The FIR Vault


By • Jul 10th, 2013 • Pages: 1 2

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MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), directed by George Seaton, has become not only a Yuletide classic but a major cultural event in American life. This film, oddly, is more current today because it features a single mother who is a retail executive, played by Maureen O’Hara. She raises her daughter, played by Natalie Wood, to reject fantasy and concentrate on the practical in life. Kris Kringle, played by Edmund Gwenn, convinces both that fantasy has its place.

O’Hara fondly remembers the eight-year old Wood “as a wonderful young child to work with, a spontaneous, fine actress. She always called me Mama Maureen and she used to make me little ceramic things and give them to me as presents. She was warm, talented, sweet and was an extraordinary, wonderful mother.”

Her other post-war films for Fox and RKO pass from memory, mercifully, O’Hara feels: FOXES OF HARROW (1947) with Rex Harrison; FATHER WAS A FULLBACK (1949) with Fred MacMurray; A WOMAN’S SECRET (1949) with Melvyn Douglas and Gloria Grahame, AT SWORD’S POINT (1949, released 1952), KANGAROO (1952) with Peter Lawford, and TRIPOLI (1950) with John Payne.

With Cornel Wilde in SONS OF THE MUSKETEERS, 1952.

With Victor McLaglen, John Wayne and Barry Fitzgerald in THE QUIET MAN, 1952.

She signed with Universal-International for a series of Technicolor spectacles of the sands and sandle or saddle variety: BAGDAD (1949) with Vincent Price; COMANCHE TERRITORY (1950) with MacDonald Carey; FLAME OF ARABY (1951) and WAR ARROW (1953) with Jeff Chandler; AGAINST ALL FLAGS (1952) with Errol Flynn; THE REDHEAD FROM WYOMING (1952) with Alex Nicol; and LADY GODIVA (1955) with George Nader. FIRE OVER AFRICA (1954), which she feels is underrated, was made for Columbia and starred O’Hara as a female James Bond.

Though these adventures diminished her stature with critics, she enjoyed making them, and proudly says that they made big money. “When I was a little girl, my favorite movies were Westerns and gangster movies, sob stories and Laurel and Hardy.” She points out that Ronald Colman told her that if she made one good movie for every fifteen she made, that was a good record.

In 1952, THE QUIET MAN was finally released after a curious history. “In 1944, I was making a picture at RKO called THE SPANISH MAIN and John Ford came to the studio to see me. Now, John Ford always wore old clothes. His wife would buy him new pants and he’d promptly burn holes in them with his cigars. He came to the studio and the young policeman on the gate didn’t know that this gentleman with the holes in his pants was the great director, so he wouldn’t let him in. John Ford was absolutely furious and he called the studio. The number two man at RKO, Joe Nolan, came down to the set and said, “Maureen, something terrible has happened. John Ford was coming to the studio to see you. The policeman didn’t recognize him, wouldn’t let him in, and he is furious. Would you please call him up, calm him down, and tell him if he’ll come back tomorrow, we’ll put the red carpet out. I told John Ford that the red carpet would be put out, and that intrigued him. He did come back, they did put out the red carpet, and he drove right down the red carpet. His mission was to have a hand shake agreement to make THE QUIET MAN. He had a similar agreement with John Wayne, Barry Fitzgerald and Victor McLaglen. Every summer I would go on his boat at Catalina Island and take dictation from him and then type it. As the years went by, I’d say, “When are we going to make the picture?” Merian C. Cooper (Ford’s partner in Argosy Pictures) went to every studio with the story, cast, director and producer as a package. No studio would finance the film. Every studio turned it down, saying it was a silly, stupid little Irish story and would never make a penny. Eventually, in desperation, in 1950, Duke said, ‘Please let me take it to Herb Yates at Republic Studios.’ Republic was a little studio that made small Western movies, financially successful but not first class motion pictures. He took the script to Herb Yates who said this is a silly, stupid little Irish story. But if the same cast, director and producer come to my studio and make a Western first, to make up for the money I’m going to lose on The Quiet Man, I’ll finance The Quiet Man. We all made Rio Grande to raise the money. It was a great coup for Herbert Yates.”

