The FIR Vault

MAUREEN O’HARA: PART 1

By • Jun 30th, 2013 • Pages: 1 2

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1939

Countless bottles of fan magazine printer’s ink were spent in the 1940s and ’50s describing Maureen O’Hara’s hair. The famous tresses were declared to be flaming red, mahogany, Titian – she has heard them all, but she prefers red, just red. When Technicolor was the movie marvel of the 1940s, O’Hara became synonymous with its florid coloring and earned the nickname “The Queen of Technicolor.” Certainly she was made for the process with her smooth, flawless pink skin, her thick, wavy red hair, her hazel eyes, and long lashes. She also defined the description statquesque, and, frankly, Junoesque with her five feet eight-inch height, broad shoulders, full bosom and upturned, high cheek-boned face. No other screen heroine had a bosom that could heave with such emotion when she was incensed prompting a line like “You’re beautiful when you’re angry” when she was defending herself against a bandit or pirate in one of her Technicolor fantasies. She defended herself with such ferocity in period adventure sagas that the honorary title “The Pirate Queen” was conferred upon her. Sadly, the talents of this Abbey Theater dramatic actress were obscured by this label, and the fact that she is the actress most associated with the films of John Ford and John Wayne has been overlooked. She made many classics and near classics in her thirty-five-year career which encompassed over 55 movies.

The audience that gathered for the Sponsors’ Night of the Film Society of Lincoln Center on November 27, 1989 gave the fabulous redhead a standing ovation in Bruno Walter Auditorium, where a newly restored print of THE QUIET MAN, courtesy of UCLA Film and Television Archive, was shown. With eyes as sparkling as the black sequins on her jacket, she told inside stories of the making of the classic film. It was fitting that this Irish fable was shown because it represents the summit of her career. It was the best of the four movies she made with John Wayne, and is the best of her movies directed by John Ford. It was really a family affair: two of her brothers are in it, as were Wayne’s children, who regarded O’Hara as an aunt, and John Ford’s brother, the great Francis Ford of Thomas Ince westerns. The most compelling performance was that of O’Hara’s, full vindication after a decade of fluff. O’Hara herself is very much like the character she portrays in the 1952 film: assertive, independent, ready to defend herself and needing to respect the man in her life. Though she had two unsuccessful marriages, her third husband, Brigadier General Charles F. Blair, was a true-life hero and a heralded pioneer aviator.

With C. Aubrey Smith and Adolphe Menjou in A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT, 1944.

She was the ideal screen partner for Wayne, who called her “a great guy.” Commenting on the tenderness and sensuality of their love scene in the rain, where she clings to Wayne’s soaked-through and transparent white shirt, she wryly said, “I made John Wayne sexy. I take credit for that.”

The public saw the glamorous O’Hara that night, but the real O’Hara is feisty and practical in her manner and dress. Her Sutton Place apartment, one of four residences, is a curious mixture of macho and grace. Books by her late husband, who was killed in a plane crash in 1978, are along one wall, sharing space with paintings of planes. An airplane propeller is propped against another wall. Overlooking all of these objects, over the couch, is a massive oil painting of the star in a 1950’s Don Loper “Merry Widow” gown. Many of her treasures were destroyed when Hurricane Hugo devastated her St. Croix home.

She proudly displays the honorary doctorate which she received from University College in Galway in 1988, and the letter from her old Hollywood cohort, President Ronald Reagan, which reads in part: “Your spirit, charm and beauty have given everyone a glimpse into some of the Irish people’s most special qualities, and that’s a true blessing for most of us.” She still lives much of the year in her castle in Ireland, though she became an American citizen in 1946, and is proud of her Gaelic heritage. She refused to allow the American authorities to list her nationality as British on the citizenship application and took her case to court. “It was the first time in the United States that Irish citizenship was recognized,” she says.

With Edward Brophy and Lucille Ball in DANCE, GIRL, DANCE, 1940.

