Friday, March 5, 2010

Why wait until St. Patrick's Day?

Most loyal readers of this blog do not know that I was born in Northern Ireland to a beautiful, but fiery, young lady who, while not born a redhead, later became one for many years. Her cinematic counterpart, in several ways, is the lovely, yet firm-minded, Miss Maureen O’Hara.

Born Maureen Fitzsimons in Dublin in 1920 to a successful businessman and an opera singer-turned-women’s clothier, she longed to grow up and become an operatic vocalist like her mother. Her father, endowed with stern Irish practicality, insisted that Maureen learn some sort of trade to fall back on in case her singing career didn’t pan out. (My mother and I had many similar battles when I had aspirations to sing and act and, though I later was able to do both, primarily as a hobby, she was right in wanting me to have a secure education and/or skill!)

While in training at The Abbey Theater and the Ena Mary Burke School of Drama and Elocution (one hopes they had a nickname for that place!), she excelled and won any number of local awards. Still, she learned shorthand and typing and also succeeded tremendously with those skills.

While still in her teens, she won a couple of bit parts in English movies and was granted a screen test that most viewers dismissed as unsatisfactory. However, the great British actor Charles Laughton was shown the test and fell in love with Maureen’s haunting, soulful eyes. He was in the midst of preparing his upcoming film for Alfred Hitchcock, Jamaica Inn, and got her cast in the female leading role, putting her under contract to his own fledgling film company as well.

The world at that time was obsessed with an American of Irish descent, the fictional heroine Scarlett O’Hara of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. The legendary search for Scarlett had taken place and the film version was underway. Laughton renamed Maureen Fitzsimons as Maureen O’Hara and made plans to take her to America with him for his next film.

That film was the classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame and O’Hara played the gypsy girl Esmeralda who is alternately saved by the title outcast and fearful of him. It was an auspicious start to her Hollywood career, but the outbreak of WWII interfered with her burgeoning progress. Laughton, unable to continue with the film company he’d started, sold her option to RKO Studios in Hollywood.

Here, she floundered briefly, stuck in low-budget projects and musicals in which her own great voice was never once put to use. When John Ford (another person with an Irish heritage) directed How Green Was My Valley, a film about a Welsh mining family, he used O’Hara in a featured role and the film was a stunning success. It might have signaled a strong change in the course of her career, but Ford left to take part in WWII filmmaking shortly after, not returning to Hollywood until 1945.

She was next seen in color in To the Shores of Tripoli, playing a nurse against John Payne’s marine, followed by Ten Gentlemen from West Point, in which she played a pretty socialite involved with Errol Flynn during the time that the training academy was first formed. Then she starred with Tyrone Power in the colorful pirate movie The Black Swan. In these early color films, her red hair was (purposefully?) darker than it would later be. In time, her striking coloring would be exploited with more emphasis.

She continued on, making films for such esteemed directors as William Wellman and Jean Renoir and working with costars such as Henry Fonda, John Garfield and her old pal Laughton. (Laughton, it should be noted, had only a platonic interest in O’Hara, being a homosexual married for convenience to Elsa Lanchester.)

O’Hara’s beauty was revealed in various period films, whether they be pirate movies like The Spanish Main (pictured here with Paul Henreid. Note her strong profile and ornate hairstyle) or westerns or even Arabian style escapades like Sinbad the Sailor starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Another costar, pictured with her here, is a trim, handsome Anthony Quinn. O’Hara and Quinn made five pictures together from the early 40s to the mid 50s, a fact that would come into play for her fans later on.

In 1947, O’Hara starred in what would become an immortal classic, one that is enjoyed by millions every year. She played the no-nonsense mother of precocious Natalie Wood in the Christmas-themed Miracle on 34th Street. Edmund Gwenn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Kris Kringle. Reunited with her To the Shores of Tripoli costar John Payne as an attentive suitor, she and the whole cast worked in harmony to create a film that is held dear to multitudes of viewers.

