Tuesday, October 27

RIP Maureen O'Hara

She was blunt, feisty, passionate, proud and fearless, both on the screen and off.  I regarded her as one of Hollywood's most beautiful actresses.  That flaming red hair, emerald green eyes and creamy complexion coaxed the film capital into calling her The Queen of Technicolor.  And indeed she was.  Her associations with director John Ford and actor John Wayne proved she could stand toe-to-toe with the guys, engage in some impressive battles and never lose her femininity.  

An Irish lass through and through, as if you didn't know, Maureen was born outside Dublin in 1920.  She was one of six children from an accomplished family.  Her father was a successful businessman and co-owner of a football (soccer) team while her mother was a professional singer.  (It's too bad O'Hara didn't do more singing in films than she did because she had a gorgeous voice.)  The family loved the outdoors and was competitive in sports and games.  She developed a physical prowess that would later serve her well in films.

She appeared in some school plays and at 14 was accepted as a student with the Abbey Theater.  She had found her true calling.  There was something inside her that was dying to get out.  She was already quite fond of full self-expression and acting was another avenue to pursue.  She appeared in a couple of musical plays and had bit parts in a movie or two.  Credit must go to Charles Laughton for giving the world Maureen O'Hara.  He persuaded Alfred Hitchcock to hire her to star opposite him in Jamaica Inn (1939).  She would play a young woman who discovers she lives near a gang of criminals who arrange shipwrecks for profit. 

It would be Hitchcock's last film before he moved to America.  O'Hara said, oh why not, and she did as well.  When she moved, she did so as a married woman but the union would dissolve a couple of years later. She lived in California for years and never particularly cared for it.  She said she felt like chattel when her British contract was sold to RKO without her approval.  In fact, she was quite upset and let it be known.  It may be that some of those old grudges were not forgotten by others.

She and Laughton were immediately reteamed for The Hunchback of Notre Dame and after the film was released, she said her life completely changed with the onslaught of instant fame.  She was gorgeous in A Bill of Divorcement (1940), a so-so remake of the Katharine Hepburn film made just eight years earlier.  Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) was also so-so but her sparring with another redhead, Lucille Ball, makes it more fun.  (In real life, the two were good friends and in fact were lunching together when Ball first met Desi Arnaz.)

The year 1941 was a big one for the young actress.  She met John Ford and he signed her for the first of their five movie adventures, the heart-tugging How Green Was My Valley, a Welsh mining story with her as the gentle wife of the stern Walter Pidgeon.  The film would win the Oscar as would Ford.  It would be one of two of his wins (he would receive four) as best director in films that starred O'Hara.   20th Century Fox, producers of the film, accepted the young actress on the condition that it owned part of her contract so at this point she was under contract to two studios, a most unusual arrangement. 

The same year she married writer-director wannabe Will Price.  O'Hara claimed it was now the second time she married a man she didn't love.  Their marriage, though it lasted on paper until early the next decade, was fraught with problems from the beginning.  O'Hara would later claim that he was a major drinker who bullied and beat her on numerous occasions.  She had her only child with Price.

In 1942, she made the very popular war film, To the Shores of Tripoli, and starred for the first time with John Payne.  Later that year she was teamed with Tyrone Power for the first time in The Black Swan.  It would be the first of her seafaring films, the swashbucklers one associates with the actress.  We could include those desert epics where she's enveloped in baubles, bangles and beads, too.  In the years to come she would appear in The Spanish Main, Sinbad the Sailor, Bagdad, Tripoli, Against All Flags, Flame of Araby and At Sword's Point. 

Why did she do this costume drama stuff when she was capable of better work and had done some?  I assume one reason is because it is what she was offered.  Her earliest films were in black and white but when the Technicolor process was developed, so was Maureen O'Hara.  She was breath-taking to behold.  Additionally she was athletic and able to wield a sword, take a tumble and slap a smart mouth.  After adding to the mix her westerns of the 1950s, I am confident when I say no actress slapped a costar more than the spirited Ms. O'Hara.  Another reason she accepted these films was because she needed the money.  The treacherous Will Price had spent most of it.

