Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Late Great Maureen O'Hara, Queen of Technicolor

The phrase "movie legend" is often applied to actors, even sometimes to those who are not particularly legendary. One actress who most certainly deserves to be called a "movie legend" was Maureen O'Hara. She was remarkably beautiful, with a mane of red hair, big green eyes, and a perfect complexion. Her good looks were perfect for the Technicolor films in which she starred. She was also incredibly talented. A strong woman in real life, Miss O'Hara was known for playing women who could easily stand up to any man. At the same time she could play roles of emotional depth and sensitivity in a way that few actresses even during the Golden Age of Film could. As if that was not enough, Maureen O'Hara possessed an athleticism rare even among men of the era. She performed many of her own stunts. Indeed, her fencing skill was such that she was better than most men with a sword--among actors she was one of the greatest fencers of all time.

It was perhaps for these reasons that Maureen O'Hara was particularly revered in my household. She was my mother's favourite actress. When my brother and I first watched The Parent Trap (1961) my mother remarked often throughout the movie on how beautiful she was, and she could not understand how Brian Keith would ever choose Joanna Barnes over Maureen O'Hara. The rest of the family adored Maureen O'Hara as well, to the point that she is probably the entire family's favourite actress of all time. Sadly, Maureen O'Hara died today at the age of 95.

Maureen O'Hara was born  Maureen FitzSimons on August 17 1920, in Ranelagh, County Dublin, Ireland. Her father, Charles FitzSimons, was a a clothing-business manager and a co-owner of the  Shamrock Rovers Football Club. Her mother Marguerita FitzSimons (née Lilburn) had been an opera contralto and became a women's clothier. Maureen FitzSimons took an interest in acting from early age, appearing in plays as a child. She studied at the Abbey Theatre and the Ena Mary Burke School of Drama and Elocution in Dublin.

Maureen O'Hara made her film debut under her given name in a small role in the British musical Kicking the Moon Around in 1938. She appeared in a bigger role under her given name in the British musical My Irish Molly that same year. After those two movies she was given a screen test in London, and Maureen O'Hara was hardly happy with the results. Dressed in a gold lamé dress, heavy makeup, and an ornate hairstyle for the test, her thought was "If this is the movies, I want nothing to do with them!" Fortunately actor Charles Laughton saw the test and saw potential in the starlet. Charles Laughton directed his partner Erich Pommer's attention to the screen test and in the end Maureen was given a  seven-year contract with their company Mayflower Pictures. She had a major role in Alfred Hitchcock's film Jamaica Inn (1939), but with a new stage name She was no longer Maureen FitzSimons--she was now Maureen O'Hara. Charles Laughton was so happy with her performance that she was cast as the female lead, Esmeralda, in the classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). In 1939 Miss O'Hara also appeared on British television on the BBC's Picture Page programme.

With the outbreak of World War II Charles Laughton thought it was impractical for Mayflower Pictures to continue filming in London. He then sold Miss O'Hara's contract to the American studio RKO. Maureen O'Hara appeared in the low budget films A Bill of Divorcement (1940), Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), and They Met in Argentina (1941)  before being cast in How Green Was My Valley (1941). How Green Was My Valley marked the first time she worked with John Ford who would utilise her in his films several more times throughout both of their careers. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture.

The Forties would see Maureen O'Hara become a major star. With the classic pirate movie The Black Swan (1942) she appeared in her first of many swashbucklers. During the decade she also appeared in The Spanish Main (1945), Sinbad, the Sailor (1947),  and Bagdad (1949). At the end of the decade she worked with John Wayne for the first time and John Ford for the second on the film Rio Grande (1950). Maureen O'Hara would work with John Wayne many more times and became both his favourite actress to work with as well as a close friend. In the Forties Miss O'Hara also appeared in what is possibly her most famous film, the Yuletide classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947). During the Forties she also appeared in such films as To the Shores of Tripoli (1942), This Land Is Mine (1943), Buffalo Bill (1944), Sitting Pretty (1948), Britannia Mews (1949), Comanche Territory (1950), and Tripoli (1950).