The next couple of years were busy ones, but ones without any films of significant distinction, though she transported though many different genres including adventure, film noir, comedy and so on. Then John Ford decided to make his film, The Quiet Man, set (and filmed) in Ireland. He wanted to use his frequent collaborator John Wayne, along with Maureen, but the president of Republic Pictures insisted that the film’s script was weak and made Ford put it off, requesting that he first use Wayne and O’Hara in the final chapter of Ford’s cavalry trilogy Rio Grande. His plan was for Rio Grande’s success to pay for The Quiet Man, whose location filming might prove costly.

As it turned out, when The Quiet Man was released two years later (O’Hara having made three films in between Rio Grande and it), it was a major success, the number one money-earner for the studio. Wayne and O’Hara played tempestuous lovers who share a remarkable moment during a hellacious windstorm and their spirited chemistry together led to a lifelong friendship and five costarring films in all. TCM sometimes runs an interview with O’Hara about the filming of that scene and it is hilarious. Ford kept shooting take after take as her hair was whipping her in the face repeatedly, but not to his satisfaction. Finally, she lost her temper and asked him what a one-eyed, bald bastard like him knew about hair hitting the face! While The Quiet Man was in pre-production, she used her still-sharp secretarial skills to transcribe script notes for him as he dictated!

She next re-teamed with Errol Flynn for the swashbuckling Against All Flags, more than holding her own in the swordplay sequences. Always an athletic type as a young girl, her abilities in this area gave her quite an asset when it came to performing stunts and feats. Still, her best work and most important films seemed to be when she was working for Ford or costarring with a familiar actor. Her swashbuckling adventures did cost her the lead role in the film version of The King and I (in which she'd have been excellent), however, when Richard Rodgers exclaimed that he didn't want "a pirate queen" in his movie.

In 1955, she filmed The Long Gray Line, a Ford drama about an Irish immigrant (played by Tyrone Power) who spends 50 years at West Point, gaining in position from a dishwasher to an officer. It was in preproduction for this film that she claims to have walked in on the craggy, rough Ford in a romantic embrace with another man, a known actor (not Power, though he certainly had more than a few rumors about him as well.) This bombshell was nestled blithely within her 2004 autobiography.

That same year, she made the very tame, but nonetheless daring for its time, film Lady Godiva of Coventry and took a scantily clad ride in protest of her husband’s policies. The stagnant film didn’t begin to deliver on its provocative advertising scheme, nor had it any chance to do so in 1955.

As the decade drew to a close, she was working somewhat less, but still collaborated with Ford and Wayne (in The Wings of Eagles) and even starred with Sir Alec Guinness in the light spy film Our Man in Havana. One of her most significant achievements during this time was the suing of Confidential magazine. The mudslinging gossip rag held Hollywood by the throat in the early 50s with its threats of outing gay actors or otherwise unearthing hidden scandals. What the publishers couldn’t prove, they made up. She was accused in its March 1957 issue of having indulged in lewd behavior in the balcony of Graumann’s Chinese Theatre and, thanks to her passport, was able to prove that she hadn’t even been in the country at the time of the alleged story. Her suit (and sizeable settlement) was instrumental in leading to the eventual demise of the magazine, earning her applause from her peers.

Maureen took part in another enduring family classic when she paired up with Brian Keith in Disney's The Parent Trap. Playing the divorced parents of twins (both played by Hayley Mills), their still-festering love for one another was reignited by a conspiracy involving the girls. This film resonated for years afterward on TV and in re-release, leading to a few TV-movie sequels starring Mills and a 1998 remake.

Things got a little sticky, however, during the western The Deadly Companions, in which they quickly re-teamed. O’Hara’s brother Charles Fitzsimons was producing the film and had brought on novice director Sam Peckinpah at costar Brian Keith’s suggestion. (Peckinpah had recently produced and directed Keith’s short-lived TV series The Westerner.) However, Fitzsimons and Peckinpah did not get along (with Peckinpah claiming that the producer wouldn’t let him give his sister any direction, nor let him rewrite or edit) and from then on Peckinpah would demand control of his movies.

