The actress looks back on the creation of 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.'

Crafting an iconic holiday song often involves a whole lotta Christmas magic: maybe some mistletoe, a bunch of festive vibes, and of course the secret ingredient, garland. Judy Garland, that is.

Written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was introduced to the world in 1944, in the Technicolor musical Meet Me in St. Louis. Garland’s Esther sings it to Margaret O’Brien’s Tootie near the end of the film, trying to comfort her youngest sister on Christmas Eve as their family prepares to uproot their lives and move from St. Louis to New York. O’Brien was fortunate enough to witness the creation of the standard, which debuted in the film. The first time she ever heard the song was on set while shooting the number, and she remembers thinking it was “beautiful,” she tells EW.

Garland’s version immortalized the song, making it a Yuletide tradition. Since its debut, it’s been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to James Taylor to Bing Crosby to Michael Bublé to Ella Fitzgerald, and it’s ranked in the top three most-performed Christmas songs of the year numerous times.

“I don’t think anybody had in mind it was going to become an icon of a song that [was] going to go on for generations at Christmastime,” O’Brien recalls. But become an icon it did. For all the covers and various renditions of the song over the years, none approach Garland’s for emotionality or vocal quality. O’Brien also explains that Garland played a direct role in making the song an enduring Christmas classic, by fighting to change the lyrics to a more festive tone before filming.

Fans can see Garland’s take on the song on the big screen when Meet Me in St. Louis returns to theaters for the holidays this December, from TCM and Fathom Events. It will play at more than 600 movie screens across the country on Sunday, Dec. 8, and Wednesday, Dec. 11.

In advance of Meet Me in St. Louis’ return to theaters, we called up O’Brien to get the story behind the song and her memories of working with Garland in one of her most beloved roles.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where were you the first time you heard “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas?”
MARGARET O’BRIEN: The first time I actually heard the song was when they were shooting it. But the song had been changed. [It was] very dark at the beginning, and Judy Garland, said, “I can’t sing that to little Margaret.” [The original lyrics were] “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas / It may be your last.” She wanted it to be much lighter and and more Christmasy. So she went to Hugh Martin. She put a lot of her input into that song. By the time we were doing the shoot, it was the “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that you hear today. And of course, then it became the Christmas song that’s played every year. There’s not a Christmas goes by you don’t hear “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” And a lot of that is due to Judy too for sticking up and saying it must be changed.

What are your memories of filming the song? Did it feel particularly festive? Was Judy in a good mood?
Oh, Judy was in a lovely mood. She was in a wonderful mood all during that movie. She was very happy making that movie. Of course, she was falling in love with [director] Vincent Minnelli, who was wonderful with her. He didn’t overwork her. People don’t realize she was a very lively, wonderful person, with a wonderful sense of humor. So she was kidding me and making me laugh. Then we had to get very serious, in the mood of the song. I was having a hard time crying during that song. And my mother said, “Oh, you know, Margaret, you’re really not crying on cue this time.” I said, “Well, Judy’s so much fun and she’s making me laugh.” Now, I was in a contest with June Allyson [a fellow child star] because she cried in all of her movies. So we had this contest going at MGM, “Who was the best crier at MGM?” My mother came to me and said, “Well, why don’t I have the makeup man put false tears down your face? Like some of the actresses have done. But June would never do that — she’s such a great, great actress that she would be crying right on cue.” That made me cry. That’s how they got me to cry during that song.

These things usually require multiple takes. Do you remember how many times you did it?
No, that was done in only one or two takes. That was done very quickly. They wanted to catch the moment. We had some rehearsals first, so that I did get into the crying when my mother told me that. They just went right to it and and shot it, and I think it was in one, surely not more than one or two takes.

Then you run out of the house and knock down the snow-people.
Oh, yes. I had fun doing that. I loved being Tootie.

Was it hard for you to balance the the fun of getting to knock them down with needing to be crying and emotional in that moment?
Yes, it was. But that one, for some reason, I was able to really cry. Maybe I was sorry I did knock them down — the real-life me was sorry that I did knock those snowmen down. That one was easier to cry.

What were the snow-people made of? They look so sturdy.
They were. They were great. They had styrofoam underneath. [They were] made of styrofoam, and then they would spray crystals and things over it. So it really looked like real snowmen. Yeah, but they were pretty sturdy and they weren’t the easiest to knock down. Because they weren’t actual snow. They were styrofoam.

It looks like you’re whacking a few of them multiple times to get them to break apart.
I did. it took a few times to actually knock them down. But they kept on shooting because they didn’t want to pause and then go make up new ones, which would have taken some time.

What are your memories of the Halloween scene? Was it fun to throw flour in an adult’s face?
Well, I loved playing Tootie. I just went with the flow and everything, but I loved being able to be that mischievous. [I loved being able to] do some of the things I may not have done in real life.

There’s a bit of Hollywood lore that your role had at some point been offered to the daughter of a lighting person on the crew.
Yes, there was a little girl that was a lookalike at the studio. My mother had wanted more money. I was working for very little, and I had done several big movies. So my mother went to [Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM] and said, “Either you pay the top salary or we won’t do Meet Me in St. Louis. I love New York, and we’ll just go on to New York and have fun there.” Mr. Mayer knew he was going to have to [meet her demands] — he had too much money into me at the time. [But he used this girl to try to call her bluff.] Then they had to tell this little girl’s family she was not going to do it. Her father became mental. He worked in the lighting department, [and he] wanted to drop a light on me. They were so upset that their daughter did not do it.

Did you and Judy really come to feel like sisters on set?
Yes. She acted like a big sister. She loved being with the kids on the set. I always had a little stand-in that was my age on all the movies I made. And Judy loved playing with us when we had time off. Judy was really a very happy person. She loved jumping rope. We would jump rope when we had time on the set, and she would do that too. When I talk with her children, she used to love to go to the carnivals and take them to the the zoo and all of these things. So that was the happy side of Judy that I saw.

What makes this film work so well is the sense all of you really are a family. Did it feel that way on set? And did you maintain any of those relationships after filming?
You didn’t always see everybody once you were done with the movie. But I would see Judy from time to time at different functions and luncheons. She would always come over and say, “Hello, Margaret, how are you? I’m always thinking about you.” She was always very sweet. Because a lot of times when you do finish, you don’t come over and say hello. You’re busy. You can be at the same luncheon and never see the person that you knew. But Judy always came over. I always remember that about her.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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