Maureen O’Hara was one of those “old” movie stars whom I grew up knowing about because of the yearly showing of Miracle on 34th Street on television, as well as my absolute obsession with Parent Trap. I wanted to be in that movie, I wanted to live it, I wanted to go to that camp, I wanted a British accent, and I wanted to wear little yellow sunsuits like Hayley Mills did. Maureen O’Hara, with her flaming red hair and slamming body (so soft and voluptuous in the early 50s, in Parent Trap transformed into a veritable zigzag of curves accentuated by bullet bras that would put your eye out), was so much fun in that movie, and I, as a little kid watching it on TV, thought: “Oh, it is so OBVIOUS that she still loves her husband!!” I liked her temper tantrums, her self-righteous attitude because it was clear that underneath it she was as soft and vulnerable as a child.
This inner conflict was, unbeknownst to me at the time, one of the major elements of O’Hara’s appeal (well, that and the red hair, green eyes, and slamming body): the temper-y untameable hothead … but what all of that was hiding was a soft womanly heart. If you could tap into it, and access it, you’d be the luckiest man alive. Killer combo.
The other reason she was familiar to me was because of, of course, The Quiet Man. Beloved by many, but beloved in particular by Irish Americans, The Quiet Man represents a fantasy, on many levels, of what the “auld country” must be like, the things Irish immigrants looked back on and yearned for, realistic or no. To quote Eamonn, a guy I met one crazy night in Dublin, “Americans come to Ireland and expect all the women to be like Maureen O’Hara throwin’ pots and pans at them.” When I saw E.T. as a kid, I felt like the smartest person in the world because I recognized that clip of the kiss in the wind from Quiet Man: that wasn’t just some old movie, it was a movie I knew by heart! I loved one of my father’s comments about Quiet Man, and he said this, oh, 20 years ago, and I remember the jist of it perfectly. Here is a paraphrase of it: “The Quiet Man has one of the best fight scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie, and when I first saw it I really thought it was about 20 minutes long. But every time I see it, it feels like the fight scene gets shorter and shorter. But I still remember the first time I saw it and I couldn’t believe how long that fight scene was!”
In the years to come, I would watch many more of Maureen O’Hara’s pictures – filling in all of the many blanks (she made 5 films with John Ford, and a bunch with John Wayne; she has said, “[Wayne] was my best friend for 40 years.”), and had her struggles with Hollywood, like most successful actresses did. She felt she was not considered for really dramatic parts, and that they were trying to pigeonhole her. Of course that was true and her role in The Quiet Man is the ultimate pigeonhole: fiery untamed Irish lassie, but she found a way to work the system, and be okay with it. She really was a “fiery” woman. I love the stories about her battles with John Ford who, obviously, felt very strongly about his own Irish-ness.
O’Hara would sashay onto the set, and they’d basically do “Irish schtick” together, for the crew, and it was Ford’s way of asserting, “I’M IRISH, I’M IRISH, LOOK HOW IRISH I AM, I CAN GO TOE TO TOE WITH MAUREEN” – and O’Hara knew that that was what he was doing, and that was what was expected of her – but at the same time, when he pissed her off she would let him have it. A fascinating relationship.
She was one of those people who fought to hold her ground, who had protracted contractual battles with the studios. She wasn’t a cringing violet who felt lucky to just be working. For example, when she signed on to do Parent Trap, it was in her contract that she would have top billing. She was the leading lady of the picture and a huge star. When she eventually saw the poster, it said:
Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills
THE PARENT TRAP
Starring MAUREEN O’HARA and BRIAN KEITH
O’Hara went ballistic. She knew that Walt Disney had decided to ignore her contract and promote Hayley in the double role (basically calling attention to the revolutionary split-screen filming that they had done to make the young actress appear to be twins). O’Hara complained and it started moving up the chain of command: ‘take it to this person’, ‘take it to SAG’. To actually take on Disney was not (then or now) a pleasing prospect. Is this the hill you want to die on? Notably, O’Hara never worked for Disney again. Which is a shame, because I think she was the perfect Disney leading lady. But that was who she was. That ad campaign for Parent Trap put Disney in breach of Maureen’s contract, but they obviously knew that they held all the cards and whatever fight she wanted, she would not win.
