Maureen O’Hara started out with Charles Laughton in Jamaica Inn in 1938 and Hunchback of Notre Dame a year later, then went on to a long and successful career as a Fox leading lady. She acted with Ty, Errol, and Duke and was in all those John Ford pictures. You never heard a hint of scandal about her and she lived to 95, but now she too is gone like Joan Leslie is gone. Well into her 80s MoH looked like a million bucks and gave me hope of immortality, and she wrote a sassy memoir like we wish more of the great ones had written. Now she’s left us; we keep losing them until there aren’t any left to connect us as humans to a Golden Age that’s now passed into history. We can no longer share memories with those who are living and have them tell us what the old stars were “really like” and walk the lots and describe their dressing rooms and provide anecdotes about directors and what happened on what soundstage; we can only look back and study printed words and recordings of those people. What they said is cast in concrete now; they aren’t saying anything new.
I’m reminded of a visit to the Warner Bros. lot somewhere around 2009. I asked around if anyone knew where Errol Flynn’s dressing room was and guess what: Nobody did. That information had died with Flynn and the other veteran studio employees now long gone. The “old timers,” volunteers at the gift shop, were from well after Flynn’s day, so the studio history of where Flynn’s or Bogart’s dressing rooms were no longer existed because nobody bothered to capture it. As it happens, I was able to piece together the exact location in case anybody wants to know—Jack Warner kept Flynn in the corner dressing room right outside the top man’s second-story window, literally under J.L.’s nose, where Flynn could be kept track of. But I digress.
I liked Maureen O’Hara well enough without classifying her a personal favorite. In hindsight, I took her for granted and when I stop to think about it, she participated in some of my favorite pictures, including How Green Was My Valley, Miracle on 34th Street, and The Long Gray Line. She was great with the Duke in pictures like Rio Grande and The Quiet Man, and she was tough enough that the abusive John Ford couldn’t reduce her to tears. If somebody gave it to Maureen, Maureen was capable of giving it right back–the very definition of a fiery redhead.
Thinking about it, though, I did find it charming when her natural Irish accent would sneak through her scrupulous American/English. Thought would come out taught. Thank you would be tank you. Mostly, though, you’d never guess she wasn’t from middle America and it must have taken quite a bit of effort to pull that accent off in picture after picture.
O’Hara’s muscular, square shoulders allowed her to credibly use a sword in adventure films like At Sword’s Point, where she played the daughter of a musketeer, and Against All Flags, where she played a Caribbean pirate. She also took pride in doing a lot of her own stunt work in physical pictures like McLintock. Basically, she did whatever kept her working in a run that lasted into the 1970s, with a later highlight being her role of the mother of twins in Disney’s The Parent Trap. The last thing I can remember seeing her in was Big Jake in 1971, looking as good as ever, bringing all that history and backstory with Duke to bear playing his ex-wife in what amounted to a glorified cameo in the first reel. By this time they had such chemistry that even as a kid I could feel the gravitas of their scenes together.
I had hoped to post this piece a week ago, but I got behind. I don’t mind putting it up now because after a flurry of goodbyes in newspapers and blogs, the stars seem to be laid to rest and rarely revisited. So instead of being just another in a clot of retrospectives, here I am more than a week later with my look back at a sassy Irish lass who was a beautiful leading lady and an important Fox contract player from Hollywood’s Golden Age, a versatile talent just as at home in a Welsh mining town as on the Spanish Main, a cavalry outpost, or 34th Street.
Despite the fact that the lady had been alive for close to a century, I felt a strong loss with the death of Maureen O’Hara. It was, somehow, very comforting for me to know that she was still with us. The same is true of Olivia de Havilland. The same with Kirk Douglas. Sadly, for lovers of Hollywood’s studio era, we are perilously close to saying, “They’re all gone.” How unutterably depressing!
I long appreciated the combination of beauty and fire that O’Hara brought to her roles. And that includes the collection of Technicolor swashbucklers and cheesy Arabian Nights fantasies in which she was featured, along with her John Ford films.
The unsophisticated action fare such as Flame of Araby or Against All Flags came at a price for her career, however. In spite of her wonderful gifts as a soprano, Maureen O’Hara could not win the much coveted lead role in the film version of The King and I. Richard Rogers is said to have disparaged any casting in that adaption of his stage musical with “that pirate queen.” Instead the role went to Deborah Kerr (no pirate films in her past, fortunately), whose singing was, of course, dubbed.
Fortunately, though, while O’Hara made more than her share of forgettable films, she also had a few classics. Her Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which I first saw when I was a very young boy, gave me a strong desire to meet gypsy girls for a number of years. And her fiery, independent, tough Mary Kate Danaher in The Quiet Man is as memorable as any spirited wild stallion in the movies, even if John Ford did have her character settle down to domesticity at the end.
Also staying with me are O’Hara’s final moments in Ford’s The Long Gray Line, sitting in a chair as Tyrone Power returns to her with her shawl, as he and we view the chair from behind. We then see O’Hara’s hand fall gently to the side of the chair. Through John Ford’s sensitive camera eye, she has just made one of the most graceful of screen departures.
Well, on October 24th this year, Maureen O’Hara made her own graceful departure as she passed away in her sleep. It is so poignantly appropriate that, at the very end, the last sounds the lady heard were the strains of the music from The Quiet Man, as it played in her room. It was the film that Ms. O’Hara rated as her career favourite, as, indeed, it is for so many of her fans.
The next time that I listen to that lovely lilting musical score by Victor Young it will have an even more special meaning for me.
Lovely tribute, Tom!
I love the fact that you, Tom, and Rosemarie both cite The Long Gray Line as favorites. It was always one of mine but it’s so often dismissed for whatever reasons. If I ever went to West Point I’d be going straight to the place where Marty first saw Mary, and to those cannons where Marty was polishing the cannon balls and got bawled out. It’s my favorite John Ford picture, and has all of the good things Ford brings, and none of his liabilities, like with action scenes.
Thank you, Tom, for your perspective on Maureen O’Hara. When I published this piece, I had the feeling you would be the first to contribute, and I was right.
I take it you never saw “Only the Lonely,” where she played John Candy’s mom?
No, never saw that, Mr. Wilson. Which doesn’t change my statement that O’Hara had a career into the 1970s. Coming out of retirement for a picture is a different matter.
Wonderful tribute to Maureen, Tom. That scene in “The Long Gray Line” always makes me tear up a bit, and I also find her performance in How Green Was My Valley, with that lovely Alfred Newman love theme underscoring her scenes, very touching. She steals “Only the Lonely.”
Where is Mr Matzen? Btw: are you coming to Germany for your WWII research?
Mr. Matzen’s around, just working pretty hard on the new book. Yes I am coming to Germany for research. Why do you ask, Priscila?
I live in Berlin. Let me know if you need a hand.
That’s very nice of you, thank you, Priscila. I know I’ll be in Frankfurt; not sure about Berlin yet.
Well, Berlin is more colourful than Frankfurt, but not sure would be relevant for your research. I take you have German ancestry, right? Anyway, let me know if your travels take you here and if you need help. 🙂
I do, yes. My dirt-poor ancestors fled Bavaria in 1843. Hence my truncated name, which used to be Matzenbacher, or, I suspect, Matzenbäcker, which probably got changed for them coming off the boat–H’s looking like K’s as they sometimes do and umlauts looking like ink spots in America.
The Lichtenberg section of Berlin is important to the narrative of Mission, and I wanted to squeeze it into the schedule. But I just couldn’t make that part work, unfortunately.