In the Fifties Maureen O'Hara starred in what may be her most famous collaboration with director John Ford and actor John Wayne, The Quiet Man (1952). The film won the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Cinematography. She worked with John Ford two more times in the Fifties, in the films The Long Gray Line (1955) and The Wings of Eagles (1957), the latter of which starred John Wayne. During the decade Maureen O'Hara also came into her own as a star of swashbucklers. While in the Forties Miss O'Hara had played the love interest in most of her swashbuckler films, in the Fifties she wielded a blade herself. In At Sword's Point (1952) she played the daughter of Athos of The Three Musketeers, who was as good with a sword as any of them. She also appeared in the swashbuckler films Flame of Araby (1951) and Against All Flags (1952), as well as the period drama Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955).  Miss O'Hara appeared in the Westerns The Redhead from Wyoming (1953) and War Arrow (1953). During the decade she also appeared in such films as Malaga (1954), The Magnificent Matador (1955), and Our Man in Havana (1959).  In 1960 she appeared on Broadway in the production Christine. In 1960 she also released two record albums, Love Letters from Maureen O'Hara and Maureen O'Hara Sings her Favorite Irish Songs.

In the late Fifties Maureen O'Hara began appearing on television. She appeared on such talk shows and variety shows as Sheilah Graham in Hollywood, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall, The Garry Moore Show, The George Gobel Show, and The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, as well as the panel show What's My Line. In 1960 she played the title role in a television adaptation of Mrs. Miniver and  Lady Marguerite Blakeney in The Dupont Show of the Month's adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

The Sixties saw Maureen O'Hara star in two of her most famous films, both comedies She played the mother of two twins played by Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap (1961) and the wife of the title character opposite John Wayne in McLintock! (1963). She appeared in the films The Deadly Companions (1961), Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962), Spencer's Mountain (1963), The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965), The Rare Breed (1966), and How Do I Love Thee? (1970). She appeared on television in an episode of Theatre '62, the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation "A Cry of Angels", and an episode of Off to See the Wizard. as well as the variety shows The Ed Sullivan Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show, and The Jackie Gleason Show.She appeared on the game show Hollywood Squares.

Following the Sixties Maureen O'Hara retired from acting and her appearances on screen became infrequent. She appeared for one last time with John Wayne in Big Jake in 1971. In 1973 she appeared in the TV movie The Red Pony. In 1991 she appeared in the feature film Only the Lonely and then the TV movies The Christmas Box (1995), Cab to Canada (1998), and The Last Dance (2000).

Throughout her career Maureen O'Hara has remained one of the most beloved film stars of all time. It is not simply a case that she was one of the great beauties of all time. Maureen O'Hara was extremely talented and very versatile. She made movies in a wide variety of genres: dramas, Westerns, swashbucklers, spy movies, comedies, war movies, and so on. She was capable of moving performances, as shown by her performances in How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man. She could also play a wide variety of roles, from the gypsy Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame to divorcee Doris Walker in Miracle on 34th Street to the feisty Rose in Only the Lonely.

Indeed, Maureen O'Hara's versatility set her apart from other actresses of her era in that she was both a "serious" actress and an action/adventure star. Miss O'Hara starred in Westerns and swashbucklers, usually playing strong minded women who could hold their own with anyone. In a few of her films she actually got to fight alongside the men. What is more remarkable is that she often did her own stunts. Perhaps the only actress of the era comparable to Maureen O'Hara was Barbara Stanwyck, but then Miss Stanwyck never wielded a blade.

Indeed, Maureen O'Hara would become the only female swashbuckler star on the same level as such male actors as Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. She trained under legendary fencing master Fred Cavens for her role in At Sword's Point and became very competent with a sword. Director Lewis Allen doubted women could fence and made no secret of his opinion. When it came to the first action scene Maureen O'Hara did her best fencing she possibly could, receiving applause from the stuntmen and leaving Lewis Allen speechless.

The fact was that Maureen O'Hara not only played strong characters in film, but she was a strong woman herself. She was the very first actor ever to stand up to the notorious tabloid magazine Confidential. In the February 1957 issue of Confidential it was alleged that actress Maureen O'Hara and a "Latin Lothario" had sex in the balcony of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. The story was not a cover story and, in fact, was buried in the contents of the magazine. Regardless, Miss O'Hara was outraged. She sued the magazine for $1 million, an amount she later increased to $5 million. With little to no support from the film industry, Maureen O'Hara took Confidential to court and won the case. Miss O'Hara's victory over the magazine would prove instrumental in its downfall.

In the end Maureen O'Hara was utterly unique. She was a flame haired, Irish beauty who could play the passive love interest in a film, but at the same time was fully capable of playing the fiery action heroine in a film as well. She could play in films of any genre, as adept at comedy as she was drama. She could hold her own with such directors as John Ford and such actors as John Wayne. Indeed, even when she wasn't playing an action heroine, her characters were more than a match for any man, as both The Parent Trap and McLintock! prove. Maureen O'Hara was an utterly remarkable, totally singular actress, and it is doubtful we will ever seen her like again.

No comments: