Maureen O’Hara (17 August 1920 – 24 October 2015) was an Irish-American actress and singer. She was known for playing fiercely passionate but sensible heroines. She was considered one of the last surviving stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Maureen O’Hara’s Dreams of Being A Successful Actress
Maureen O’Hara grew up in Dublin with aspirations of becoming an actress. From the age of 10, she trained with the Rathmines Theatre Company and at the Abbey Theatre from the age of 14. Even though her first screen test was unsuccessful, Charles Laughton, an English-American stage and film actor, saw her potential and arranged for her to co-star with him in Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn in 1939. She went on to appear with him in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Charles Laughton When He First Met Maureen O’Hara
Laughton once told O’Hara what he thought of her when he first spotted her, “On the screen was a girl. She looked at least 35, she was overdone up … very made-up face, and her hair in an over grand style. But just for a split perfect second light was on her face and you could see as the girl turned her head around your extraordinarily beautiful profile, which was absolutely invisible among all your makeup.
Well, Mr. Pommer and I sent for you and you came and blew into the office like a hurricane. You had a tweed suit on with hair sticking out and coming from Ireland. You blew into the office and said [in Irish accent] “Watchya want with me”.
I took you out for lunch and I never forgot when I asked you why you wanted to be an actress. I’ll never forget your reply. You said “When I was a child I used to go down to the garden, talk to the flowers and pretend I was the flower talking back to myself. And you had to be a pretty nice girl and had to be a pretty good actress too. And heavens knows you’re both”.
The Queen of Technicolour
Maureen O’Hara’s career continued to flourish and she acquired the title of “The Queen of Technicolor”.
O’Hara made her first film Rio Grande (1950) with her future longtime friend John Wayne, followed by The Quiet Man (1952), and The Wings of Eagles (1957). Her chemistry with John Wayne was so palpable on the screen that many of their fans assumed they were in a relationship.
In the 1960s, O’Hara began taking on more motherly roles, in films such as The Deadly Companions (1961), The Parent Trap (1961) and The Rare Breed (1966). However, Maureen O’Hara retired in 1971 after starring opposite John Wayne one last time in Big Jake. Although, she did make a comeback 20 years later to appear with John Candy in Only the Lonely (1991).
In November 2014, she was presented with an Honorary Academy Award with the inscription “To Maureen O’Hara, one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, whose inspiring performances glowed with passion, warmth and strength”.
Maureen O’Hara and her Beginnings
Maureen O’Hara was born on 17 August 1920 as Maureen FitzSimons on Beechwood Avenue in Dublin, Ireland. O’Hara has five siblings, of whom she was the second oldest. Her father Charles FitzSimons was in the clothing business. His business interests extended to sports as well. He bought into Shamrock Rovers Football Club, a team that O’Hara supported from childhood.
O’Hara inherited her singing voice from her mother Marguerite FitzSimons, a former operatic singer who was also widely considered to have been one of Ireland’s most beautiful women.
O’Hara often spoke highly of her family. She once said that whenever her mother left the house, men would leave their houses just so they could catch a glimpse of her in the street. She also said that she was “born into the most remarkable and eccentric family I could have possibly hoped for”.
Maureen O’Hara as a Child
When asked about her childhood years, she commented, “I was a blunt child—blunt almost to the point of rudeness. I told the truth and shamed all the devils. Didn’t take discipline very well. I would never be slapped in school. If a teacher had slapped me I would have bitten her. I guess I was a bold, bad child, but it was exciting.
When I went to Dominican College, later on, I did not have beaux as the other girls did. There was one lad who followed me around for two years. He told me at last that he never once dared to speak to me because I looked as though I would bite his head off him if I did”.
Growing up, O’Hara enjoyed fishing, riding horses, swimming, playing soccer, and climbing trees.
Maureen O’Hara attended the John Street West Girls’ School in Dublin. When she turned 5, a gypsy predicted that she would become rich and famous, more specifically that she would “become the most famous actress in the world”. That is when she began learning to dance with her family’s full support. Maureen O’Hara always seems aligned for big things in her life and she was courageous enough to go after her dreams.
A Young Performer
Her love of performing truly manifested when she recited a poem on stage in school at the age of six. She immediately fell in love with the idea of performing in front of an audience. Making up her mind that this would be her future, she began training in drama, music and dance at the Ena Mary Burke School of Drama and Elocution in Dublin. Her family’s enthusiasm for arts led O’Hara to refer to them as the “Irish Von Trapp family”.
A few years later, Maureen O’Hara joined the Rathmines Theatre Company. She pursued her passion even further as she began working in amateur theatre in the evenings. She played the role of Robin Hood in a Christmas pantomime.
O’Hara aspired to become a stage actress, so she joined the Abbey Theatre at the age of 14. A year later, she won the first Dramatic Prize of the national competition of the performing arts, the Dublin Feis Award, for her performance as Portia in The Merchant of Venice.
Maureen O’Hara also trained as a typist for Crumlin Laundry and Eveready Battery Company. Her skills were put to good use when she typed the script of The Quiet Man for John Ford.
In 1937, she won the Dawn Beauty Competition. The prize amounted to £50.
O’Hara’s Rise to Stardom
Maureen O’Hara’s talent was undeniable if anyone designed to be an actress it was this fierce redhead. So it was no surprise that Maureen began receiving offers at the age of 17, when she landed her first major role at the Abbey Theatre.
When actor-singer Harry Richman saw her, he proposed that she go for a screen test at Elstree Studios to become a film actress. O’Hara decided to leave for London with her mother to do just that.
Unfortunately, O’Hara found the whole experience uncomfortable as the studio dressed her in a “gold lamé dress with flapping sleeves like wings”. She also had to put on heavy makeup with an ornate hairstyle. It’s that specific audition that drew Charles Laughton’s eye, despite the overdone costume. He and his business partner arranged to meet O’Hara.
Laughton was impressed by Maureen O’Hara’s confidence and her refusal to read an extract upon his request unprepared. Laughton offered her a seven-year contract with their new company, Mayflower Pictures, despite her very young age. Her family accepted.
What’s in a Name
Although Maureen wanted to keep her real name, Laughton insisted that she change it as no one would get Fitzsimons right. The choice was between “O’Mara” or “O’Hara”, and they eventually settled on “Maureen O’Hara”.
O’Hara took everything Laughton said into consideration as they had a father-daughter relationship, so she headed his advice. She once said that his death in 1962 was like losing a parent.
Maureen O’Hara’s Acting Debut
It was finally time for Maureen O’Hara to take her first step in the entertainment business. She made her screen debut in Kicking the Moon Around (1938), however, her part consisted of one line, so she never considered the film as part of her filmography. She actually agreed to appear in the film as a favour to Richman who introduced her to the director after Richman helped her with her screen test.
Furthering her collaborations with Laughton, he went on to get her a part in a low-budget musical My Irish Molly (1938). This is the only film that she appeared in with her real name “Maureen FitzSimons” appearing in the credits.
Musical ‘My Irish Molly’
In My Irish Molly, O’Hara played a woman named Eiléen O’Shea who rescues an orphan girl named Molly. Even though it’s one of her earliest lead roles, O’Hara received praise for it by biographer Aubrey Malone;
“One could argue that O’Hara never looked as enticing as she does in Little Miss Molly, even if she isn’t ‘Maureen O’Hara’ quite yet. She wears no makeup, and there’s no Hollywood glamour, but despite (or because of?) that, she is rapturously beautiful. Her accent is thick, which is perhaps why she didn’t mention the film much. It also looks as if it were made in the 1920s rather than the 1930s, so primitive are the sets and characters”.
Maureen O’Hara’s First Major Film – Jamaica Inn
Her work with Laughton took a step further as she appeared opposite him in her first major film role as Mary Yellen in Jamaica Inn (1939), directed by the great Alfred Hitchcock. O’Hara played the role of the innkeeper’s niece, an orphan who goes to live with her aunt and uncle at a Cornish tavern. She described her role as that of a woman “torn between the love of her family and her love for a lawman in disguise”.