Maureen FitzSimons, as she was born on August 17, 1920, in a suburb of Dublin called Milltown, came from an upper middle-class Catholic family. Her father, Charles Stewart Parnell FitzSimons, was a sportsman-businessman who was one of the founders of the soccer club, The Shamrock Rovers. Her mother, Marguerita Lilburn FitzSimons, had been an actress and operatic soprano before her marriage. She became a Dublin boutique owner and a prominent fashion designer in Ireland.

Though they were sympathetic to a career in the arts (FitzSimons was a good singer himself), her parents insisted that Maureen and her siblings develop business skills as well. Maureen earned her degree at the Guild School of Music in London and became part of the Abbey Theater in Dublin when she was fourteen, winning the All-Ireland Cup at sixteen for her performance as Portia. But she went to business school also. Her brother James is an actor and businessman; her brother Charles is a barrister and television and film producer; her sister Florence was an actress under the name of Clare Hamilton; her sister Margot was a film actress but now breeds jumpers and hunters in Virginia with her husband, Harry Edwards; her sister Bridget Margaret is an Irish Sister of Charity who teaches in America.

Her mentor at the Abbey Theater was the famed playwright Lennox Robinson, who was a leading artistic force behind the Irish literary renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. Her career at the Abbey might have continued if the American entertainer Harry Richman, then appearing at the Gresham Hotel in Dublin, hadn’t arranged for a screen test for Maureen for a British film he was about to make in 1938 called KICKING THE MOON AROUND. Maureen and her mother were reluctant to go to London for the test, but were persuaded to go by the esteemed Abbey Theater actress May Carey. When Maureen and her mother arrived at Elstree Studios, Maureen was told to dress in a gold lamé dress with bat wing sleeves. Heavy makeup was applied to her face. “I looked like Mata Hari,” she says and hated the experience. She was directed to pick up a phone repeatedly and talk into it. When she was finished, she grabbed her mother and they made haste a to Dublin before her part at the Abbey was given away.

Her agent, however, had arranged an appointment with Charles Laughton, who was looking for an unknown to play opposite him in his film JAMAICA INN, a May flower Production, Laughton’s company with former UFA producer Erich Pommer Laughton asked her to read for him, but she told him that she needed to study the script. He asked her if she had any film footage of herself, and she referred him to the Elstree test.

With Tyrone Power in THE BLACK SWAN, 1942.

Laughton saw it and thought it was awful. However, on the trip back to London, he remembered the magnificent hazel eyes of Maureen, and decided to contact Pommer about signing her. Pommer went out to the studio, also thought the test was terrible, but was struck by her eyes. They decided to sign her to a contract. Laughton felt that her name would be forever misspelled, so he gave Maureen a choice between O’Mara and O’Hara. She didn’t like either name, so Laughton picked O’Hara. O’Hara was a hot name in the year of Scarlett fever.

The actress prefers to regard JAMAICA INN as her first movie, but two minor entries preceded it. The producers of KICKING THE MOON AROUND, when they realized that Maureen was now a Laughton discovery included the screen test in the finished film, which was released in 1938 (U.S. release: THE PLAYBOY, 1939). Pommer loaned her out to another studio to support the child star Binkie Stuart in MY IRISH MOLLY (U.S. release: LITTLE MISS MOLLY, 1940).

JAMAICA INN was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1938 before he departed for America to make the film version of another Daphne du Maurier story, REBECCA. It was not a success in America when it was released in 1939, but no matter, because Laughton and Pommer sailed for the United States and a contract at RKO, taking O’Hara with them. Laughton made THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939) there and was a memorable Quasimodo with O’Hara as his Esmeralda.

O’Hara married her dialogue director on JAMAICA INN, George Hanley Brown, just before they sailed for America, but had the marriage annulled in Hollywood soon afterwards. Her second marriage, in 1941 to director Will Price, was as stormy as her movie roles, and they were separated many years before they divorced in 1952. Their daughter, Bronwyn, was born in 1943. Bronwyn, who uses the name FitzSimons, was named after the character played by Anna Lee in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY.

