Movie Stars: O’Hara, Maureen–Hollywood Technicolor Star, John Wayne’s Favorite Screen Lady, Dies at 95

the_quiet_man_2_wayneMaureen O’Hara, the Irish actress who was best known for her pairings with John Wayne, including the 1952 Oscar winner,  The Quiet Man, died on Saturday, October 24, at her home in Boise, Idaho.  She was 95.

O’Hara was one of the last surviving stars of Hollywood’s golden age.  With her faint Irish accent, bright red hair, green eyes, and aura of independence, she was often described as “fiery” or “brash.”

A beautiful and gifted actress, she displayed her versatility in such features as John Ford’s 1941 Oscar winner, How Green Was My Valley, and Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana.

She worked with directors ranging from Dorothy Arzner to Hitchcock to Chris Columbus, but she is best remembered for her works with John Ford, particularly in her teamin with John Wayne.  She was one of the few Wayne co-stars–they made five films together–who could prove his match in screen presence.  In The Quiet Man, she played a prideful and stubborn, strong and intelligent woman–the emblematic O’Hara role.

O’Hara starred opposite Wayne in three Westerns — Rio Grande (1950)McLintock! (1963) and Big Jake(1971) — as well as in the St. Patrick’s Day perennial The Quiet Man and the Navy biopic The Wings of Eagles (1957).

In a 2003 interview, O’Hara said about Wayne: “I was tough. I was tall. I was strong. I didn’t take any nonsense from anybody. He was tough, he was tall, he was strong and he didn’t take any nonsense from anybody. As a man and a human being, I adored him.”

She appeared in two movies for which Ford won the Best Directing Oscar: How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man.  “I knew what great directors and great actors were like,” she said of Ford (she called him “Pappy”) in a 2010 documentary about the making of The Quiet Man, “but I have to honestly say he was the best, really the best. The meanest. Believe me, I would rather work with the old bastard than not.”

One of her best performances was in the 1940 feminist film, Dance Girl Dance, directed by Dorothy Arzner, and co-starring Lucille Ball. The highlight of the film is O’Hara silencing a boorish audience of men at a burlesque show, in which she says, basically, go ahead and smirk because we performers are smirking right back at you.

Honorary Oscar

O’Hara had never been nominated for a legitimate, competitive Oscar Award.  In 2014, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) presented her with an Honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards. O’Hara, looking frail in her wheelchair, read a statement of thanks, but when her onstage escort started to take the microphone, it was clear she had not lost her “fiery” streak: She held onto the mike and continued talking with the unspoken subtext, “This is my moment, and I don’t care about time constraints.”

O’Hara was born Maureen FitzSimons in Ranelagh, a suburb of Dublin. Along with several of her siblings, she received training in drama and dance.  She began appearing in amateur theater at the age of 10, and at 14 she was accepted to the Abbey Theater, where she pursued classical theater and operatic singing.

Spotted by Charles Laughton

Her movie career began due to British actor Charles Laughton: While she was still a teen, he viewed a screen test she had made, and he and partner Erich Pommer signed her to a seven-year contract with their company, Mayflower Films.

She had small roles in a couple of English films in 1938, but made her first significant bigscreen appearance was in Hitchcock’s Gothic thriller, Jamaica Inn, starring Laughton. The 18-year-old O’Hara already displayed the kind of self-possession and self-reliance that would be a trademark of her characters. Laughton was impressed and cast her as Esmerelda the next year in his 1939 classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, shot at RKO in Hollywood.

When WWII began and he realized lensing would no longer be possible in London, Laughton sold O’Hara’s contract to RKO, which cast her in a trio of B pictures.  She still seemed somewhat uncertain of herself in a remake of the Katharine Hepburn vehicle “Bill of Divorcement” but made a big impression in “Dance, Girl, Dance,” while “They Met in Argentina” was a musical trifle.

Director Ford promoted O’Hara ‘s career when he cast her in Fox’s 1941 family drama, How Green Was My Valley, which won the Best Picture Oscar.  The sight of O’Hara radiantly waving from a gate is one of the enduring images in the film and has been used in many events.

