The scarlet mane, emerald eyes and creamy complexion were made to be embraced by the Technicolor process, and the ingratiating presence and skill of tall, feisty Irish-born beauty Maureen O’Hara has added to the endurance of the many undisputed film classics on her lengthy resumé. The daughter of a former contralto and a clothier who was part-owner of the Shamrock Rovers soccer team, Maureen FitzSimons was born on August 17, 1920 in Dublin’s Ranelagh suburb and began training in drama and music from the time she was six. While her father insisted on her mastering clerical skills as a back-up, the athletic tomboy was winning dramatic contests by her early teens and gained admission to the Abbey Theatre at 14. In 1938, the 18-year-old Maureen traveled to London to take bit parts in two films, Little Miss Molly and The Playboy.
A screen test she had made caught the attention of Charles Laughton, who proceeded to put her under contract and rechristened FitzSimons with the more marquee-friendly O’Hara. Laughton then promptly arranged for his new protégé to take a pivotal role in Alfred Hitchcock’s costume drama Jamaica Inn (1939). Laughton followed by bringing her later that year to America, casting her as gypsy heroine Esmeralda alongside his title performance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but with the clouds of war gathering over Europe, Laughton sold her pact to RKO.
While her next few projects (including the since-rediscovered Dance, Girl, Dance) didn’t generate much traction, that changed with the success of her portrayal of a Welsh mining family’s willful daughter in 1941′s Best Picture Academy Award-winner, How Green Was My Valley, the first of five career projects for director John Ford. The following year, the original movie cast, including O’Hara, re-created their screen roles for producer Cecil B. DeMille on the popular radio series, Lux Radio Theater.
1942 found Maureen making her Technicolor debut in the timely flag-waver To the Shores of Tripoli (1942), where she met John Payne, with whom she’d eventually co-star in four films. The actress then co-starred with George Montgomery in Ten Gentlemen from West Point, based on the military academy’s early days, with a swashbuckling Tyrone Power in the buccaneer blockbuster The Black Swan.
Keeping busy through the WWII era, O’Hara was paired in 1943 with Henry Fonda (and gave the actor his final on-screen kiss before he went off to serve in the Navy) for Immortal Sergeant, and later that same year she re-teamed with Laughton for the Oscar-winning drama This Land Is Mine, directed by Jean Renoir. Back at RKO, she shared the screen with Hollywood bad boy John Garfield in the noir-flavored thriller The Fallen Sparrow. Years later, she reminisced about Garfield, “He was my shortest leading man, an outspoken Communist and a real sweetheart.”
Back in Technicolor in 1944–and in a totally different direction–she played Louisa Cody, wife of frontiersman “Buffalo Bill” Cody (Joel McCrea), in the western biopic Buffalo Bill. The game physicality she displayed in action films ensured that she’d be a staple of the adventure genre for the next decade, as evidenced by her turn in 1945′s The Spanish Main as the feisty Contessa, opposite Paul Henried, and two years later in Sinbad, the Sailor with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (both films also boasting the screen villainy of Walter Slezak).
Notables from the balance of the ’40s included Do You Love Me, a 1946 musical with Dick Haymes and Harry James where Maureen played (of all things) a dowdy music teacher, followed by two more with John Payne: the classic weeper Sentimental Journey and the 1947 Chrtistmas perennial Miracle on 34th Street, where she was cast as the no-nonsense Macy’s executive who, along with daughter Natalie Wood, learns a lesson in the Yuletide spirit from Edmund Gwenn’s Kris Kringle. In 1948, she played one of The Foxes of Harrow as Rex Harrison’s tempestuous wife, and she embraced comedy in Sitting Pretty, the first of the popular “Mr. Belvedere” films, with Robert Young. Although she seemed quite at home in the genre, O’Hara later reflected, “Comedy is quite difficult, you have to be able to have fun and portray that sense of fun to the audience watching you.”
The ’50s began with her reuniting with director Ford–and commencing her memorable screen partnership with John Wayne–in Rio Grande. Miss O’Hara was then found at her action-packed best as the daughter of the Three Musketeers’ Athos, defending the French throne in At Sword’s Point. Her string of adventure films at Universal included Against All Flags (1952) with co-star Errol Flynn, but it was the enduring success of 1950′s Rio Grande that granted Ford the requisite leverage with Republic Pictures’ head honcho Herbert J. Yates for Wayne and O’Hara to collaborate on the irresistible Ireland odyssey The Quiet Man (1952), in which her fiery red hair never looked better.