O’Hara enjoyed working with the acclaimed director Alfred Hitchcock, although many of his contemporaries found it hard to work with him. She once said that she “never experienced the strange feeling of detachment with Hitchcock that many other actors claimed to have felt while working with him.”
On the other hand, Laughton often disagreed with Hitchcock throughout the production process of Jamaica Inn. Although Hitchcock believed that it was one of his weakest films, O’Hara was praised, for her role.
This role was an eye-opener for O’Hara who always believed herself to be a tomboy, but suddenly realized that others saw her as a beautiful woman. Her life was forever changed after that film, especially when she returned to Ireland and realized that she was considered a star.
Her Next Big Role – “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”
O’Hara performance in Jamaica Inn impressed Laughton so much that she was cast opposite him in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) in Hollywood. She attracted quite a lot of attention from the Hollywood press before the film was even released. Which actually made her uncomfortable as they hadn’t even seen her work yet.
O’Hara played the role of Esmeralda, the gypsy dancer who is imprisoned and later sentenced to death by the Parisian authorities. Laughton played the hunchback Quasimodo who falls in love with the exotic dancer. The film was a commercial success, raking in around $3 million at the box office. Maureen O’Hara was praised for her performance.
When World War II broke out, Laughton realized that his production company would no longer be able to film in London. So, he sold O’Hara’s contract to RKO, the company that produced The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
More films Roles
Starting her career in an all-new land, O’Hara went on to take roles in films, such as John Farrow’s A Bill of Divorcement (1940). O’Hara’s work relationship with Farrow became complicated when he made inappropriate comments to her and even went as far as to stalk her home. When she continued to reject him, he began mistreating her on set.
He underestimated O’Hara’s feisty nature. One day when she had had enough, she punched him in the jaw, which put an end to the mistreatment.
Afterwards, she landed the role of an aspiring ballerina who performs with a dance troupe in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). The role was physically demanding, and O’Hara felt intimidated by the famous Lucille Ball as she was a superior dancer. Despite her nerves, all went well and the two even became close friends for many years.
Hollywood: A New Path of Thorns or Roses?
The 1940s witnessed a new era for Maureen O’Hara in Hollywood. In 1941, she appeared in ‘They Met in Argentina’. Though, it seems that she was not a big fan of the film herself. She later stated that she “knew it was going to be a stinker; terrible script, bad director, preposterous plot, forgettable music”.
She became so frustrated with her career that some critics said that she was ready to retire at that point. Ida Zeitlin wrote that O’Hara had “reached a pitch of despair where she was about ready to throw in the towel, to break her contract, to collapse against the stone wall of indifference and howl like a baby wolf”.
“How Green Was My Valley”
O’Hara chose to persist, however and expressed her desire for a role, however small, in John Ford’s upcoming film ‘How Green Was My Valley’ (1941). The film was about a close, hard-working Welsh mining family living in the heart of the South Wales Valleys in the 19th century. It turns out that she had a knack for choosing the right projects since the film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also began a long artistic collaboration between herself and John Ford spanning 20 years with five feature films.
Maureen O’Hara actually beat out Katharine Hepburn and Gene Tierney for the part, which proved to be her breakthrough role. The film was praised by critics, especially for O’Hara’s performance, and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning three.
O’Hara confessed that her favourite scene in the film is the one that takes place outside the church after her character gets married, “I make my way down the steps to the carriage waiting below, the wind catches my veil and fans it out in a perfect circle all the way around my face. Then it floats straight up above my head and points to the heavens. It’s breathtaking.”
‘To the Shores of Tripoli’
O’Hara’s first Technicolour film was the war movie ‘To the Shores of Tripoli’. In the film, she played the role of Navy nurse Lieutenant Mary Carter. Though the era was dominated by films discussing the war effort, the film managed to find its place and was a commercial success. Still, O’hara was not completely pleased with the film’s quality as she said that she “couldn’t understand why the quality of his (Bruce Humberstone’s) pictures never seemed to match their impressive box-office receipts”.
