As the song goes, "You Gotta Have a Gimmick." Virginia O'Brien had a gimmick, and it started her on a successful run of movies.
It all started with stage fright. O'Brien grew up on Los Angeles* and developed a desire to act and sing. In 1940, she was cast in a stage musical, Meet the People, when disaster struck. When she went on stage to sing her number, she was overcome with fright and froze completely. But the show had to go on, and she sung the number, unable to keep from staring at the audience with a "deer in the headlights" expression. She left the stage thinking her acting career had ended before it started.
But audiences are strange. When you're on stage, you know when a disaster is happening, but when watching it, you might just think it's part of the show.** The audience thought it was part of the show, and the deadpan expression O'Brien held during the number was hilarious.
It got her a screen test and a contract with MGM.
She appeared in 14 movies in the 1940s usually as a novelty act. Here is her appearance in The Big Store.
O'Brien appeared in such classic MGM musicals as DuBarry was a Lady (with Red Skelton, Gene Kelly and Lucille Ball and a Cole Porter score), Panama Hattie (Skelton and Cole Porter again), The Harvey Girls (with Judy Garland, and a score by Harry Warren), and Till the Clouds Go Rolling By (an all-star cast singing the songs of Jerome Kern***).
In 1947, though, as the studio system died, O'Brien's contract with MGM was not renewed. It was possible that they figured her gimmick was growing tired (though she started singing normally in her later films). She worked in nightclubs and on TV as a welcome guest star.
Her last film was in 1976.
*Her uncle was thirties musical director Lloyd Bacon.
**Years ago, in college, I was in a production of South Pacific. As we were hitting the final notes of "Nothing Like a Dame," the circuit breaker for the entire theater blew, plunging it all into darkness. We were all upset by the problem, but the audience never realized it wasn't planned.
***Not always well. The idea of having Frank Sinatra -- then only 31 -- singing "Old May River" seems like a bad joke. I don't think Sinatra liked it much, either, knowing that not only was he much too young (and too white) to be singing it, but that he had the wrong type of voice for the role.