O’Hara and Ford had their own donnybrook, however. “I was sitting on the cart on the beach and he put the wind machine behind me. Most directors would have put the machine in front and have your hair blown back. He put the machine behind me and blew my hair forward. It was lashing across my eyes like a steel whip. It hurt. I was squinting and he was yelling at me, Can’t you keep your eyes open?’ And he had been at me all day long. Having a short temper, I couldn’t stop myself, and I put my two hands on my hips and said, ‘What would a bald-headed old s.o.b. like you know about hair lashing across your eyes?’ The minute I said it, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve done something I should never have done after all these years of working with him. I let my tongue slip.’ There was dead silence. Absolute dead silence, because everyone expected that he would throw me out of the picture and re-shoot the whole thing. I watched him. In that split second he took in every face on the set and made his decision about his reaction. And he decided to laugh, which released everybody on the set from the tension. Everybody roared with laughter for about five minutes, and I sat there and thought, ‘Thank God, I’m saved.’”

THE QUIET MAN (1952), the film no studio wanted, was a runaway hit, and an Oscarwinner for direction and for cinematography (by Winton C. Hoch and Archie Stout). Ford’s stock company was in rare form, including Victor McLaglen as O’Hara’s obstinate brother, Barry Fitzgerald, Arthur Shields, Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick, Francis Ford and Jack McGowran. James FitzSimons was also in the cast, making it a family affair for O’Hara. She was sure that the Oscar nomination was hers at last, but it was not to be. “I was disappointed that both Duke [Wayne] and I didn’t get a nomination.” The hilarious fight across the countryside by them both is certainly one of the great film scenes of all times.

O’Hara missed her chance to work with Ford on MOGAMBO (1953) because MGM insisted on casting Ava Gardner, their house star. Two years later, THE LONG GRAY LINE at Columbia would have reunited the trio of Ford-Wayne-O’Hara, but Wayne was unavailable. Tyrone Power was cast instead as the legendary West Point physical training instructor Marty Maher. O’Hara wanted him for the part, and they were ideal as Maher and his wife Mary O’Donnell, mother to several generations of West Point cadets.

O’Hara is particularly proud of her death scene, which she feels was worthy of an Oscar nomination. “The night before I worried long about how to play it. Before I went to sleep, I decided the best way to play the scene was to just die and simply let the audience put into the scene any sentiment or feeling they wanted to. I went into the studio to work, and again Ford had been nagging me for days. I had been in ‘the barrel’ for days, and I had reached a point where I thought, ‘I’ve had it. I’m not going to put up with this anymore. I’m going to quit. I’ll play the death scene and then I’m going to tell him that’s it. He can get somebody else to do the picture.’ Duke came on the set and John Ford wouldn’t even let me go over to shake hands or give Duke a kiss. Nothing. And so my rage was getting worse and worse. So we did the death scene and it’s a scene to be proud of, a beautiful scene, and we finished. Ty was beside me when I died, and Ty was sobbing. He really broke down and cried. And John Ford stood up, and he raised his hands, demanding silence. He said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, everybody come down, come down.’ He made all the workmen come down, and I thought, ‘What is the old devil up to now?’ And he said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, if you want better acting than that, you’ll never find it.’ And I thought, ‘Aw, isn’t he a darlin’ man,’ and I was hooked again. He knew I wouldn’t quit. He was probably laughing up his sleeve, thinking I was ready to kill, but knowing just how to win my heart.”

Maher himself paid tribute to O’Hara on the set, and kissed his “wife.”

Which is more than can be said about her next biographical drama with Ford. THE WINGS OF EAGLES (1957), at MGM, was the story of disabled aviator and screenwriter Frank “Spig” Wead. Wayne played Wead and O’Hara his wife. O’Hara journeyed with Ford to Wead’s home several times. Wead, O’Hara recalls, was bound up in a painful harness and was mean. “Two minutes after you were in the door, he knew just where to place the knife, and twist it.” He didn’t dare vent his anger with Ford.

With Dick Haymes and Harry James in DO YOU LOVE ME?, 1946.

With John Payne and Edmond Gwenn in THE MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, 1947.

The film was a bitter disappointment for her because the film was censored by Wead’s family. Wead’s wife became an alcoholic, “and the film was shot that way,” says O’Hara. “I was very proud of my performance, and yet another time I thought, ‘They can’t pass me up this time for a nomination.’ Wead’s daughters saw the film, and said, ‘You can’t show our mother that way.’ “The studio had to cut out the center section of the film showing the mother as an alcoholic, destroying the continuity and sense of the character.