Further Film Success for Maureen O’Hara
Afterwards, she took on a new role as a timid socialite who joins the army as a cook in Henry Hathaway’s Ten Gentlemen from West Point (1942). Which tells the fictional story of the first class of the United States Military Academy in the early 19th century. Unfortunately, O’Hara had a difficult relationship with her co-star who she described as “positively loathsome”.
In the same year, she went on to star opposite Tyrone Power, Laird Cregar and Anthony Quinn in Henry King’s ‘The Black Swan’. Finally, a film gained O’Hara ultimate approval as she stated that it was “everything you could want in a lavish pirate picture: a magnificent ship with thundering cannons; a dashing hero battling menacing villains … sword fights; fabulous costumes …”. Critics agreed as they hailed the film as one of the period’s most enjoyable adventure films.
Henry Fonda & Maureen O’Hara
Starring opposite one of the most acclaimed stars at the time, O’Hara played the love interest of Henry Fonda in the 1943 war picture Immortal Sergeant. Henry Fonda was actually studying for his service entry exams at the time, and that 20th Century Fox published one of the last love scenes between them in the film as Fonda’s last screen kiss before joining the war effort.
She returned to working with Charles Laughton once again in Jean Renoir’s This Land Is Mine, playing the role of a European school teacher.
Later, she had a role in Richard Wallace’s The Fallen Sparrow opposite John Garfield.
Life in Colours
“Ms. O’Hara was called the Queen of Technicolour because when that film process first came into use, nothing seemed to show off its splendour better than her rich red hair, bright green eyes and flawless peaches-and-cream complexion.
One critic praised her in an otherwise negative review of the 1950 film “Comanche Territory” with the sentiment “Framed in Technicolor, Miss O’Hara somehow seems more significant than a setting sun.” Even the creators of the process claimed her as its best advertisement.”
—Anita Gates of The New York Times
Although she was known as the “Queen of Technicolor”, Maureen O’Hara disliked the filming process in technicolour films, saying that it required intense light that burned her eyes.
In 1944, she starred opposite Joel McCrea in William A. Wellman’s western film ‘Buffalo Bill’. The film did well at the box office and was praised by critics even though O’Hara still did not see it as a success.
In 1945, O’Hara starred in a role close to her own personality as feisty noblewoman Contessa Francesca in The Spanish Main.
During that time John Ford approached O’Hara bout starring in The Quiet Man (1952).
Maureen O’Hara’s The Quiet Man
Perhaps one of the acclaimed films of her career, The Quiet Man won the Academy Award for Best Director for John Ford, and for Best Cinematography. In 2013, The Quiet Man was also selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
A Flourishing Career
Maureen O’Hara went on to play deep and meaningful roles, such as her role as an actress with a fatal heart condition in Walter Lang’s Sentimental Journey. She described the commercially successful film as a “rip-your-heart-out tearjerker that reduced my agents and the toughest brass at Fox to mush when they saw it”.
O’Hara’s movie choices became more diverse as she took on a role In Gregory Ratoff’s musical Do You Love Me, She played a prim music school dean who transforms herself into a desirable, sophisticated lady in the big city. She commented that it was “one of the worst pictures I ever made”.
Going back to the adventure genre, O’Hara starred as Shireen in the adventure film Sinbad the Sailor in 1947. She played an adventuress who assists Sinbad as he tries to locate the hidden treasure of Alexander the Great.
Hollywood and Irish Superstar
Maureen O’Hara was thought of as Ireland’s first ‘Hollywood Superstar” helping to pave the way for future Irish actresses seeking to discover their own unique style and voice that sets them apart from others. Just as Maureen O’Hara did; everything about her was special and she could brilliantly delivery lines and portray a variety of characters effortlessly. She left an incredible legacy that will never be forgotten.
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