The downside of these films is evident when one considers Fox offered her the schoolteacher role in their 1956 musical, The King and I, and Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame) nixed it because he didn't want the part played by a pirate queen. 

Her first western, but certainly not her last, was Buffalo Bill (1944)
where she was Joel McCrea's understanding wife.  One may tend to associate O'Hara mostly with her fiery roles, but she could just as easily play the devoted wife and mother.  The latter is displayed quite nicely in one of the films O'Hara is best-remembered for, as young Natalie Wood's skeptical mother in Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  John Payne joined her the second time and Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle stole the show.

The stunning colleen was equally adept at comedy, which she could play broadly as seen in her films with Wayne, or in everyday living as she did in 1948s Sitting Pretty.  Clifton Webb played a live-in babysitter to O'Hara and Robert Young's three rambunctious sons.  Fox was sitting pretty with all the coins this film raked in and Webb's character, Mr. Belvedere, would go on to more films.

In 1949 she made a little film noir that I quite liked, A Woman's Secret.  It was not so well-received and admittedly is a bit muddled but it was a murder mystery involving two women with one's singing career at stake.  With O'Hara and Gloria Grahame playing the female leads in a noir, this boy was in heaven.

About to duke it out with Gloria Grahame

With the 1950s came the westerns, most of them from Universal... and of course my introduction to Maureen O'Hara.  All of her skills on the high seas and in Arabian deserts were able to be transported to the plains of the American west.  She was an ideal western heroine (although I suspect none in the real old west were ever this beautiful).  She rode spirited stallions, whacked bad guys across the face with riding crops and ran a ranch or a saloon with equal aplomb.  Opening up the great outdoors in Technicolor with Maureen O'Hara was good business.  How could anyone forget Comanche Territory, War Arrow or The Redhead from Wyoming

More memorable perhaps was 1950s Rio Grande, the third in John Ford's so-called cavalry trilogy and O'Hara's second film with the director and her first with Wayne.  The two actors were already friends having met at Ford's home over the years.  He was looking for something to do with both of them, although he was hoping it would be something to do with Ireland, since they all were Irish.  That would have to wait.  I never regarded Rio Grande as anything special except to say it began a five-film partnership with Wayne.  In all films they were married and would be at least briefly separated.

With her favorite costar in their favorite film

O'Hara, Wayne and Ford all regarded The Quiet Man (1952) as their favorite film and it's not difficult to see why.  Is there any film that feels more Irish than this one?  It wasn't hard for O'Hara to bring vividly to life a tempestuous, strong-willed, stubborn lass like Mary Kate Danaher.  She must have known her like the back of her hand.  It is the story of an American boxer who returns to his Irish roots and falls in love with a young woman who refuses to consummate their marriage until he fights for her dowry.  Screen teams didn't get much finer than Wayne and O'Hara, a perfect match in temperament, savvy and grit.  This would be their best film together. The war drama, The Wings of Eagles (1957) and the westerns, McLintock (63) and especially Big Jake (1971) couldn't hold a candle to The Quiet Man

The Long, Gray Line (1955), another Ford production. paired O'Hara for the second time with Tyrone Power in the story of Martin Maher, an Irish immigrant who spent 50 years at West Point as a beloved non-commissioned officer.  As a lover of film biographies, this is one of the best.  Power gives a finely nuanced performance with O'Hara most touching as his wife.  Even though this was her penultimate film with Ford, it was the one in which their relationship became fragmented.  She caught him doing something both wished she hadn't seen.

Confidential Magazine said they caught the actress doing something she shouldn't have been doing.  The ragmag of its day said that O'Hara was doing it in the back of a movie theater.  Her Irish went up and she sued them, able to produce a passport showing she was out of the country on the day in question.  She is credited as being one of those who brought down the publication.