In the early 60s, O’Hara played wife to several of Hollywood’s older leading men. In Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, her husband was James Stewart. Then she portrayed the wife of Henry Fonda in the film Spencer’s Mountain, based on the same novel that would later give rise to The Waltons TV series. She and Fonda played the parents of a staggering brood of children. Notable among them was James McArthur as Clayboy (who would be renamed in the series as “Johnboy”), Veronica Cartright of The Birds fame and Kym Karath who would appear a short time later as Gretl in The Sound of Music along with Veronica's sister Angela.

The film featured some elements (including alcoholism and infidelity) that were, initially at least, left out of the later TV show. However, the family’s struggle to make ends meet and permit their eldest son to go to college remained, along with other similarities. O’Hara, approaching 90 years of age as of this writing, has long outlived these famous male costars one and all.

McLintock!, a rowdy western comedy, saw O’Hara and her pal Wayne as feuding spouses and was loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Like that famous work, this film included the hero giving the heroine a much-deserved spanking as a crowd of onlookers react vigorously.

Around this time, Maureen began appearing with some frequency on TV variety shows and specials, allowing her the opportunity to sing as she had always wanted to do. She appeared in the 1960 Broadway musical Christine and even released two albums, one of which was comprised of Irish songs. In this cover shot for a program guide, she does something brave that I would never attempt. She poses next to a lit candelabra while wearing copious amounts of hairspray!

She worked with James Stewart again in 1966’s The Rare Breed about the acquisition of a Hereford bull. Having played Hayley Mills’ mom in The Parent Trap, here he played Juliet Mills’ mother. (She and Juliet had previously worked together in a TV adaptation of Mrs. Miniver in 1960, however.)

After 1971’s Big Jake, which paired her with John Wayne for the last time (in a brief role as, what else, his estranged wife!), Maureen retired from the big screen. She did do a 1973 TV movie opposite Henry Fonda called The Red Pony, but was, for the most part, entirely out of the public eye. Having lost her pilot husband in a 1968 plane crash, she kept busy with interest in his airline company and resided in the US Virgin Islands.

Twenty years after her last feature film, she was coaxed out of retirement by Chris Columbus for his John Candy comedy Only the Lonely. The role of an overbearing, politically incorrect mother was written with her in mind. Columbus gave the script to Maureen’s producer brother and he encouraged her to do the film. After reading the script, and meeting with Candy, she enthusiastically agreed. Her character spouted all sorts of insensitive and potentially explosive remarks and O’Hara gamely took part in several fantasy sequences in which Candy dreamed of doing her in.

On the set, Candy was appalled that someone of her stature was given a shoddy, tiny trailer and demanded a better one. When it didn’t happen, he gave her his luxurious trailer and slept on an old cot until the producers relented. Even at 71, she had to be deglammed in order to look appropriate for the part. There are parts of this film in which it may as well be my own mother onscreen.

Cast as her charming Greek neighbor was Anthony Quinn, her costar in five prior movies. While, to the movie going public in general, these were just two old bats, for fans of the stars, it marked a tender and entertaining reunion of two pros from the golden era of the cinema.

In the wake of this, O’Hara retreated to her various homes in Ireland, Arizona and The Virgin Islands, but occasionally emerged to film a TV movie. She did three of them between the years 1995 and 2000. Then, in 2004, she penned her book and embarked on a tour with that. Still quite lovely and stunning, even in her mid 80s, she charmed everyone with her glowing smile and still gorgeous eyes, always turned out in the style she no doubt inherited from her mother. She has several interview snippets on TCM that are played in between movies and she is invariably witty, beautiful and full of hilarious anecdotes.

While it is true that Maureen O’Hara never really carried a hit film solely on her own, she was an integral part of several bona fide cinema classics and by that I mean true classics, not just films that are referred to that way because they’re old. She also provided lustrous support for many of Hollywood’s greatest actors. Fonda, Wayne, Quinn, Stewart… all were the recipients of an Oscar and yet O’Hara was never once nominated. It makes me physically ill to dwell on some of the actresses who not only have been nominated but have also have been given a statuette when she has not and I continue to scratch my head as to why she has not been awarded an Honorary Oscar. I hope someone wakes up the Academy before it is too late, because it is truly deserved. In any case, she’s given me many hours of delight as I’ve watched her films over the years.

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