This was her last film with Ford, ending their professional but not their personal friendship. She treasures a letter from him: “Don’t let anything ever bother you. You’re the best bloody actress in Hollywood.”

Her other close friendship was with Wayne, whom she always called Duke. “I don’t mean to break anyone’s heart, but Duke was never in love with me, and I was never in love with Duke. He loved me and I loved him but we were never in love. We were each other’s best friend. We loved working together because physically we matched each other in looks, strength, temperament. That made the team a particularly fine romantic team and a great fighting team.”

Wayne and O’Hara performed their own stunts. She credits the techniques taught her by the stunt men, whom she regards as friends, with keeping her whole. MCCLINTOCK!, which was an ersatz QUIET MAN in the American West was filmed in 1963. “We had a wonderful time making the film [in Arizona], and Duke and I did all of our own stunts, except for the jump through the plate glass window. The studio for insurance purposes never permits a leading performer to take that kind of a chance. We did the jump from a two story window, and I said, My God, if he jumps on top of me, what will I do?’ I did the one going up the ladder on the side of the building, and falling backward into the trough of water.” She expected Wayne to compliment her on this complicated stunt which required her to contract her body inward, but he only said, “You didn’t get your hair wet.”

Ironically, after so many stunts, she suffered a serious injury making HOW DO I LOVE THEE? (1970) with Jackie Gleason. She was sitting in a porch swing with a chicken wire and slat bottom. Gleason, who was inebriated, lowered his great bulk in the seat beside her, slipped, and accidently drove her hand through the chicken wire. Her hand was crushed and broken.

O’Hara’s stunt training came in handy in New York recently. Some youths attempted to mug her as she came out of a bank. She used her umbrella and her contracted muscles to break their hold, and was able to escape.

O’Hara was known in Hollywood as one not to insult. The Fighting Irish side of her was shown to the public when she took on the feared scandal sheet Confidential Magazine in 1957. She sued when the magazine printed that she was seen in a compromising position in a Los Angeles movie theater. She won because she had been making FIRE OVER AFRICA in Spain at the time. Though many were tarnished by this magazine, O’Hara was one of the few who, by suing, put Confidential out of business.

In the late fifties, O’Hara concentrated on television, making teleplay versions of MRS. MINIVER, of which she is particularly proud, HIGH BUTTON SHOES, and THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. Her singing appearances on the Perry Como Show, The Bell Telephone Hour, and other programs were highly praised, leading to a Broadway musical in 1960, Christine.

In the 1960s, when many of her contemporaries were eclipsed by newer stars, O’Hara made some of the biggest box-office films of the decade. THE PARENT TRAP (1961) with Brian Keith and Hayley Mills was the third most profitable film of that year, and remains one of her favorite films. MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION (1962) with James Stewart earned her the Comedy Performance of the Year Award from exhibitors. THE RARE BREED (1966) with Stewart and Keith was also successful.

With Errol Flynn in AGAINST ALL FLAGS, 1952.

With Claude Rains, Yvonne Furneaux and Ray Milland in LISBON, 1956.

Her biggest disappointment was the botched filming of OUR MAN IN HAVANA (1960) with Alec Guinness, Noel Coward, Burl Ives, Ralph Richardson and Ernie Kovacs. This prestigious filming by Carol Reed of the Grahame Greene political satire cast O’Hara as a diplomatic attaché. Because of a length approaching three hours, the film was severely cut, making hash out of the roles of O’Hara and Coward. “The film doesn’t make any sense,” she says.

SPENCER’S MOUNTAIN (1963) reunited her with Henry Fonda, this time as poor Depression-era mountain parents of several children. The film, directed by Delmar Daves, was enormously profitable, and was later the basis of the television series, The Waltons. Daves, who was O’Hara’s favorite director after Ford, directed her in the failed movie THE BATTLE OF THE VILLA FIORITA (1965) with Rossano Brazzi. An oddity about this film, she says, was that, “all the love scenes with Rossano Brazzi were cut.”

Fonda made his last film with her, the television drama THE RED PONY (1973), from the John Steinbeck story of a boy obsessed with his pony. The show was nominated for several Emmys. Fonda, with whom she would loved to have made ON GOLDEN POND, “was a fine actor to work with. The easiest people to work with are those who give and take. They give so much of themselves in a scene that you’d have to be a broomstick not to react. Acting is complimenting each other, helping each other, feeding each other, stealing from each other, but always to each other. That was one thing about Fonda. If you had a sad scene to do, all you had to do was look in his eyes, and he’d water up and off you’d go. He was magnificent to work with, really wonderful, a true professional performer of the highest quality.”