Often called the Queen of Technicolor, it was supposedly Maureen’s gorgeous red tresses in all those adventure movies that kept her from getting the lead in the 1955 movie version of The King and I. According to popular belief, Richard Rodgers turned her down because he didn’t want a “Pirate Queen” in his movie. Although Deborah Kerr is spirited and assertive in the movie, more than likely O’Hara could have brought a sassier dimension to the role, which might be what Rodgers feared.
She’d remain a formidable leading lady through the Eisenhower era, as marked by War Arrow (1953), a thrilling Cavalry-versus-Indians adventure also starring Jeff Chandler; as The Redhead from Wyoming ( also 1953), where she takes the rustling rap for a slimy politician but cleverly outwits him before the film’s end; and in the title role of the 1955 “un-costume drama” Lady Godiva from Coventry (O’Hara stated that she actually wore a flesh-colored leotard in the movie). 1955 also saw the return of an old co-star (Tyrone Power), an old setting (West Point) and a familiar director (Ford) for The Long Gray Line, a moving true-life story that plays like a West Point-flavored Goodbye, Mr. Chips. In 1957 Ford came calling again, bringing Maureen and the Duke back together in The Wings of Eagles, a biography of pioneering WWI Navy aviator Frank “Spig” Wead, who turned to screenwriting after a debilitating injury; and in 1959, she starred alongside Alec Guinness in Carol Reed’s spy comedy Our Man in Havana, shot in pre-Castro Cuba. Off the set of that film, Miss O’Hara actually met Castro’s right-hand compadre. She later said of him, “I spent a great deal of time with Che Guevara while I was in Havana. I feel he was less a mercenary than he was a freedom fighter.”
Maureen spent the early to mid-’60s making a seamless transition to matriarchal parts, as shown by her starring role opposite Brian Keith in the Disney classic The Parent Trap (1961), and reunited with Keith for Sam Peckinpah’s non-traditional Western adventure, The Deadly Companions (1962). She and Keith became good friends and O’Hara made news when she claimed that Keith’s reported suicide in 1997 was actually an accident. Keith had been ailing from both emphysema and cancer and was also in mourning over his 27 year-old daughter’s suicide.
Also in ’62, the actress paired with James Stewart in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, where she and husband Jimmy try to enjoy a quiet family getaway amid ever-increasing obstacles. The following year she starred with old friend Henry Fonda in the adventure Spencer’s Mountain, based on the same writings which later inspired The Waltons TV series; making it a family affair, her daughter Bronwyn FitzSimons appears in that film, in an uncredited role. Maureen was then very much at home in high comedy in McLintock!, with Wayne in 1963: and 1966 brought her together again with Stewart for a fine family film, The Rare Breed, in which Maureen tries to deliver a prize bull with help from Jimmy and daughter Juliet Mills — yes, believe it or not, that’s what its about.
Subsequently, she entered into a happy union with aviator Charles Blair, and pared back her workload after her final teaming with Wayne in 1971′s Big Jake. It was no secret that she was John Wayne’s favorite actress, and they considered each other best friends. Wayne is quoted as saying, “There’s only one woman who has been my friend over the years and by that I mean a real friend, like a man would be. That woman is Maureen O’Hara. She’s big, lusty, and absolutely marvelous, definitely my kind of woman. She’s a great guy. I’ve had many friends and I prefer the company of men. Except for Maureen O’Hara.”
After Big Jake, she embraced a big-screen retirement, briefly resurfacing for the 1973 telefilm of The Red Pony. After Blair’s passing in a 1978 plane crash, she assumed the presidency of his air carrier business for a time. She was coaxed back to filmmaking in 1991 with the tailor-made role of lovelorn cop John Candy’s controlling mom in director John Hughes’ Only the Lonely. She’d make a handful of made-for-TV films over the mid- to late ’90s, after which the redoubtable redhead called it a day with performing; the years since have seen the publication of the autobiography ‘Tis Herself, and have otherwise been largely spent living quietly in her homeland.
Evidence of Maureen’s charisma (and magnificent crimson locks) are found in these scenes from 1952′s theatrical trailer for The Quiet Man: