The Deadpan Dame of Old Hollywood

Today would be the 100th birthday of Virginia O’Brien, the frozen-faced actress of ’40s MGM musicals with comic timing that was all her own.

Virginia O'Brian

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When the opening night of Meet the People, a musical comedy revue in a Los Angeles playhouse, came in 1939, Virginia O’Brien was scared stiff. The 17-year-old performer had stage fright, and her solo didn’t go as planned. Instead of delivering the bombastic, Ethel Merman-inspired number she had practiced, O’Brien found herself dancing with stiff movements and singing with a frozen stare. Reduced to tears in the wings after her debut that left the audience in laughter, the actress had no idea that her nervous energy would afford her the attention of Louis B. Mayer, of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and jumpstart her career as a comedic singer in some of the greatest movie musicals of the era.

“Say That We’re Sweethearts Again” from Meet the People (1944)

Within two weeks of that opening night, O’Brien signed a seven-year contract with MGM, and, a few weeks after that, she was on her way to make her Broadway debut in Keep Off the Grass. Throughout the ’40s, O’Brien was featured in the titanic studio’s glossy and expensive musicals alongside stars like Judy Garland, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, and Red Skelton. The actress’s shtick was unique, though, and especially unusual in Hollywood musicals. Rather than performing with a hyper display of facial expressions and gestures, O’Brien delivered most of her numbers looking directly into the camera with a deadpan stare, and her vocals bounced and stalled unexpectedly. As a comic tour de force with a borderline-rock ’n’ roll style, “Miss Deadpan Frozen Face” was a one-of-a-kind Hollywood girl ahead of her time.

“Lullaby” from the Marx brothers’ The Big Store (1941)

Watching O’Brien’s scenes from films like Panama Hattie, Du Barry Was a Lady, and Ziegfeld Follies is like viewing a number stitched into a classic musical with the comic timing of a later era. The gag was always self-aware: in Panama Hattie, Red Skelton introduces O’Brien’s character as “a face that was set for seven, but it didn’t go off!” and “it looks like Leon Henderson’s freezing everything nowadays!” In turn, she stares through him like she doesn’t get the joke.

Sometimes — as in Meet the People and Ship Ahoy — O’Brien’s cold comic presence is combined with dark pathos as she sings lines like “Our love is great. No love can match it. Darling, please put down that hatchet.” and “Poor you. I’m sorry you’re not me. For you will never know what lovin’ you can be.” Her refrains of unrequited love given with a vacant look brought complex comedy to big box musicals. If Lucille Ball filled the silver screen with vivacity and slapstick, O’Brien countered that with a more focused, obscure energy. O’Brien’s characters often came across as intimidating and mysterious, and her singing was full of technical surprises. Unfortunately, her potential as a movie star was cut short.

“Did I Get Stinkin’ at the Savoy” from Panama Hattie (1942)

The frozen-faced actress was dropped from MGM at the end of her contract in spite of her numerous well-received performances and first-rate work ethic. As she said in a 1992 interview, O’Brien was pregnant while filming The Harvey Girls, and Judy Garland “wasn’t showing up at work.” As O’Brien got bigger, and filming was delayed, her role in the western romp was scaled back and her songs assigned to other actresses. The supporting singer met a similar fate in Till the Clouds Roll By, another huge MGM musical in which she only took part in a few numbers.

“In a Little Spanish Town” from Thousands Cheer (1943)

O’Brien was having her hair done in a beauty parlor when she read in the newspaper that her contract hadn’t been renewed. Although dejected, she didn’t hold any grudges about being cut from the studio. She treasured the time she spent with MGM, saying, in 1984, “MGM was a wonderful place to be. Everything you needed, they had it right there for you. They treated you like kings and queens. I liked Louis B. Mayer. He was a friend of my dad’s.” She expanded her family and took her routine on the road, performing her own shows for decades. Though it was hard work, she said she regained her passion for having a live audience. She appeared on Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, and Merv Griffin, and in the ’80s she put on a retrospective tour of all of her MGM songs and released an album. O’Brien’s film career may have been cut short by the ruthless practices of the old studios, but the intriguing allure of her niche performance style has aged well.

“Salome” from Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)

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Comments

  1. What a well written/researched, entertaining feature this is. I only knew this swell gal from the Marx Brothers’ film, and the ‘Lullaby’ scene. She was quite unique as the film clips you picked out show. Thank you for including them. I’m going to try to watch some of these in their entirety.

    I’m sorry her film career was cut short also. She surely would have enriched any future films she would have appeared in, whatever genre. Thanks for remembering her on her 100th. Don’t be surprised if you get a sign of appreciation from Virginia. I think she’d be very touched and grateful for this tribute you’ve given her. Definitely.

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