One of O’Hara’s first RKO films was supposed to be SUSPICION with Laurence Olivier, directed by Hitchcock. By the time Hitchcock started shooting, O’Hara was involved in another film and Olivier was back in England. David O. Selznick, Hitchcock’s boss, suggested Joan Fontaine, who had become a star in REBECCA, take over the role. Fontaine won an Oscar for her performance.

O’Hara’s other RKO films didn’t create any excitement. Pommer produced DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (1940) with O’Hara and Lucille Ball as burlesque queens. O’Hara was fiery as the ballet pupil turned exotic dancer, and the film now has a cult status among feminist film historians, mainly because it was directed by Dorothy Arzner, the only woman directing major Hollywood films at the time. O’Hara has little feeling for the film. Her next, A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT, with O’Hara playing the Katharine Hepburn role, also created little interest, as did a loan-out, THEY MET IN ARGENTINA (1941).

With John Garfield and Walter Slezak in THE FALLEN SPARROW, 1943.

John Ford, whose family she knew, was preparing HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, from the Richard Llewellyn best seller about Welsh coal miners. He insisted on her playing the Welsh coal miner’s daughter, although 20th Century-Fox wanted to use one of their contract players. She was signed, the film was a triumph for all concerned, and won the Best Picture Academy Award. Fox bought part of her contract from RKO (who had bought her from Laughton) and cast her in many a spectacle in which she was a showcase for Technicolor.

HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY was not only the most distinguished film she was to make for many a year, but it was the start of her lifelong friendship with Ford and his stock company of actors, especially Donald Crisp. She still misses the evening she spent with Crisp when he related marvelous stories of working with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and D. W. Griffith. Roddy McDowell, who played her brother, is still one of her closest friends.

Ford was to be the major force in her career, but unfortunately it was to be nearly a decade before they collaborated again O’Hara became the Ford heroine par excellence: noble but feisty, outspoken and always Irish. They often clashed but the respected each other.

“I enjoyed tough directors,” she says who didn’t waste time with politeness and that sort of nonsense, and we got right down to work. Ford was a tough task-master. He did not direct you in detail. He did not say, ‘Now turn your arm, now turn your head.’ He put you in a corner of the room and forced you to act your way out of it. He didn’t like to do more than one or two takes. Practically every time you’d do scene you’d hear ‘Cut! Thank you. Next set-up.’ It never dawned on you that you should do more than one or two.

“Ford was brilliant in his sense of what was right and what was wrong, a fine portrait painter with lights. He framed a scene I never could leave the set because watching how he would move his camera and what he would take into the picture – it might just be a shaft of light – made you realize that he was creating mood by how he placed his camera, how he moved his performers, and how he asked his cameraman to light the set. In HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY I came down the steps in my wedding dress and Walter Pidgeon was way up in the background – a tall, dark figure – and my wedding veil blows up straight up in a spiral in the sky from the back of my neck. A noted Hollywood director said to me how lucky Ford was to have the wind blow my veil like that. I told him it was not luck. Ford used three wind machines to get that effect. He wouldn’t allow actors to stop in the middle of a scene if they made a mistake. We all knew that no matter what happened, we had to use the accident and continue going in the sense of the scene until he said cut. Very often in the finished movie you saw all of those impromptu scenes and they were marvelous . . . The one thing about him – he let you be you, and made you feel proud of yourself.

With Joel McCrea and Thomas Mitchell in BUFFALO BILL, 1944.

“He used psychology to put some particular performer in a mood. He would occasionally attack a particular performer and that was called by us ‘being in the barrel.’ Every day we would say ‘Who’s in the barrel today?’ If it was you, it meant you were going to have a terrible, miserable day because he would never let up nagging you, and insulting and hurting you. But it didn’t mean that he was necessarily mad at you. It meant that out of the corner of his eye he was watching somebody else until he got him in the mental condition he wanted him in and then he would shoot the scene.”

“Only one time on HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY was I put in my place. We were doing a scene in which we had to use baskets. And the prop man brought in baskets which were very modern Kraft Cheese baskets. I said, Oh, Mr. Ford (I always called him Mr. Ford on the set but I called him Pappy off the set) these are totally out of character. They belong to another era. They’re too modern.’ And he said, ‘Well you don’t have to worry about that. You’re not in the scene anymore, so you go and sit on the hill.’ Which meant, ‘Why don’t you mind your own business, I’m the director, not you.’ So I swallowed my pride and went up and sat on the hill. Oh, about fifteen minutes later there was a beckoning arm and he called, ‘Come down here.’ So I went down and he said, ‘I’ve changed my mind.’ It taught me a lesson and I never again brought up that kind of thing. He was an old devil, but a fabulous and wonderful man to work with, and we all loved him dearly.”

During the war years Fox was the studio of Carmen Miranda, Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, and Alice Faye. Once Fox saw how ravishing O’Hara was in Technicolor in THE BLACK SWAN (1942) with Tyrone Power, who also was pretty terrific in color, the die was cast. She was pigeonholed in adventure films. “Color was used to enhance the adventure and excitement of the film. Dramatic films were shot in black and white. I made my first color film and that was it,” she says ruefully.

With Dana Andrews in FORBIDDEN STREET, 1949.

Power was similarly pigeonholed. “Ty was a fine actor, a fine swashbuckler, a handsome man, he was a gentleman . . . a wonderful person to know, to have as a friend, to work with. Technicolor and his magnificent good looks very often prevented him from having the roles he should have had, and was absolutely capable of doing. I felt the same way about myself. I was very well trained. I wasn’t discovered in an ice cream shop. I grew up in the theater surrounded by people from the theater, and also fine musicians and opera singers. My career was meant to be in theater. Charles Laughton always felt that I should have stayed in the dramatic and character field.”

John Payne, George Montgomery, Henry Fonda and Joel McCrea were O’Hara’s costars in such macho fare as TO THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI (1942), TEN GENTLEMEN FROM WEST POINT (1942), THE IMMORTAL SERGEANT (1943) and BUFFALO BILL (1944). Her main raison d’etre was her “ability to make the leading man glow. I think I have the ability to enhance the man in the audience’s eyes. That was part of my job.” All a director like H. Bruce Humberstone had to do was focus on O’Hara’s liquid hazel eyes expressing heartfelt sympathy for the hero who “had to do a job that had to be done” and his job was done. Years later, when the producers of the television special High Button Shoes (1958) voiced concerns about the height difference between O’Hara and the somewhat shorter Garry Moore, she said, “I’ll make him look like a giant.” O’Hara smiles, “And he did.”

Her RKO films during this period were weightier but, except for THIS LAND IS MINE (1943), directed by Jean Renoir and costarring Laughton, they were not standout vehicles for O’Hara. In THIS LAND IS MINE she was memorable as the French schoolteacher in the Resistance who gives courage to Laughton. THE FALLEN SPARROW (1943) starring John Garfield as an ex-Lincoln Brigade fighter was good for him, decorative time for O’Hara. THE SPANISH MAIN (1945) with Paul Henreid was romantic but pure Technicolor fantasy. SINBAD THE SAILOR (1947) with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Anthony Quinn is sheer artifice but fun.

With James Gleason and Cornel Wilde in THE HOMESTRETCH, 1947.

After the war, Fox featured her in three popular films, of which two were directed by Walter Lang, a favorite director of O’Hara’s. SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY (1946) was so sentimental that most directors turned it down. O’Hara starred as a dying wife who adopts a little girl to keep her boyish husband happy after her death. O’Hara recalls Lang sobbing while he was directing it. “That film was a tremendous box-office hit throughout the world. Very often when I go into different places in the world, people will say, ‘Oh, you made my favorite movie.’ And I’m so sure that they are going to say one of the top classics I’ve been in, but no, they say SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY.”

Lang’s SITTING PRETTY (1948), although it starred O’Hara and Robert Young, is remembered for Clifton Webb playing the world’s oddest babysitter, but its constant revivals make it one of O’Hara’s most frequently shown films. The television sitcom Mr. Belvedere derives from the movie.

Check back for Part 2 on November 5…

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