Virginia O'Brien, one of Lucy's pals and co-stars from her MGM days, died January 16, 2001, at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, CA. She was 81.
O'Brien, a singer-comedienne whose eerie deadpan singing style won her comic roles in many of MGM's classiest productions of the 1940s, was born in Los Angeles, where her father was a captain in the Police Department and her uncle was the city's postmaster. She became interested in dancing after seeing Eleanor Powell in several movies, but quickly turned to singing. Virginia reportedly owed her film career to stage fright. When she made her stage debut in an LA production of "Meet the People" in 1940, she was too nervous to do anything but stand stock still and sing, virtually without expression. Her performance wowed the audience, who thought it was a comedy routine. One of those who joined in the laughter was Louis B. Mayer, head of M-G-M Studios. Ms. O'Brien was soon on her way to a screen test and a seven-year contract.
Among O'Brien's early features were "Hullabaloo" (with Dan Dailey and Frank Morgan, 1940), "Sky Murder" (a murder-mystery starring Walter Pidgeon as Nick Carter, 1940), "The Big Store" (with The Marx Brothers, 1941), "Ringside Maisie" (with Ann Sothern, 1941), "Lady Be Good" (with her idol, Eleanor Powell, and Sothern, 1941), "Ship Ahoy" (with Powell and Red Skelton, 1942), and "Panama Hattie" (with Sothern and Skelton, 1942). By then, Lucille Ball had also joined the studio, and MGM cast them both in "DuBarry Was a Lady" (with Skelton, 1942), "Thousands Cheer" (1943), the film version of "Meet the People" (with Dick Powell, 1944) and "Ziegfeld Follies" (1946).
O'Brien also appeared in MGM's "Two Girls and a Sailor" (with June Allyson, 1944), "The Harvey Girls" (with Judy Garland, 1946), "The Show Off" (with Skelton, 1946), "Till the Clouds Roll By" (1946) and "Merton of the Movies" (again with Skelton, 1947). "Thousands Cheer," "Ziegfeld Follies" and "Till the Clouds Roll By" were "all-star cast" vehicles that featured nearly every star then under contract at the studio. In the latter, O'Brien recreated Jerome Kern's "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" number from "Show Boat."
By the time O'Brien's seven year contract ended in 1947, the old Hollywood studio system had started to crumble, and public's tastes were changing. Virginia left MGM, and began working in nightclubs and little theatre productions around the country. She also was a guest on popular TV comedy and variety programs, including those of Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen and Merv Griffin. In 1955 she returned to the screen in Donald O'Connor's "Francis in the Navy" (for Universal). Her final film role was in the 1976 comedy, "Gus" (with Don Knotts and Tim Conway).
Lucy and Virginia were re-united one evening in 1980, when Lucy made a special appearance at a USC seminar helmed by director Charles Walters. Walters had served as dance-director on "DuBarry Was a Lady," so the evening began with a screening of that film. He and Lucy then took the stage, discussed what fun they had making the picture, and turned to the audience for Q&A. Someone asked "Whatever happened to Virginia O'Brien?" and before anyone could answer, Virginia shouted from the back of the theatre, "She's back here in the cheap seats!" Lucy and Walters were thrilled by her impromtu appearance and led everyone in a round of applause. "You were always the best at what you did," said Lucy to her old pal. "You were always right on the money." Indeed she was!
O'Brien is survived by three daughters, a son, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Photos: (Top) Virginia, Dick Powell and Lucy cavort in MGM's "Meet the People." (Middle, left) Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse and Virginia in "The Harvey Girls."
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