During WWII she made several films, several of them war pictures in which she played the female interest, but she shined in a couple of movies:  In the popular Technicolor swashbuckler, The Black Swan, in 1942, she was paired successfully with Tyrone Power. The Black Swan was the first of a number of pirate pictures she made over the next decade, including “The Spanish Main,” with Paul Henreid; “Sinbad the Sailor,” with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; “At Sword’s Point,” in which she got the opportunity to wield her own blade as the daughter of a musketeer; and “Against All Flags,” with Errol Flynn, in which her character, a female pirate, got to engage in her share of the swordplay.

RKO planned to film “Spanish Main” in black and white but switched to Technicolor because of O’Hara’s beautiful red hair, green eyes and porcelain-white skin.

In 1947, she made another classic and box-office hit, Miracle on 34th Street, starring as Natalie Wood’s mother.  While it’s one of her best-known films, the picture is an oddity in her career, due to the fact that as her character transforms from hard-headed and skeptical to warmly sentimental woman.

In addition to Westerns, swashbucklers, and musicals, O’Hara made a film noir, “A Woman’s Secret,” directed by Nicholas Ray in 1949, with Melvyn Douglas and Gloria Grahame.

During the 1950s, she paired four times with director John Ford. The first was the Western Rio Grande, a movie Ford agreed to make only if he could also do his dream project, The Quiet Man.  Both movies starred O’Hara and Wayne, but O’Hara had far more to do in the latter.  That part gave her one of her few onscreen opportunities to speak in her own Irish accent.

The third Ford film, The Long Gray Line, reunited O’Hara with Tyrone Power.  Though set at West Point, it nevertheless had a very Irish flavor.

The final Ford film, reuniting Wayne and O’Hara, was the 1957 biopic, The Wings of Eagles, about a Navy pilot-turned-screenwriter.

O’Hara and Wayne worked together again as on screen husband and wife, in the 1963 Western comedy McLintock! and in the 1971 Western, Big Jake (their weakest collaboration).

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, O’Hara appeared on several TV variety shows.  She also starred in the tuner Christine on Broadway in 1960, and released two albums the same year: Love Letters From Maureen O’Hara and Maureen O’Hara Sings Her Favorite Irish Songs.

Family Movies

O’Hara continued to be a busy screen actress throughout the 1960s, starring with Alec Guinness in Reed’s Our Man in Havana, in 1959, with Hayley Mills, in The Parent Trap in 1961, with Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation” in 1962 and with Henry Fonda in “Spencer’s Mountain” in 1963 (a precursor of the TV series “The Waltons,” both autobiographical works by Earl Hamner Jr.).

Many of her films during this period were comedies. In 1966, she starred with Jimmy Stewart again in The Rare Breed.

She had secretly married George H. Brown, a film producer and scriptwriter, in 1939, but that marriage was annulled two years later.  She married American director William Houston Price, the dialogue director on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in 1941 but divorced him in 1953.

O’Hara retired from acting after making a TV version of “The Red Pony” Henry with Fonda, in 1973, a few years after her third marriage, to Charles F. Blair Jr., in 1968.  Blair was a former U.S. Air Force brigadier general and former chief pilot for Pan Am.  He died in a plane crash in 1978, and O’Hara was elected prexy-CEO of Antilles Airboats, thus becoming the first woman president of a scheduled airline in the U.S. Later she sold the airline.

O’Hara returned to acting for a starring role in the 1991 Chris Columbus comedy, Only the Lonely, in which she plays John Candy’s overbearing mother.

She also starred in telepics The Christmas Box (1995), Cab to Canada, and The Last Dance (2000).

After appearing in several tributes to fellow actors and Hollywood documentaries, including projects devoted to Wayne and to Ford, O’Hara made her last screen appearance in the 2010 Irish documentary, Dreaming the Quiet Man.

O’Hara’s autobiography, ’Tis Herself, was published in 2004.