Her autobiography ‘Tis Herself: A Memoir is full of great anecdotes like that. She was a canny businesswoman, protective of herself and her interests, and eager to show all that she could do, even if Hollywood wanted to pin her down.
Maureen O’Hara was born into an eccentric arts-loving family who lived in Ranelagh, a suburb on the outskirts of Dublin. Her mother also was a crazy redhead, and O’Hara grew up surrounded by jokes, laughter, talk. She remembers it all as warm, beautiful, and joyous, a great beginning for life. Her parents were into opera, football, and fashion (her mother was, apparently, a clotheshorse, and brought the young Maureen shopping with her). Her mother was also an actress and a singer. Maureen knew quite early that acting was what she wanted to do and she got some jobs on the radio, and what amounts to summer stock. She was only 13, 14 years old at the time, but finally, she got serious enough to begin studying for real. At 14, she auditioned for the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was accepted. It was there that she really began to learn how to be an actress. Things were on fast-forward for her, which I suppose is part of being that extraordinarily beautiful. Everything seemed to proceed in a logical fashion. Of course she would be approrached to do a screen test. Of course she would resist at first because what she really wanted was to be a great stage actress? Then of course she would come to her senses and go to London for the screen test. And of course Charles Laughton would see the screentest and be struck dumb by her eyes, he was so struck by her that he put her under his own personal contract. And the rest is history.
Maureen O’Hara was one of the most successful stage actresses in Ireland by the time she was 15 years old, and when she went to Hollywood, under the wing of Charles Laughton, started off playing leads. Pretty incredible. No working her way up the ladder. Her book details that journey in humorous prose. You really like her. She seems very personable, with a temper you admire, and a seriousness about the work that is undeniable. Her desire to be a good actress is supreme.
She was an actress MADE for the invention of Technicolor. She’s a gorgeous woman, even in black and white but what sets her apart from other gorgeous women is her coloring. Ford used it to great advantage in that first glimpse we get of her in Quiet Man, which depends on the colors. There are the green fields and the bright flowers, and Maureen, in her vivid dress with her vivid hair, seems to be a part of the landscape. No wonder she stops John Wayne in his tracks.
Maureen O’Hara retired from acting in the 70s and in many way her post-acting career has almost been more interesting. She married a pilot – Charles Blair– who was killed in a plane crash in 1978. He had a long history with Pan Am, and in his wake, she managed his company, Antilles Airboats, traveling the world, promoting the excitement and possibilities of aviation. She eventually became President and CEO of the company (the first female CEO of an airline) and lives, to this day, down in the Virgin Islands. She is one of those go-to gals for aviation fanatics around the world, because of the history she has seen in that industry. She supports and promotes aviation museums, the restoration of air boats and other classic aircraft, and the keeping of that history. She donated her husband’s Sikorsky VS-44A plane (nicknamed “Queen of the Skies”) to the New England Air Museum and a pilot friend of mine who is a freak about all things aviation gave me a postcard of the plane which is on my bulletin board. A Spruce Goose!
She’s done a couple of films in the 90s, coming out of retirement, and she is a very old woman now. She maintains her connections with all the different worlds she inhabited – Irish, filmmaking, aviation … an interesting woman.
Oh, and let’s not forget the groundbreaking political moment when O’Hara became an American citizen (while maintaining her Irish citizenship) in 1946 and she put up a stink about being referred to as a “British subject”.
There must have been a thousand questions on their standard questionnaire. After I completed it, I went and took the exam. I must have passed because I was then sent before a woman, ann officer of the court, who instructed me to raise my right hand and forswear my allegiance to Great Britian. FULL STOP!
Forswear my allegiance to Britain? I didn’t know what she was talking about. I told her, “Miss, I’m very sorry, but I cannot forswear an allegiance that I do not have. I am Irish and my allegiance is to Ireland.” She looked at me with consternation for a moment and then said, “Well, then you better read these papers.” She handed me back the stack of papers I had filled out before my exam. I perused them and was stunned to see that on every page where I had written “Irish” as my former nationality, they had crossed it out with a pen and written “English”.
I told the woman, “I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t accept this. It’s impossible for me to do. I am Irish. I was born in Ireland and will only do this if I am referred to as an Irish citizen.” She seemed perturbed that I would break the routine of the allegiance ceremony, and said, “I can’t do that. You’ll have to go to court to obtain the order for me to do it.”