The Queen of Technicolor

By the 1960s her work was slowing down some.  She made three films with Brian Keith, all of which I liked.  The first and last were westerns... 1961s Deadly Companions with Steve Cochran and The Rare Breed (1966) with James Stewart.  In between was the best of the trio, 1961s The Parent Trap.  Whoever thought Disney would bring out such an alluring side to O'Hara.  Nonetheless, there she was, so sexy and gorgeous after she cuts her hair and slips into things more comfortable in an attempt to win back her ex-husband Keith.

Two years later she starred opposite Henry Fonda in Spencer's Mountain.  It was a heartfelt look at a poor rural family with nine children and the hopes to send their oldest to college.  It was written by Earl Hamner Jr. who would go on to write TV's popular The Waltons.

In 1968 she married a man she did love.  Charles Blair was a former Air Force pilot who ran a small Caribbean airline.  She moved to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, remaining out of the limelight for 10 years or so until Blair died in a plane crash.  For several years after his death she published a magazine, The Virgin Islander, and also wrote a column.

Shortly after her husband died, so did John Wayne.  She now lost two men she dearly loved.  It was a hard time for O'Hara, for sure, but she was heartened by something she heard that Wayne said... I've had many friends and I prefer the company of men except for Maureen O'Hara.  She is a great guy.

Ultimately she decided to return to her beloved Ireland and live near her family.  That would last for a few decades.

In the early 1990s, some 20 years since making a Hollywood movie, she returned for a significant role as John Candy's overbearing mother in Only the Lonely.  It was a great part and I was so happy to see her again.  She looked older but she was still a beauty.

From 1995 to 2000, she made three fine TV movies... The Christmas Box, Cab to Canada and The Last Dance.  It proved to be the last time she would work as an actress.

In 2004 she wrote an informative autobiography, 'Tis Herself.  Last year the Oscar folks awarded her an honorary Oscar for career achievement.  I should think they would.

My cellphone sent me an alert a couple of days ago and told me that lovely, warm, spirited Maureen O'Hara had died peacefully in her sleep.  She was 95.  I immediately recalled that I had just mentioned her in my posting on Linda Darnell and I've done so throughout my work here.  As an actress, she gave her best.  She always brought her characters vividly to life.  I liked her strength, her sassiness, her fearlessness.  I was happy to learn she was really like that.  I admired that she had such passion for her homeland.  It all started for me way back when, sitting in the dark watching Comanche Territory, War Arrow and The Redhead from Wyoming and it never changed.

I was surprised to learn that she had passed away in Boise, Idaho, her home of a few years.  She had again moved to be near family.  They have said... for those who may ask what they can do to honor Maureen, we have a simple request.  Visit Ireland one day and think of her.

She could steal your heart away.

Next posting:
Movie review


  1. ah....one of my favorite actresses and such a nice posting. The Quiet Man was my favorite John Wayne movie, probably because of her. Thanks for a loving tribute....

  2. I did not know she was one of your favorites but upon reflection, I am not surprised.

  3. It is so nice to see your tribute to Maureen O'Hara...I haven't seen that many of her movies, but all the ones I have, I so enjoyed. I didn't know she made SO many. I loved The Quiet Man and, of course, The Parent Trap...one of my favorites, especially since I adored Hayley Mills. Maureen and Brian Keith were so well casted as the parents. She was so beautiful and talented. I would love to go to Ireland to honor her memory...you want to go with!?!

  4. O'Hara never told the secret whisper. Benjamin Franklin once said, "Three can keep a secret, if two are dead."

  5. What a great beauty! I think I saw all her movies: not in chronological order, but I think I did. Not a great surprise my favorite one is The Quiet man, but I did like How Green Was My Valley, and yes, Miracle on 34th st. I confess I love these american movies with Christmas as a background (I saw three times While You Were Slweeping).
    OK I just wanted You to know thaat I am always your most affectionate reader.

  6. Indeed you are my most affectionate reader, Carlo. Most everything I write I find myself wondering what you'll think of it.