Page 1: Biography
O'Brien, Margaret Kathleen
Dance teacher, hostess, radio presenter, film director
This biography, written by Deborah Shepard, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000. It was updated in January, 2002.
Margaret Kathleen O’Brien was born in Wellington on 7 April 1906, the youngest of six children of Margaret O’Brien, a domestic servant, and her husband, Thomas O’Brien, a bootmaker. Her parents, both from County Clare, Ireland, had emigrated to New Zealand separately in the 1880s and married in 1893. Kathleen’s early life revolved around ballet, which in the early 1930s she taught at her own dance school in Cuba Street. She also produced several shows for Wellington theatres. Around 1935 she travelled to Britain to marry, but when the engagement fell through she found work as a social hostess in two luxury hotels.
In late 1940, after enduring several months of German bombing, O’Brien left London and returned home to care for her ailing parents, who both died in 1941. In Wellington she found work as a radio presenter, writing and conducting a progressive programme for women on station 2ZB entitled ‘The Bachelor Girl’s Session’. She joined the New Zealand National Film Unit in 1946 as a sound librarian. It is doubtful that she would have progressed beyond this position without the influence of the British-trained New Zealand film director Margaret Thomson, who worked at the unit between 1947 and 1949; Thomson’s presence may have helped persuade the unit’s producer, Stanhope Andrews, to train O’Brien as a director.
Her first film was an exhibition loop in 1947, which explored behind the scenes at the film unit. It was followed in 1950 by Food handling and City district health nurse , both made for the Department of Health. She also directed seven road safety films for children, including Monkey tale (1952), which was an international success. Its appeal hinged on the casting of a troupe of performing chimpanzees to demonstrate safe cycling on the road. Her other films included Graduate harvest (1954), about student life at Massey Agricultural College; A letter to the teacher (1957), about the Correspondence School; Our stars of ballet (1960), on dancers Rowena Jackson and Alexander Grant; and two tourist films, Taupo Moana (1963) and Profile of Hawke’s Bay (1965).
For most of the 1950s Kathleen O’Brien was the only woman directing films in New Zealand. A Weekly News reporter described, with a mixture of admiration and amazement, how she worked with ‘cables, cameras, lighting and all the rest of the paraphernalia housed in the studios of the National Film Unit’. A slim woman with reddish hair, she was said to be ‘serious and thoughtful’ in her work. O’Brien’s unique position created problems in her workplace. The film unit was a male bastion, with separate tea-rooms for men and women. Starved of equal social contact with male colleagues, and lacking any female peers, it is a tribute to her tenacity that she achieved such an impressive list of films.
O’Brien’s finest work, The story of seven-hundred Polish children (1966), documented the plight of the Polish orphans who arrived in New Zealand following appalling experiences in the Second World War. Mixing archival footage from the 1940s, showing the children being greeted by Prime Minister Peter Fraser, with interviews recorded 20 years later, she focused on the success these deeply traumatised people had made of their lives. This was her last film. Over almost 20 years she had directed 16 films, all displaying originality, creativity and meticulous attention to detail. Their quality led to many being selected for international festivals in Edinburgh, Venice, Berlin, Vancouver and Tokyo.
Kathleen O’Brien retired from the film unit in 1970 and died in Wellington on 13 February 1978; she had never married. Although she did not receive the recognition she deserved during her lifetime, O’Brien holds an important place in New Zealand’s film history.