“Fine,” I said. “When shall I go back to court?” I didn’t have to come back. I did it right then and was taken straight to the courtroom. No attorneys were allowed in the courtroom with me, only my two witnesses. I stood in front of the judge, whose name I can’t remember, and listened as the clerk explained why I was there before the court. Then I told the judge, “I am Irish. I will not forswear allegiance to Great Britain because I owe no allegiance to Great Britain. I was born in Dublin, Ireland.”
The judge and I then went into a very long discussion of all of Irish history. He challenged my assertions. We kept going over it and over it, back and forth, but I wouldn’t give an inch. I couldn’t. Finally he said, “We’re going to have to find out what Washington thinks.” He instructed the clerk, “Check Washington and see what they consider a person like Miss O’Hara.” The clerk left the courtroom and returned shortly after that. He told the judge, “Washington says she is a British subject.” I was furious and told the judge, “I am not responsible for your antiquated records in Washington, D.C.” He promptly ruled against me.
I had no choice but to thank him and tell the court, “Under those circumstances, I cannot accept nor do I want to become an American citizen.” I turned to walk out of that courtroom, but having the kind of personality that I do, thought I couldn’t give up without taking one last crack at him. I was halfway out of the courtroom when I turned back to him and said, “Your Honor, have you thought for one moment about what you are trying to force upon and take away from my child and my unborn children and my unborn grandchildren?” He sat back and listened intently as I went on, “You are trying to take away from them their right to boast and brag about their wonderful and famous Irish mother and grandmother. I just can’t accept that.”
He’d had enough. The judge threw his hands up and explained, “Get this woman out of here! Give her anything on her papers that she wants, but get her out of here!” The clerk moved in my direction and I simply said, “Thank you, Your Honor.”
I didn’t know at that time that my certificate of naturalization had already been created, and that they had listed my former nationality as English. Sometime between that date and the date when I was called to be sworn in as an American citizen, they changed my certificate in accordance with the order of the court. Where my former nationality was printed, they had erased “English” and typed over it “Irish”. On the back of this document it states that “the erasure made on this certificate as to Former Nationality ‘Irish’ was made before issuance, to conform to petition. Name changed by order of the court.” It is signed by the U.S. District Court.
This was the first time in the history of the United States of America that the American government recognized an Irish person as being Irish. It was one hell of a victory for me because otherwise I would have had to turn down my American citizenship. I could not have accepted it with my former nationality being anything other than Irish, because no other nationality in the world was my own.
A scandal arose in the wake of this when incorrect reports came out that she had challenged the court during the ceremony in which the oath of allegiance was taken. Judges across the land wrote terrible things about Miss O’Hara, and the federal judge who had presided over that particular allegiance ceremony said that Miss O’Hara was a liar, and that the incident never happened.
He was correct that the event did not happen in his courtroom, but very wrong that it didn’t happen at all.
The implications of the decision to list Maureen O’Hara as “Irish” were widespread and crossed the Atlantic. O’Hara writes:
Apparently, the Irish government was unaware that its citizens were being classified as subjects of Great Britain. On January 29, Prime Minister Eamon De Valera issued the following statement:
We are today an independent republic. We acknowledge no sovereignty except that of our own people. A fact that our attitude during the recent war should have amply demonstrated. Miss O’Hara was right when she asserted she owed no allegiance to Britain and therefore had none which she could renounce.
The prime minister then dispatched his envoys to Washington, D.C., where the Republic of Ireland formally requested that this policy be changed. The policy was changed, and my stand had paved the way for every Irish immigrant to the United States, including my own brothers and sisters, to be legally recognized as Irish from that day forward.
Her autobiography came out in 2004, which is exciting because what a long life she has lived! You can hear her voice in the prose. There are times when it seems she is leaning towards you, the reader, to whisper a secret.
Speaking of whispered secrets:
Below is an excerpt from her book having to do with The Quiet Man. I don’t mean to only mention a couple of her films in this, a tribute post to her, there are so many other parts to talk about. But The Quiet Man (and also Parent Trap) is wrapped up in my experience of childhood, so that is what I gravitate towards writing about. As gorgeous as Maureen O’Hara was, I somehow got the feeling that she was “like us”. Her last name even started like MY last name, and when you are 8 years old, these things make a big impression.
In the excerpt below, watch her smarts as an actress. Not just smart about acting, but smart about script analysis: how she knew what the most important scene in the picture was, and if she nailed THAT, the rest of the picture would flow. That’s important, an important mark of a good actress: to not just be worried about her closeups, and her crying scenes, but about the STORY being told. Watch how she goes back to the source material, to look for clues on how to play that scene.
I also love her version of the famous “whisper” at the end of Quiet Man – what did she whisper? (I wrote about that moment here). In the last shot, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara stand together, waving out at the road, laughing, beautiful and she leans over and whispers something to him. Watch Wayne’s reaction. The whisper obviously gets a rise (I would venture to say literally) out of Wayne because in response he chases her back to the house, and, presumably, to bed at the end of the picture.
EXCERPT FROM ‘Tis Herself: A Memoir, by Maureen O’Hara (with John Nicoletti)
The single day that it did rain was just when Mr. Ford needed it. Right after the scene where Duke and I kiss in the windy cottage and I hit him, there is the sequence in which I run from the cottage, cross a stream, and then fall as the rain and wind storm about me. That was real rain in the scene. The rest of the rain in the picture came from rain machines. The wind actually blew me down in that scene, but I kept going because Mr. Ford always made it clear to his actors that “You do not stop acting no matter what happens in a scene until I say cut. I am the director.”
I loved Mary Kate Danaher. I loved the hell and fire in her. She was a terrific dame, tough, and didn’t let herself get walked on. As I readied to begin playing her, I believed that my most important scene in the picture, the one that I had to get just right, was when Mary Kate is in the field herding the sheep and Sean Thornton sees her for the very first time. There is no dialogue between them. It’s a moment captured in time, and it’s love at first sight. I felt very strongly that if the audience believed it was love at first sight, then we would have lightning in a bottle. But if they didn’t, we would have just another lovely romantic comedy on our hands. It had to be perfect, and the script provided me with a little inspiration, but not enough. Sean’s line to Michaeleen – “Hey, is that real? She couldn’t be” – didn’t quite give me what I needed. I found a passage in Walsh’s story that hit the mark, and I used it as motivation for how I would play the scene:
And there leaning on a wall was the woman. No ghost woman. Flesh and blood or I have no eyes to see. The sun shining o nher red hair and her scarf green as grass on her shoulders. She was not looking at me. She was looking over my head on the far side of the pool. I only saw her over my shoulder but she was fit to sit with the Mona Lisa amongst the rocks. More beautiful by fire and no less wicked. A woman I never saw before, yet a woman strangely familiar.
The scene comes off so beautifully. Mr. Ford brilliantly kept the camera stationary and had me walk slowly down and out of the frame instead of following me as I walked away. It’s one of my favorite shots in the movie, and, if you have never noticed it before, it’s worth watching the movie again just to see it.
Of course, the scene that everyone always asks me about is the scene with Duke and me in the cemetery. Most of the Quiet Maniacs, those who keep the film in its cult-classic status, tell me that this is their favorite scene. It’s the sequence on the bicycle when Sean and Mary Kate escape Michaeleen’s watchful eye. We run into the cemetery and it begins to rain. As thunder chases me under the arch, Duke takes his coat off and wraps it around me to keep me dry and warm. The rain drenches us and his white shirt clings to his body and becomes translucent. In that moment, we are truly together in each other’s arms, and we kiss. It is sensual, passionate, and more than any other scene we ever did together displays the on-screen eroticism of the Wayne and O’Hara combination.
There were two parts to that scene. The first part we had to get in one take or Mr. Ford would have strung us up by our toes. It’s everything that happens right up to the embrace and kiss. We had to get it in one take because our clothes were sopping wet when we finished. If we missed it, then our costumes would have to be cleaned, dried, and ironed. Our hair would have to be washed, dried, and reset. Makeup would have to be reapplied. These things take hours and hours and cost thousands and thousands of dollars for each take. We got it in one.
Once we were drenched and part one was in the can, we could focus on the kiss. But Mr. Ford rarely allowed more than a couple of takes, and I think we got that one in two. Why is the scene so erotic? Why were Duke and I so electric in our love scenes together? I was the only leading lady big enough and tough enough for John Wayne. Duke’s presence was so strong that when audiences saw him finally meet a woman of equal hell and fire, it was exciting and thrilling. Other actresses looked as though they would cower and break if Duke raised a hand or even hollered. Not me. I always gave as good as I got, and it was believable. So during those moments of tenderness, when the lovemaking was about to begin, audiences saw for a half second that he had finally tamed me – but only for that half second.
Mr. Ford did not make Duke perform the kiss over and over, as I’ve read. The suggestion has been that Mr. Ford was living, through Duke, the experience of kissing me. Not in this scene, although I do believe John Ford longed to be every hero he ever brought to the screen. He would have loved to live every role John Wayne ever played. He would have loved to be Sean Thornton. His vivid stories – of riding with Pancho Villa or his longing to be a great naval hero or an Irish rebel – were all fantasies of being men John Ford could never be in life, yet desperately wanted and needed to be. He was a real-life Walter Mitty, years before Thurber gave Mitty literary life.
Visually, there are so many magnificent sequences in the film, like the windy kiss in White O’Morn when Mary Kate is caught cleaning the cottage. That scene was shot in Hollywood, and Mr. Ford used two large wind machines to blow our clothes and my hair for the effect. These were two large airplane propellers on a stand that Mr. Ford controlled by sending hand signals to an operator. Once again, it was a scene tailor-made for Duke and me. He pulls me away from the door and kisses me as I struggle to break free. He tames me for that half second, and I kiss him back, but then follow up with a hard blow across the face for the offense.
Now let me tell you what really happened with that slap. That day on the set, I was mad as hell at Duke and Mr. Ford for something they had done earlier in the day. My plan was to sock Duke in the jaw and rally let him have it. But Duke was no fool, and he saw it coming, he saw it in my face. So he put his hand up to shield his chin, and my hand hit the top of his fingers and snapped back. My plan backfired and my hand hurt like hell. I knew I had really hurt it and tried to hide it in the red petticoat I was wearing. Duke came over and said, “Let me see that hand. You nearly broke my jaw.” He lifted it out of hiding; each one of my fingers had blown up like a sausage. I was taken off the set and sent to the local hospital where it was X-rayed. I had a hairline fracture in one of the bones in my wrist, but in the end got no sympathy. I was taken back to the set and put to work.
While one is working on a motion picture, it’s natural to get mad at the others from time to time. I almost found myself in John Ford’s barrel while we were shooting the Innisfree horse-race sequence down on the beach. The scene again required the use of wind machines during one of my close-ups. But instead of the wind machine blowing my hair away from my face, Mr. Ford put the machine behind me and blew my hair forward. Well, at that time I had hair like wire. It snapped and snapped against my face. The wind was blowing my hair forward and the hair was lashing my eyeballs. It hurt, and I kept blinking. Mr. Ford started yelling at me and insulting me under his breath: “Keep your goddamn eyes open. Why can’t you get it right?”
He kept yelling at me and I was getting madder and madder. I finally blew my lid. I put my two hands down the side of the cart and yelled, “What would a baldheaded old son of a bitch like you know about hair lashing across your eyeballs?”
The words had no sooner left my mouth than I was nearly knocked off my feet by the sound of a collective gasp on the set. No one spoke to John Ford that way. There was absolute silence. No one dared move, speak, or even breathe. I don’t know why I did it. He made me mad and I just blew my stack. Immediately, I thought, Oh my God. Why didn’t I keep my bloody mouth shut? He’s going to throw me off the picture. After years of waiting to make The Quiet Man, I was sure I was about to be tossed off the set. I waited for the explosion. I waited without moving a muscle and watched as Mr. Ford cased the entire set with his eyes. He looked at every person – every actor, every crew member, every stuntman – and he did it fast as lightning. I could see the wheels in his head turning. The old man was deciding whether he was going to kill me or laugh and let me off the hook. I didn’t know which way it would go until the very moment that he broke into laughter. Everyone on the set collapsed with relief and finally exhaled. They followed Mr. Ford’s lead and laughed for ten minutes – out of sheer relief that I was safe. Then we went on and shot the scene.
But in the end the old man got the last laugh. He and Duke agreed to play a joke on me. To do it, they chose the sequence where Duke drags me across town and through the fields. I bet you didn’t know that sheep dung has the worst odor you have ever smelled in your life. Well, it does. Mr. Ford and Duke kicked all of the sheep dung they could find onto the hill where I was to be dragged, facedown, on my stomach. Of course, I saw them doing it, and so when they kicked the dung onto the field, Faye, Jimmy, and I kicked it right back off. They’d kick it in, and we’d kick it out. It went on and on, and finally, right before the scene was shot, they won, getting in the last kick. There was no way to kick it out. The camera began to roll and Duke had the time of his life dragging me through it. It was bloody awful. After the scene was over, Mr. Ford had given instructions that I was not to be brought a bucket of water or a towel. He made me keep it on for the rest of the day. I was mad as hell, but I had to laugh too. Isn’t showbiz glamorous?
And the sequence itself is perfect for Duke and me. I fight him the entire way, but he won’t have it. I swing at him, so he kicks me in the rear. In the end, he tosses me at the feet of Red Will and wins my dowry, and I concede. But the audience knows that he only thinks he has tamed me for good.
One thing I have always loved about John Ford pictures is that they are full of music. Whether it’s the Sons of the Pioneers or the Welsh Singers, you know that eventually someone is going to sing in the movie. I was thrilled on The Quiet Man because it was finally my turn. I sang “Young May Moon” in the scene with Barry Fitzgerald, and, of course, “The Isle of Innisfree”. I first heard that melody when played by Victor Young at John Ford’s home in 1950, and I thought it was beautiful. When we returned from Ireland, John Ford, Charlie Fitz, and I wrote the words that I sang in the movie.
We finished filming in Ireland in early July, and returned to Hollywood to complete the interiors. Half the picture was shot there. Naturally, some of the “Irish Players” had to come back with us, and I was blessed that Charlie and JImmy were among them. I now had my two brothers living with me in America. The interiors were completed at the end of August, and Mr. Ford went right to work editing his movie. When I went in to see the film at Argosy, Duke was there, having just seen it. I walked into the office and he ran over to me, picked me up, and spun me around. He said, “It’s wonderful, and you’re wonderful.” But Herbert Yates of Republic had a different reaction. He wanted The Quiet Man to be no more than a certain length. Ford’s version was more than a few minutes over that, and Yates told him to cut the picture further.
But Ford was far too smart for him. When The Quiet Man was previewed to distributors and theater operators at Republic, Mr. Ford instructed the projection operator to stop the projector at the precise length that Yates had requested. Of course, Ford hadn’t cut the film at all, and so the screen went black right in the middle of the fight-sequence finale. The audience went wild and demanded that the projector be turned back on. Mr. Ford cued the operator and the fight sequence continued. The audience rose to their feet and cheered when it was over. Old Man Yates wasn’t about to touch it after that, and Mr. Ford was allowed to keep his extra ominutes.
There is only one fitting way to end our discussion of The Quiet Man, and that’s with a whisper. No matter what part of the world I’m in, the question I am always asked is: “What did you whisper into John Wayne’s ear at the end of The Quiet Man?” It was John Ford’s idea: it was the ending he wanted. I was told by Mr. Ford exactly what I was to say. At first I refused. I said, “No. I can’t. I can’t ay that to Duke.” But Mr. Ford wanted a very shocked reaction from Duke, and he said, “I’m telling you, you are to say it.” I had no choice, and so I agreed, but with a catch: “I’ll say it on one condition – that it is never ever repeated or revealed to anyone.” So we made a deal. After the scene was over, we told Duke about our agreement and three of us made a pact. There are those who claim that they were told and know what I said. They don’t and are lying. John Ford took it to his grave – so did Duke – and the answer will die with me. Curiosity about the whisper has become a great part of the Quiet Man legend. I have no doubt that as long as the film endures, so will the speculation. The Quiet Man meant so much to John Ford, John Wayne, and myself. I know it was their favorite picture too. It bonded us as artists and friends in a way that happens but once in a career. That little piece of The Quiet Man belongs to just us, and so I hope you’ll understand as I answer:
Happy birthday, Maureen O’Hara!