Of one colleague in the movie business, Sam Peckinpah, she has no kind words. She and her brother Charles produced THE DEADLY COMPANIONS (1961) and hired Peckinpah for his first feature film. She was disgusted with his insensitivity to animals and actors, and quarreled with him when he was rude to her. Because her brother felt that Peckinpah was unfamiliar with film technique, such as cutaways, O’Hara was told to hold her pose at the conclusion of a particular scene. Peckinpah sarcastically asked her what she was doing, and their relationship worsened after that.

O’Hara’s concentration on her career shifted after her 1968 marriage to Charles F. Blair. (The retired Air Force Brigadier General was awarded the Harmon Trophy by President Harry S. Truman in 1951 for making the first solo crossing of the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole and for making the first non-stop airline flight across the Atlantic with passengers and mail.) Blair and O’Hara had known each other since 1947 when Blair flew the plane which took O’Hara to Ireland. He was a senior pilot with Pan Am Airlines.

“Duke and he were very much alike in many ways-in size and height and in their beautiful noses. I like beautiful noses. I’ve got one myself.” Both Wayne and Blair persuaded her to retire. He owned the Antilles Air Boats, a commuter airline serving the Caribbean. O’Hara worked with Blair. “When I decided to quit movies, and fly all over the world with Charlie, it opened up a whole new world to me, and I started learning about aviation and airplanes. I also became deeply involved in communication with the public because you don’t sell airline tickets unless you communicate with the public.”

Blair was killed on September 2, 1978 in a crash at the age of 69. O’Hara became president of the airline, making her the first woman president of any airline. Antilles Air Boats operated 120 flights a day, and O’Hara felt that it deserved more experience than she could give it. She sold it to Resorts International in 1981. She had another business at the time, that of publisher of The Virgin Islander Magazine, which she eventually sold to Gannett Newspapers. During this period, she won several awards for her philanthropy, and for her work on behalf of aviation, including the John F. Kennedy Memorial Award (1982), the Ireland Fund Award (1983), the Liberty Medal (1986), the Amelia Earhart Award (1983) and the Variety Club “Heart of Show Business Award,” among numerous others.

With Tennessee Ernie Ford and Betty Grable in THE FABULUOS FORDIES, a 1972 television special.

She lost her other great friend in 1979. When asked about Wayne’s bout with cancer, O’Hara broke down and cried. Recovering herself, she defiantly stated, “Well, now you have your answer,” as if her deepest privacy was invaded. She herself had uterine cancer in 1978, which upset Wayne tremendously. “He said, ‘Why you? Why me?,'” and helped her through her ordeal. “Duke had cancer long before we made MCCLINTOCK! and he could still lift me up and swing me around his head, and that’s a lift, let me tell you.” Because Wayne spoke about his cancer, had operations, and did not let it interrupt his life, he brought hope of recovery to others.

O’Hara recalls the last time she saw him at his home. Though she only intended to go for supper, Wayne had his whole family with him, and he and O’Hara told stories, for literally days. His children and grandchildren kept asking Wayne about O’Hara’s tales of their work together. Wayne answered, “If Aunt Maureen says it, it must be so.” Fittingly, their last movie together, BIG JAKE (1971), cast them as grandparents, making a full circle in their screen development.

Explaining her survival in the movies, O’Hara says, “I was never petite, tiny, or cute, so there was never anything about me that would go out of style. I played every kind of role. I’m supposed to be able to act. Maybe that has something to do with it.”

She wishes her comedy gifts were more recognized, which ranged from the slapstick violence of THE QUIET MAN, the drawing room comedy of THE PARENT TRAP, to the pirate film absurdities. “Making the leap from sophisticated comedy to leaping around in plumed hats and high boots in the pirate movies, and be convincing, was an accomplishment. I do think that I have a great range of talent that was never used or truly appreciated. Perhaps if I had stayed in one line of work, like many of the actresses who are appreciated, maybe things might have been different.”

If she does tell her story in book form, it definitely won’t be ghostwritten. “I’m a pretty good writer and I have a style of my own.”

That she does.

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