution as a performer, Her First Romance ultimately flattens into a blandness that never adequately supports the actress. Yet there are echoes of the youngster who brought an intense audacity to her portraits of earnest girls who bubbled over with an audacious and fierce feminine drive encased in a slight frame. One of the strengths of Margaret O'Brien's earlier roles had been her character's individuality and her ability to draw a viewer into her character's private perception. Her earlier wayward characters were not easily mollified or ignored by the adults who shaped her world. Her First Romance made her a bit more mature, but it also made her more conventional, trapped in a celluloid world with a more limited horizon. If she failed to achieve her previous levels of success, it may have been in part because the penny-pinching Columbia lacked the polished stories, accomplished co-stars, high production values and publicity machine of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, though the early Fifties marked the period of some of the studio's greatest monetary and critical successes, with such films as Born Yesterday (1950), Some Came Running (1958) and On the Waterfront (1954) emerging from prestigious producers like Stanley Kramer and Sam Spiegel (who initially arrived as his earlier incarnation, "S.P. Eagle") setting up shop there for a time. Unfortunately, none of the production values and strong story themes found their way into Her First Romance.
While O'Brien brought to the film her appealing ability to convey realistically mixed emotions, enlivening portraying her character of Betty Foster with an occasionally amusing zeal, the movie seemed to echo an earlier period's sensibility. Another reason for the film's relative obscurity may have been because the story's too quickly resolved (if not entirely explained) conclusion with O'Brien's character triumphing, but recognizing the somewhat reckless nature of her actions. Her First Romance also came early in the Fifties, just before the emergence of rock and roll's teen culture flooded the decade with movies that celebrated the turmoil that roiled beneath the surface of American society. In the world of Her First Romance, rebellion and dissonance barely hint at sexuality or the deluge of "juvenile delinquent" movies that came later in that decade, bringing a new wave of American films that was exemplified by the rawness in Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle (1955). Her First Romance had in its favor a gentler story about recognizable people and human behavior in a family, a school and a summer camp, but lacked the cohesiveness to make it a vivid portrait of a girl. Though Hollywood would seek to regain lost audiences with bigger, more garish and sometimes more realistic portraits of life as the Production Code's grip on film was loosened, a film such as Her First Romance seemed more archaic than it was in retrospect. Margaret O'Brien's young teenage girl never grappled with the dramatic issues that did adolescent girls such as Susan Strasberg in Picnic (1955), Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause, and Carol Lynley in Blue Denim (1959) - who were all O'Brien's contemporaries - faced on screen, leaving a viewer to wonder how she might have played these roles, if only her talent could have been allowed more expression.
An uncredited Associated Press story that was published seven months prior to the release of Her First Romance may have been the writing on the wall for this film and the career momentum of Margaret O'Brien. The piece, entitled Margaret O'Brien Attempts To Bridge 'Awkward Age'," concentrated on the perils ahead for the young actress who was "attempting the perilous climb to adult stardom. Her path is lined by ghosts of talented tots who fell along the way. 'The awkward age'-adolescence-is a pitfall few child stars span." The article went on to name "Best known victims of the jinx: Deanna Durbin, Jane Withers, Freddie Bartholomew, and the Jackies, Coogan and Cooper." When this was written, most of those named were still in their twenties. Each of these talented individuals may have had their struggles, but they do seem to have lived long enough to realize - as Margaret O'Brien and many of her contemporaries apparently have - that it is possible to live a fulfilling life away from the camera as well as on the film set.
Director: Seymour Friedman
Screenplay: Albert Mannheimer; Herman Wouk (story)
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Art Direction: Ross Bellah
Music: George Duning (uncredited)
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Cast: Margaret O'Brien (Betty Foster), Allen Martin, Jr. (Bobby Evans), Jimmy Hunt (Herbie Foster), Sharyn Moffett (Leona Dean), Ann Doran (Mrs. Foster), Lloyd Corrigan (Mr. Gauss, School Principal), Elinor Donahue (Lucille Stewart), Susan Stevens (Clara), Marissa O'Brien (Tillie).
by Moira Finnie
Beichman, Arnold, Herman Wouk: the Novelist as Social Historian, Transaction Publishers, 2004.
Dick, Bernard F., Columbia Pictures: Portrait of a Studio, University Press of Kentucky, 1992.
Ellenberger, Allan, Margaret O'Brien: The MGM Years, Classic Images, December, 1998.
Hopper, Hedda, Hedda Hopper on Hollywood, The Baltimore Sun, Mar 4, 1951.
Margaret O'Brien Attempts To Bridge 'Awkward Age', The Hartford Courant, Sept. 10, 1950.