Review: W.S. Van Dyke’s “Journey for Margaret,” Starring Robert Young and Margaret O’Brien

Robert Young, Laraine Day, and Nigel Bruce in “Journey for Margaret”
Robert Young, Laraine Day, and Nigel Bruce in “Journey for Margaret”

Best known today for her Oscar-winning performance in 1994’s Meet Me in St. Louis, child actress Margaret O’Brien made her star debut two years earlier in the war orphan story Journey for Margaret. Robert Young stars in the film as John Davis, an American journalist working as a war correspondent in London during the Blitz. Visiting an orphanage for a story John bonds with two children, Margaret (O’Brien) and Peter (William Severn). When the time comes to return to his ill wife (Laraine Day) in America, he struggles to find a way for the children to accompany him. Everything plays out in a safe, typically MGM fashion, with a saccharine and propagandistic ending that made it a sizeable hit for the studio.

At just five years old, O’Brien makes a strong impression in the film. An uncredited appearance in Babes on Broadway convinced MGM to sign her to a contract, and they changed her name from Angela Maxine O’Brien to that of her Journey for Margaret character1. While not exactly astounding, her performance does stand above that of most child performers of the era, particularly against the cringe-worthy work by her co-star William Severn. His line readings are flat and unconvincing, but O’Brien often feels authentic as the traumatized child.

Outside of her work however, the movie has little to recommend it. Director Herbert Kline began the film, but was replaced by MGM veteran W.S. Van Dyke2. Van Dyke, best known for The Thin Man series, was at this point in his life riddled with cancer. As a devout Christian Scientist he refused any medical treatment, and so committed suicide soon after this film wrapped3. Unfortunately, he did not end with his best work. Along with the cloying script, the sets and rear-projection are particularly obvious, even for a film with this low of a budget.

At times the film hints at a more harrowing look at the horrors of war: take one scene where John encounters a shell-shocked woman convinced her dead child is merely sleeping. It’s shocking and tremendously effective, but it only serves to highlight how the rest of Journey for Margaret is pat and broadly propagandistic.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

For More on Journey for Margaret

Read the review in The New York Times

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1, 2, 3. Andrea Passafiume, “Journey for Margaret,” Turner Classic Movies, accessed June 14, 2017.