Note: It’s been nearly a week since Maureen O’Hara died and nearly as long as my obsessive efforts to complete this profile and filmography. I think it breaks a record of words on an entry, but there was much to tell. Hopefully a few of you will have time to dig deep into this screen legend.
“I was tough. I was tall. I was strong. I didn’t take any nonsense from anybody.” Maureen O’Hara was explaining why she got along so well with her frequent co-star John Wayne, but it could well be her epitaph. A ravishing red-headed beauty she had a fierce streak of intelligence and independence that could intimidate and overpower those who were not worthy of her both on the screen and in real life. Her long, rich, full life came to an end on Saturday, October 24 at her grandson’s Boise, Idaho home. She was 95 years old.
On August 17, 1920 as the Irish War of Independence still raged she was born as Maureen FitzSimons in the Dublin suburb of Ranelagh. Her family was comfortable and prosperous, Catholic and Republican, and devoted to Irish culture. Her father, Charles Stewart Parnell FitzSimons—that name alone says legions about the family—was clothing merchant and a part owner of the Shamrock Rovers Football Club, the premier football [soccer] team in the country. Her mother, the former Marguerite Lilburn, had been a former operatic contralto who operated her own successful women’s clothing shop. She imbued all of her children with a love of music and theater and saw that they had training from an early age.
Although her older sister was destined for the cloistered life in Irish Sisters of Charity, Maureen, the second eldest of six children, began lessons in drama, music, and dance at the age of 6, about the time she started John Street West Girls’ School in Dublin. Soon after she declared her intention to become a great actress. By age 10 she joined the Rathmines Theatre Company and performed in amateur productions after school and her private lessons. As a teenager she studied at the temple of Irish drama, the Abbey Theater where she excelled and attracted attention.
That attention included an invitation to make a screen test in London when she was 16. The Elstree Studio did not know what to do with the tall, statuesque red-head, whose look was obviously too mature for “girl” roles. So they tried to glam her up with a gold lamé gown flapping sleeves, a stiff, elaborate hair do, and heavy make-up that ruined her natural pale, creamy complexion. Maureen felt uncomfortable, and the camera was not kind to her. Everyone considered the screen test a failure although it led to small parts in two minor films, The Playboy and Little Miss Molly released in 1938. She was not happy in film and yearned to return to the stage. She was just about to return to Dublin and try for a full membership in the Abby company when fate intervened.
|Newly named 19 year old Maureen O'Hara as the world first saw her in Jamaica Inn.|
Fate came in the slightly rotund form of Charles Laughton who somehow saw the screen tests. He recognized what others couldn’t under the smear of make-up—those large flashing eyes. He signed her to a seven year contract for Mayflower Productions the company he founded with producer Erich Pommer, and he had just the part for her—a young, naïve woman brought into the household of an aunt who was married to the chief henchman of a gang of Cornish ship wreckers secretly led by the local squire—Laughton. We first glimpse the newly renamed Maureen O’Hara riding in a stage coach on her way to the fateful Inn. The camera lingers on her lovely face, fresh and seemingly devoid of make-up. When other passengers recoil in horror at the news of her destination and the driver refuses to make the stop, we witness the rapid evolution of emotion from frustrated bewilderment to defiant rage race across those features. We are prepared to believe that she is no ordinary damsel in distress but a headstrong and intrepid participant in the melodramatic action to follow. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock in his final British film Jamaica Inn was as good a calling card as any young actress could desire.
Instant stardom in Britain was not the only dramatic change for the 19 year old actress in 1939. While working on the picture she met and fell in love with George Brown, a production assistant on the film. They married in secrecy because her mother and chaperon, a strict Catholic, opposed the relationship. The two were never able to openly live together. The marriage, in the end, may have been as much about rebellion as passion.
Despite the success of Jamaica Inn, it was the temporary swan song of Laughton in England. Laughton accepted a contract offer from RKO Studios in Hollywood. Under that contract his first film would be a re-make of The Hunchback of Notre Dame based on Victor Hugo’s famous novel.
Laughton persuaded a reluctant studio to cast O’Hara as the dancing Gypsy temptress Esmeralda. They would have preferred an established sexpot like Heddy Lamar for the part, but she was under contract to MGM.
It was on her way to the States on board an ocean liner with Laughton that O’Hara’s mother discovered her wedding ring in her handbag setting off a bitter row. Brown had been left behind in England. The marriage could not endure a long-distance separation and her mother’s scorn and officially ended in 1941 with a divorce and a church annulment.
With her pale skin and red hair, O’Hara was nobody’s stereotype of a Gypsy, but her sensuousness and underlying sympathetic tenderness was enough to motivate the men in the film to sacrifice everything for a love they could never have. When producer Pandro S. Berman saw the dailies, the studio realized what they had in O’Hara and gave her the full press star build-up. The film premiered on Christmas Day, 1939 at Radio City Music Hall. Laughton and O’Hara both received rave reviews. Today the film is considered one of the highlights of the so called Greatest Year of Movies which also saw the release of Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, and Dark Victory among other classics.
Following the success of the film Laughton sold his contract to O’Hara to RKO and the studio signed her for a seven year contract. Now the studio had to figure out what to do with their unusual new star.
They didn’t succeed on the first try, an unnecessary remake of A Bill of Divorcement made memorably just eight years earlier with Katherine Hepburn and John Barrymore in the melodrama about a family shattered when the father—Adolph Monjou in this version, returns after 20 years in a mental institution to find his family unwelcoming and his wife divorcing him. It was not that O’Hara was bad in the film, just that she was sunk with the overall shoddy character of the re-make.
She fared better in her next outing, Dance Girl, Dance now considered a minor classic in which she played an aspiring and talented ballet student forced by near starvation in the Depression to take a job in burlesque. Her friend and former roommate played memorably by Lucile Ball has become a burlesque queen and hires her as a kind of stooge doing her classic ballet number to draw boos and cat calls from the impatient audience expecting more flesh to set up the star’s turn. Feminists love a scene in which the feisty O’Hara has had enough and finally scolds the lechers in the seats, a classic moment. The film has messages of enduring in the face of odds to achieve a dream and redemption not only for O’Hara but for the one-time stage door Johnny she thinks she loves.
But instead of seeking another intelligent script that could highlight O’Hara’s dramatic chops, RKO completely wasted her in a perfectly dreadful musical—in which she, a gifted singer and dancer, did neither. They Met in Argentina was hands down the worst movie she ever made, and one of the worst ever from RKO, a studio that was beginning to seek bottom.
|In John Ford's How Green Was My Valley|
Luckily, after that disappointment there was hope on the horizon in the forms of Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox and director John Ford who got her on loan from RKO for one of the most prestigious and highly anticipated films of 1941, How Green Was My Valley, the family saga set in a Welsh coal mining town complete with mining disasters, bitter strikes, and company repression. O’Hara as the eldest daughter Angharad and the most beautiful girl in the valley was part of a stellar cast that included Donald Crisp as the stern father, Sara Algood as the sweet and patient mother, Anna Lee—who became O’Hara’s closest friend—as a sister, Walter Pidgeon as O’Hara’s suitor and eventual husband, and young Roddy McDowell, fresh off the boat from England as a child refugee as the wide-eyed younger brother through whose eyes we see the story unfold. O’Hara’s wedding scene when a gust of wind swirls her veil behind her and eventually lifts it into the air is an iconic cinema moment.
Not only was How Green Was My Valley, the most popular film of 1941, it led in Academy Award nominations with ten. Astoundingly O’Hara was not among the nominees. But the film won Best Picture honors beating out Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and director Ford and supporting players Crisp and Algood took home Oscars. The film also won in three other categories.
For its part Fox was impressed enough to buy out O’Hara’s contract with RKO. O’Hara became the notoriously cranky—especially toward women and actresses—Ford’s favor actress and she adored him and forgave him his excesses. They complimented each other and worked memorably together in four more films, three of them classics in anyone’s book.
In 1942, around the time filming for that dud wrapped and O’Hara’s divorce and annulment came through, she married again, this time to William Houston Price who had been dialogue director on the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Perhaps it was another strike for independence from her dominating mother. But this time she was determined to become a good wife. It wasn’t easy. Her career was just about to kick into a higher gear than ever. Price’s career never prospered. I imagine there were resentments. He coped by drinking which got worse year after year. O’Hara, coming from a drinking culture, at first was understanding and supportive. As the years wore on, she became resigned and determined to stick it out as a good Catholic and for the sake of their one, much beloved daughter, Bronwyn Bridget Price who was born in 1944. But Price’s drinking only got worse and he progressed from verbal abuse to physical battering the evidence of which O’Hara tried hard to conceal. It is hard to imagine such a strong, independent woman enduring the abuse for long, but loyalty to her faith made ending the marriage difficult. Finally it ended in divorce in 1953.
Going into the war year of 1942 Fox plugged O’Hara into two moral building flicks in any-actress-will-do love interest roles. To the Shores of Tripoli was basically a Marine Corp. recruiting poster on film with O’Hara opposite John Payne and Randolph Scott tough but fair drill instructor. Most noted as O’Hara’s first outing in Technicolor, but her famous red hair was covered with dark dye. Ten Gentlemen From West Point was a bit of an oddity—a period piece set in the early days of the U.S. Military Academy and the fight against Tecumseh during the War of 1812. O’Hara was paired with the notoriously wooden George Montgomery in this forgettable film.
|With Tyrone Power in The Black Swan--the birth of the Technicolor Queen.|
But these were just holding pattern films. Fox planned all along to star her in their planned blockbuster of the year—a Technicolor pirate swashbuckler The Black Swan. This time the mane of glorious red hair would be on full display as would those flashing green eyes. It was to be Tyrone Power’s last film before joining the Marine Corps. If he was Fox’s answer to Errol Flynn, O’Hara proved to be a far more formidable abductee and eventual lover interest than Olivia de Havilland. Throughout the film she gives as good as she gets not only from the hero rascal played by Power, but from the arch villain played with oily charm by George Sanders. With lots of sword play and epic ship-to-ship battles there was plenty of action to round out the tempestuous I-hate-you-I-love-you romance. The film was a romp and a huge hit for Fox.
As for O’Hara, she was proclaimed the Queen of Technicolor. Fox would regularly use her in a string of costume high adventures, mostly pirate films, and, somewhat oddly, harem and scimitar Arabian Nights fantasies. These would include The Spanish Main (1945) opposite Paul Henreid, Sinbad the Sailor (1947) with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Bagdad (1949) with the little remembered Paul Christian [Paul Hubschmid], Tripoli (1950) again with Payne as a Marine set during the War with the Barbary Pirates, The Flame of Araby (1951) with Jeffrey Chandler, At Sword’s Point (1952) for a change of scenery a Three Musketeers sequel with O’Hara as the daughter of Athos, Against All Flags opposite Errol Flynn himself (1955), and her last costume epic, Lady Godiva of Canterbury  with O’Hara at her feistiest and as the Godiva most covered by all that hair.
O’Hara interspersed these epics with mostly black and white contemporary dramas and a sprinkling of comedies. There ranged from the ho-hum programmers that all but the most powerful stars were compelled to make under the studio system to memorable gems that showed of the actresses range. First up in 1943 was Immortal Sargent opposite Henry Fonda in which she appears mostly in dream like flashbacks of a romance in London while the title NCO, a Canadian fights in North Africa. Back at RKO to fulfill a requirement to make a few more films, O’Hara was reunited with Charles Laughton in This Land is Mine set in occupied France and dramatizing how ordinary men and women are drawn in the Resistance. Back at Fox The Fallen Sparrow paired O’Hara with John Garfield in a gritty thriller with early Noir overtones about a Spanish Civil War vet trying to track down the Nazi agents who once tortured him and murdered his NYPD detective pal. Notable for the personal chemistry between the stars despite their considerable political differences.
In 1944 Buffalo Bill, the highly fictionalized Bio-pic of the Western scout and showman got O’Hara out of war pictures rut and paired her successfully with Joel McCray in the title role. As his wife Louisa, it was her first toe-dip into westerns, a genre that would become increasingly important in her career.
The tear-jerker Sentimental Journey in 1946 marked O’Hara’s return to the screen after the birth of her daughter. She plays an actress with a terminal illness who adopts a girl to give her widower—John Payne again—something to hold on to. Instead he falls apart and nearly abandon’s the child in grief while reviewing his life with his wife in flashbacks. Meanwhile the child holds conversations with her dead mother. Three hanky, over the top stuff. In the end the child and the spirit of O’Hara bring the grieving father back to his senses.
Next up was another musical in which O’Hara is given nothing musical to do, despite being cast the Dean of a Music School. In Do You Love Me she is a supposedly dowdy drudge engaged to a stuff shirt—Reginald Denny who specialized in the type. On a trip to New York she takes off the glasses, dons and evening gown and is suddenly irresistible. She loves singer Dick Haymes and his boss band leader Harry James as himself is smitten with her despite being famously married to Betty Grable in real life at the time. Confusion and musical numbers ensue in this romantic quadrangle. Despite it all, not really much for the center of the storm to do but look lovely and occasionally vexed.
1947’s The Homestretch was a glob-trotting racetrack romance with scenes filmed on tracks across the U.S., Britain, and Latin America. Footage of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation parade gets thrown in as a colorful bonus. Cornel Wilde is the gypsy horsemen, and O’Hara is his long suffering—and jealous mate. A lot of fluff, then—pow—an emotionally gut wrenching crying scene from the broken hearted O’Hara.
|With Edmund Gwynne and Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street.|
That year will be better remembered for the seasonal classic Miracle on 34th Street. O’Hara is a single mom wounded by fairy tales—evidently a faithless knight in shining armor—who is determined to raise her daughter, the precocious Natalie Wood, with no such illusions. She is an executive at Macy’s Department Store in charge of promotions including the famous Thanksgiving Day Parade and the store’s Santa. Enter the impish Edmund Gwynne who insists that he is the real Kris Kringle and who charms New Yorkers and drives up sales despite his eccentricities. O’Hara is alarmed when her daughter is drawn to his charms, but is unable to get rid of him. Meanwhile he and John Payne as a young lawyer from across the hall in her skyscraper apartment both worm their way into her closed down heart. Charming performances all around have made this one of the half-dozen Christmas classics that are seen and loved anew each year on television.
The next film, The Foxes of Harrow could hardly have been more different. A black and white period piece it was a Southern Gothic with Rex Harrison as the up-from-nothing plantation owner who woos and wins—after the customary battles—the love of the daughter of an old aristocratic line who also has qualms about slavery. The romance of the first half gives way to the ruin of the South in the Civil War and the couple’s struggle to rebuild their shattered lives. Sort of a poor man’s Gone With the Wind but based on the novel by the Black writer Frank Yerby who dispelled of the happy Darky stereotypes of other such films.
In 1948 O’Hara was still only 28 years old and a stunning beauty. But her girl parts were behind her. She had a mature look. In here next film, the out-and-out comedy Sitting Pretty she was cast as the suburban mother of four rambunctious children who are out of control. In real life, I suspect one stern look from O’Hara would have been more than enough to put an end to any shenanigans. But she and equally stressed father Robert Young decide to seek a nanny to manage the children. What they get if eccentric know-it-all Lynn Belvedere played by Clifton Webb. It was Webb’s picture and led to sequels sans O’Hara.
After that fluff in may have been a relief for O’Hara to return to RKO in 1949 for a film noir directed by the young and quirky Nicholas Ray. O’Hara played a singer whose voice has been damaged and who takes on shaping the career of feckless sex pot played to perfection by Gloria Grahame, who we first encounter hovering near death in a hospital with bullet near her heart. A distraught O’Hara admits to shooting her for wanting to abandon the career that had been so carefully built for her. Her husband, Melvin Douglas and an NYPD Detective played by J. C. Flippen do not believe the confession and with no help from O’Hara go about trying to unravel the mystery. The film is told mostly in a series of flashbacks. A fine and often overlooked gem of the genre showing a wholly new side of O’Hara’s range.
Back at Fox a dark period piece set in Victorian England, The Forbidden Street with O’Hara as a gentlewomen who falls for an marries a handsome wastrel clearly below her played by Dana Andrews. Forced to live in the foreboding mews, she falls victim to a black mail scheme by a faithless servant and is rescued by a double for her husband. Silly, but effective.
It was back to fluff in her next film opposite Fred MacMurray as a losing college football coach in Father Was a Fullback. In this film O’Hara has a headstrong teenage daughter, Betty Lynn, and a precocious younger daughter, Natalie Wood again.
Following the release of Baghdad in 1950 O’Hara was loaned out to Universal for a color B western opposite Macdonald Carey as Jim Bowie, a government agent sent to prevent a war between the Comanche and scheming settlers over silver found on the Indian land. O’Hara is the beautiful landowner who may be behind the plot. Nothing new in Comanche Territory except it was O’Hara’s first flat-out western, a genre that would keep her busy through much of the decade. Tall and athletic, a superb horsewoman who looked good in low cut velvet gowns or tight fitting jeans she was a natural for the most popular adventure format of the era.
Aside from her work with John Ford and John Wayne, other oaters would include three more at Universal, Red Head from Wyoming and War Arrow with Jeff Chandler in 1953, and by far the best of the lot, The Rare Breed (1966) with James Stewart.
|With John Wayne in Rio Grande.|
Of course O’Hara’s greatest western reunited her with director John Ford and paired her for the first time with her favorite leading man, John Wayne at the Duke’s home studio Republic. Rio Grande was the third of the acclaimed Cavalry Trilogy. O’Hara plays the estranged wife of a veteran frontier post Cavalry commander who comes west to reclaim the couple’s West Point bust out son, Claude Jarmine, who has enlisted as a common trooper in an effort to win his father’s respect and approval. A stellar cast, strong script, stunning black and white cinematography, and nuanced, sensitive performances from Wayne and O’Hara. A great classic film in every sense of the word.
After two more of her Fox swashbuckler and the Australian adventure—essentially a transplanted western—Kangaroo opposite Peter Lawford, O’Hara, Ford, and Wayne reunited for what would be another classic and her most famous signature role.
|Ford, Wayne, and O'Hara--their greatest collaboration.|
The Quiet Man was a pet project of Ford’s, always proud of his Irish identity yet was far different from his usual westerns, war stories, and adventure films. For O’Hara it was one of the few times she actually played an Irish woman in Ireland. She played a proud village beauty pushing spinsterhood for her refusal to marry below her or without her fortune—dowry—paid. Wayne, an American boxer haunted by killing a man in the ring, returns to Inisfree—think W. B. Yeat’s Lake Isle of Inisfree—the idyllic rural Irish village where he was born hoping for a quiet life in the house and on the land where he was born. He falls in love at first sight with the handsome O’Hara but has to jump through numerous local custom hoops to win her hand. When he does, the woman’s older brother, Victor McLaughlin, who hold a grudge against the American refuses to pay the dowry. O’Hara does not understand why her new husband, who has told no one about his past as a boxer, will not take what is due her by force. Not wanting to lay a fist again on another man, Wayne must endure the rejection of his bride and the opinion of the villagers that he is a common coward. All of this is spectacularly shot by Ford and a great supporting cast contributes to the charm of the picture. The scenes of Wayne trying to tame his defiant wife and of the long brawl he finally engages in with McLaughlin are among the most memorable in cinema history.
It was the favorite film of all three of the principles and cemented the fast friendship she developed with Wayne. He called her “one of the guys”, the highest possible compliment from Wayne who had a misogynistic streak. O’Hara reveled in the compliment. Their friendship continued off the set back in Hollywood, although she insisted “we were never, ever sweethearts.” She put up with Wayne’s drinking and brawling. Famously she was called one night to the Brown Derby where the Duke was passed out drunk in a booth. She managed to wrestle the giant man into her car with the help of waiters to drive him home. He woke up on the way there and insisted they stop at the home of a complete stranger. He banged on the door in the wee-small hours of the morning and demanded a drink, which the astonished householder obligingly provided. Both she and Wayne later laughed over the incident and told the story often. O’Hara would team up with Wayne for three more films.
Her relationship with Ford was even more complicated since he was madly in love with her but realized he was both too old for her and that she didn’t want him in that way. Even on the set of The Quiet Man he would switch suddenly from adoration to bitter resentment and take it out in cruel tricks like filling a field with sheep dung and filming her being dragged through it for a whole day. Back in Hollywood he once broke into her home and rifled her possessions and on another occasion smacked in the face so hard at a party that her neck snapped back. But O’Hara realized he brought out her best work and worked with him two more times.
O’Hara’s marriage finally ended in 1953, not long after the release of The Quite Man. Now despite her Catholic identity she was officially divorced and out from under her domineering mother. She soon began a serious relationship with Mexican banker and politician Enrique Parra. Neither felt free to marry given the divorce. But O’Hara described the relationship as a good one, “Enrique saved me from the darkness of an abusive marriage and brought me back into the warm light of life again. Leaving him was one of the most painful things I have ever had to do.” And she did feel she had to leave him after fourteen years and no chance of marriage.
Her life was changing in other ways, too. She was working less frequently as her contract with Fox was winding down—Lady Godiva would be her final film there. That left time for her non-exclusive contract with Universal and the opportunity to free lance. In 1954 Malanga, a spy and crime melodrama filmed on locations in Tangiers, Spain, and Gibraltar, was made by an international independent. O’Hara plays an agent sent to ferret out a smuggling operation who teams up with a spy from another agency—MacDonald Carey—to break up the gang. It also featured a late performance by Binnie Barnes as the proprietor of a shady waterfront dive in Tangiers.
The next year Ford tapped her again for The Long Grey Line at Columbia, sort of a Goodbye, Mr. Chips set West Point with Tyrone Power as an immigrant Irish soldier who rises to be an NCO and spends his career as a swimming instructor to generations of cadets. O’Hara is his beloved wife. A finely told, sentimental story and one of Power’s last films before his early death.
The Magnificent Matador conveniently took O’Hara to Mexico the same year for location shooting of the bull fighting drama. This time she is a tempestuous American woman who falls for an aging matador, Anthony Quinn, trying to face his fears and demons.
Lisbon in 1956 was a low budget Republic Picture production directed by Ray Miland who also starred along with O’Hara and Claude Raines in a dark caper flick shot on location in Portugal.
Universal’s Everything But the Truth was a breezy comedy with O’Hara as an idealistic teacher who encourages her children to “always tell the truth.” When one eight year old boy takes her to heart and reveals that his father has paid graft the boy is suspended from school and the teacher fired by a principal who is part of the corrupt city machine. She teams with newspaper columnist John Forsythe to uncover the truth and save the boy and her job.
The Wings of Eagles would be her last film with Ford and re-unite her with Wayne. It was Ford’s homage to his personal friend, former Navy aviator Frank W. “Spig” Wead who became a leading Hollywood screen writer after being paralyzed from the waist down, and who talked his way into active carrier duty despite his handicap during World War II. Although parts of the film were highly fictionalized, Ford didn’t flinch from the fact that Wead was paralyzed un-heroically—drunkenly falling down stairs or showing how his behavior destroyed his marriage with O’Hara who struggled to remain loyal and supportive as long as she could. Even at the end she cheers for his redemption as a war hero, but does not subject herself to reuniting with.
|With Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana.|
It was two long years before O’Hara was on the big screen and it was in another classic. Our Man in Havana based on a novel by Graham Greene, was a British production set in the title city during the Cold War and the final days of the Battista Dictatorship. Alec Guinness plays a struggling English vacuum cleaner shop owner who allows himself to be recruited by a British intelligence service to recruit as network of spies and send information back to London. Instead Guinness makes up his spy network and sends sketches of fantastic military instillations based on his vacuum cleaners. London is thrilled and sends a top agent, O’Hara, to assist him. Meanwhile he has attracted the attention of Battista’s suavely evil Chief of Police played by Ernie Kovaks who sets out to expose and arrest him. O’Hara learns the truth, but falls for the fraud, and helps him find a way to get out of his perilous situation just as Castro’s Rebels march into town. It was a glorious satire of both the red-hot espionage genre and of Cold War mentality.
Also in 1960 O’Hara turned to television for the first time reprising the role of another famous red head, Greer Garson, in an early made-for-TV remake of Mrs. Miniver for CBS. This version, like an hour long drama based on The Scarlet Pimpernel that she did for the DuPont Show of the Month have been lost.
In 1961 O’Hara and her brother, Charles Fitzsimons created their own production company to make The Deadly Companions, a highly unusual western. Working on a relative shoe string, they finally got financing from the American division of French filmmaker Pathé by having screenwriter A. S. Fleischman novelize his script. When to book sold 500,000 copies the money came in from Pathé. Brian Keith plays a former cavalry officer known only as Yellowleg for the gold strip on his uniform trousers, who accidently shoots and kills the son of dance hall girl O’Hara while trying to break up a store robbery. Grief stricken, he signs on to safely escort O’Hara and the child’s body across hostile Indian country to be buried next to his father at the ranch that was burned by the Apache. He brings along two shady characters, Chill Wills and Steve Cochran who owe him a favor. Sam Peckinpaw was hired to direct, but O’Hara was dissatisfied with him on numerous counts—he simply missed a critical day of shooting a major battle with the Indians scene, he display sadistic pleasure in the injury of animals on the set, and he spent much of the day crudely scratching his crotch. Still, it was a memorable film, but was seldom seen due to difficulty getting good distribution.
|With Haley Mills, Haley Mills, and Brian Kieth in The Parent Trap.|
When Walt Disney signed O’Hara for a lead role in his new comedy, the actress was thrilled. She hoped it would lead to a contract to make quality, wholesome family films with the company. The Parent Trap was certainly successful—one of the most popular of all of Disney’s live action comedies. It teamed her up again with Brian Keith as a divorced couple who split when their twin daughters were infants, each parent taking a child to raise. Fourteen years later the girls accidentally meet at a summer camp and scheme to switch with each other to meet the parents they have never known. Then they scheme to bring the hostile couple back together. Haley Mills did double duty as the twins. But when the film was released, young Mills was given top billing over O’Hara despite an explicit contract provision that she get lead billing. Never one to be trifled with, O’Hara stormed into Disney’s office and threatened to sue. He threatened right back—“Sue me, and I will destroy you.” So much for Mr. Nice Guy. The episode so vexed O’Hara that she has repeated the tale of betrayal in her autobiography and every other chance she had in interviews.
But there were highly successful projects just ahead, some of them probably made possible by the boost to her career by the huge success of The Parent Trap. Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation paired her with James Stewart for the first time in a comedy about a middle-class, middle-American couple who take a summer long vacation in a run-down beach house where various calamities stalk the long suffering father and each of the children has a crisis. It was just the sort of family picture O’Hara now wanted to make and it was a box office hit.
In 1963 O’Hara starred along with Henry Fonda as the matriarch of a large, poor hard working family in the shadows of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons. The novel Spenser’s Mountain by Earl Hamner Jr. was based on his own family in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains which would become the inspiration of his hugely successful television series The Waltons. Fonda is forced to forego his long promise to build his wife a big home on the top of Spenser’s Mountain so that their oldest son, the first child in generations to graduate from high school a chance to attend the University of Wyoming at far-off Laramie.
|With Wayne again in the famous wife abuse scene from McLintock! with Stephanie Powers and Patrick Waye.|
Later that year came the long awaited reunion of Wayne and O’Hara in the comedy western McLintock! for Wayne’s Batjack Productions under the direction of Victor MacLaughlin’s son Andrew V. MacLaughlin who had grown up on John Ford sets. The film was based loosely on The Taming of the Shrew. Wayne plays a powerful, but benevolent, cattle baron. Even the nesters who are crowding his range respect him for his fairness and the local Indians look to him for protection. Land swindlers are busy trying to stir up the long peaceful Indians with lies and rifles hoping to drive the settlers—and McClintock—off of their land with the collusion of a weak governor. Meanwhile his long estranged wife, O’Hara arrives back on the ranch with their daughter, Stephanie Powers, who has been nearly ruined by finishing school. O’Hara declares she will be taking Powers with her to a fashionable life in the State Capitol. Confrontations between husband and wife are epic, with O’Hara nearly intimidating the Duke himself. But not for long. There is a famous long brawl in a mud pit and eventually Wayne puts an end to the nonsense by turning O’Hara over his knee and spanking her hard—and so realistically O’Hara said her butt hurt for a week.
The Battle of Villa Fiorita in 1966 was obviously inspired by the success of The Parent Trap set on an estate on the banks of Lake Como in Italy with Rossano Brazzi, Richard Todd, and Olivia Hussey. O’Hara plays an English woman who abandons her husband to live with her Italian lover, a wealthy composer and conductor in his idyllic dig. But the adolescent children she brings with her conspire with the resentful daughter of the musician to reunited husband and wife and return to England.
After The Rare Breed the next year, O’Hara stepped away from acting except for two television appearances. The main reason was her third marriage in 1968 to Charles F. Blair, Jr. a former brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force, a former chief pilot at Pan Am, and founder and President of the U.S. Virgin Islands based airline Antilles Air Boats. The couple spent most of their time in the Virgin Islands but traveled extensively. This time it was a compatible marriage which O’Hara described as the happiest years of her life. That happiness was cut short ten years later when the Grauman Goose airboat Blair was piloting crashed on an inter-island flight in 1979. O’Hara was elected President of the airline after his death making her the first female CEO of a regularly scheduled airline and took an active part in management of the company. She also dedicated herself to preserving Blair’s memory by becoming a patron of the Flying Boats Museum in Foynes, Limerick where a significant 2006 expansion was dedicated to Blair. She also donated his Sikorsky VS-44A The Queen of the Skies to the New England Air Museum at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. O’Hara maintained her principle residence in the Virgin Islands splitting her time with an Irish estate.
Beginning in 1970 O’Hara returned to the screen for rare projects. The first was a disaster—How Do I Love Thee, a comedy tailored for Jackie Gleason. She plays the religious wife of a philandering and often drunken husband who is worried about his immortal soul. Shelly Winters is the other woman. Not only was the film a box office failure, but during filming an actually drunk Gleason fell on O’Hara while doing a scene and crushed her right hand requiring a week in the hospital and emergency orthopedic surgery. The hand, however, was permanently damaged. She lost tendons in most of her fingers and a joint in her index finger.
The next year she appeared for the last time with John Wayne in Big Jake, a western in which the Duke tries to adapt to the changing tastes of film goers now used to the hyper-violence of Peckenpaw and others. The vast McCandles ranch is raided by a gang of villain led by Richard Boone and matriarch O’Hara’s grandson is taken for ransom after a bloody gun battle. O’Hara has no choice but to call on the help of her long estranged husband who left the empire he built when his marriage soured. With the help of three untried and callow older grandsons, he sets off in pursuit with predictable bloody results. O’Hara is only seen in the opening and closing scenes but here mere presence helps establish Big Jake’s character.
Two years later she did a particularly prestigious made-for-TV version of John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony with Henry Fonda, Ben Johnson, Jack Elam, and Clint Howard. It would be her last work for eighteen years as she spent her time attending to her late husband’s business and on increasingly long visits to her Irish estate.
|With John Candy in Only the Lonely.|
In 1991 she was lured back to work in the John Candy comedy/drama Only The Lonely as the completely domineering mother of Candy’s sad sack Chicago Cop. If you thought she was formidable as a love interest, wait till you see her as The Old Woman! Alley Sheedy plays the shy funeral home worker whose chance at love with Candy O’Hara all but destroys. And Anthony Quinn is the Greek neighbor who woos the bigoted mother and finally provides enough space for Candy and Sheedy to escape. It was a brava performance. It was her last picture for the big screen.
O’Hara made three more TV movies. The first and most notable of them in 1995 was the sentimental version of the wildly popular little holiday novel The Christmas Box co-starring Richard Thomas and Annette O’Toole. Cab Ride to Canada (1998) and The Last Dance (2000) followed. The latter was O’Hara’s final role. She never announced retirement, but noted that good parts for women her age were hard to find unless she wanted to play a feeble little old lady. She would have none of that, even when in the coming years age would finally begin to catch up with her and confine her to a wheel chair.
Still she kept busy. She was Grand Marshal of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 1999 52 years after Miracle on 34th Street. In 2002 she published her best selling memoirs, Tis’ Herself. She continued to make public appearances in Ireland and the States from time to time and was always available to give a lively interview to a usually awed young reporter. Due to the stroke that confined her to a wheel chair in 2007 and some loss of short term memory, she left Ireland to live with her grandson in Boise. But despite the infirmities last year she was on hand to receive an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement as an actress—Myrna Loy was the only other woman to be given the honor without having won an Oscar at least once—and to attend the Turner Classic Movie Festival where she was interviewed for a special by Robert Osborne. Those would be her last, crowning public moments.