17 May 2013

Maureen O'Hara - Girl on Fire

Maureen O'Hara in Against All Flags (1952)

Initially spotted by legendary actor, Charles Laughton, who became a good friend and co-star - and made her change her name to O'Hara - Maureen FitzSimons (1920-2015) was a young, Irish gal of only 19 years when she got her breakthrough in Alfred Hitchcock's (to some extent overlooked) adaptation of another Daphne de Maurier novel, "Jamaica Inn", in 1939. She would in the same year co-star Laughton again in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", playing the young Esméralda.

Maureen as Esméralda in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", 1939.

Hollywood and the rest of the world soon fell for the Irish beauty who was later named - after her first of a great succession of Technicolor films, "To the Shores of Tripoli" (1942)  - the Queen of Technicolor. No wonder, with her alabaster skin, large green eyes and flame-red hair. 

And then she could act

She simply blazed, as if being on fire inside and out, so much that you can feel it through the screen when you watch her! And that is more than what you can say about most women starring in the typical adventure films and westerns. It's obvious that they're cast for their beauty, not their acting, and if it was one of those with Cooper, Widmark or Stewart in the lead role, their names should certainly not overshadow their leading men's! Though, Maureen wasn't exactly cast in these roles so that she could get an Oscar (which she was very aware of, often later noting the poor quality of the script or plot*), she stood out from the rest of the crowd. Even when it was a rather lousy role, she still had inner strength and integrity - though, not all of her leading men were able to return her passion and energy.

She wasn't the only charming, talented (red-haired) beauty in Hollywood - take e.g. Deborah Kerr, Greer Garson and Eleanor Parker, but she did something with that beauty of hers whether it was using it consciously or not, it was somehow always enhanced whenever the camera was on her. She made it unique - not because she acted as if she was blessed by the Gods or her parents or whatever with good looks - but because of her soul, her mind, her inner strength and values; what was inside her, shining through with an intensity that burned.


So, perhaps she didn't get the very best of roles throughout her career, but it wasn't exactly all that bad either. Her collaboration with John Ford in "How Green Was My Walley" (1941) and her pairing and long-time friendship with John Wayne in many of his movies, most memorable in Ford's "Rio Grande" (1950) and "The Quiet Man" (1952), were big hits and soon made her a major star. Particularly because they had great chemistry and she made stoic Wayne attractive as a romantic lead (and that says quite a lot!). Ford himself called Maureen "the best bloody actress in Hollywood" - and the insertion of 'bloody' sums up pretty well how she could cut a dash on the screen. 

Apropos, when it comes to Maureen's 'leading men', I was never really impressed by the choices, not feeling any of them really could live up to Maureen's 'fire', so to speak. I know she really liked John Wayne, though I certainly don't and doubt I ever will. I get his iconoclastic magnitude as one of the first screen actors establishing that statuesque, cinematic maleness we praise (and critique) today. But that was simply it. He never did much more beyond just being. I find him boring and stiff as a board and I'm tired of the whole über-maculine-über-American-fancy that clung to him for the rest of his life. I'm sure I might be a bit hasty in some of my accusations as I admittedly haven't seen all his films but he just doesn't do it for me. 

Yet again, he and Maureen did struck a fine team, but in my opinion she needed more comeback than what Wayne's mere physical prowess could muster. She needed the right kind of wit, soul and personality to bang her pretty head together with. Sadly - and most likely because of her at times not-so-good film choices - she was teamed up with actors in very genre-defined movie roles such as low-budget adventure films that were often poorly written and even worse acted out by some of the male actors...! And some of these guys are my favorites and were really good otherwise... just not when it came to the whole swashbuckling-theatrical-overeager-"here I come!"-attitude. 

As I'll note later, Anthony Quinn often appeared in some sort of villainous role in Maureen's adventure films, and he always nailed it; one could blame his talent combined with the role of a villain always having just that more pungency than the hero roles (in B-movies the villains are practically the only ones interesting however campy they are - just think of Vincent Price). Yet, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (whom I otherwise have a weak spot for), Tyrone Power, Paul Henreid and even the ever-flirting swashbuckler Errol Flynn seemed too campy, too silly and simply overdone in their characters when they played opposite Maureen. When I think about it I can't help laughing. It was as if she - even in her seemingly 'damsel in distress'-situation - managed to emasculate the male heroes, reducing them to these rather silly, desperate creatures who just looked stupidly at her whenever she spoke up or took charge (which might have something to do with the fact that even the he-man John Wayne was quoted saying: "She's a great guy. I've had many friends and I prefer the company of men. Except for Maureen O'Hara"). 

And, intentionally or not, this 'of course could not go on' and in order to restore some of the lead's masculinity he was given all the credit for saving the day. Ugh! That pisses me off because Maureen was totally ignored in that regard and she was once again 'reduced' to the damsel in distress; 'the accessory who needed saving'. 

The acknowledgement of her feistiness might have been there and made use of, but never really in a true and openly honest way. She was 'after all, still just a woman'. But to me, she was far superior in any way to the men or women she starred with, and even though she wasn't given much wide-ranging character material, she still managed to produce something magical from the leftovers due to her presence and magnetism. To me, she was the star of these films.

John Wayne and Maureen in the famous kissing scene from
"The Quiet Man" (1952)

Yet, on that note, Charles Laughton is always an interesting watch (I always thought of him as the Anthony Hopkins of his era and vice versa) and I get why Maureen loved to act with him, though he was far from the typical, picturesque romantic lead. They starred together in three films: "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1939), "Jamaica Inn" (1939) and "This Land is Mine" (1943).

And if there was to be one male lead which I feel did Maureen justice, it would be Brian Keith; an actor she herself favored and starred opposite in another three films: "The Parent Trap" (1961), "The Deadly Companions" (1961) and "The Rare Breed" (1966). My favorites include the first two, especially "The Parent Trap" (forget everything about the remakes!!) where Maureen proves herself to be a great comedienne. A role, I think, she should get more credit for. Her comic timing is impeccable as well as her screen presence; relaxed and charming, quick-witted and passionate as always. Besides, she simply looks stunningly amazing, considering she's 41 at the time (but then again she always does)!

Maureen in "The Parent Trap", 1961.

Much unlike her fierce and fiery persona on screen; playing independent, sensible and equally passionate, swashbuckling heroines, Maureen claimed to prefer the role of a traditional housewife and mother off screen - where the husband's words were law - than that of an actress, living the high life of Hollywood fame. So goes her major statement in the book "Hollywood in the 1940s" (Ivy Crane Wilson, 1983) that gives an insight in the private - albeit somewhat polished - lives of some of the famous, classic stars.

At that time Maureen was married to director William Houston Price; a marriage that turned out very abusive as Price was an alcoholic* - a stark contrast to the way she paints her idyllic, married life in the book, to say the least. I have yet to read Maureen's autobiography "'Tis Herself" from 2004, but I'm sure she clarifies this more in there, as e.g. Via Margutta 51 aka Clara examines through her book review.

If one knows a bit about Maureen's filmography; her choice of roles and way of acting, this statement both surprises and confirms one's view of her. Because, of course she wasn't the exact same person as she was on screen, but one cannot help feeling split when a person who seemed so independent and self-willed on screen could feel quite the opposite off screen and at that, the need for dependency. One would even like to think that she really would go out and conquer the world the way she chose her female characters; not stay at home washing, cooking and cleaning for husband and kids...*disappointed feminist's face*

But I have to say, I don't think I've seen any other female actress at the time (1940s-50s) who could or did pull on pants and big boots and took a sword in the hand to play female pirates, Musketeers and swashbucklers (if any did?). At least not as well as Maureen did. She could be feisty as well as sensitive and always strong and witty enough to handle the big fellas and shut them up if they got a little bit too confident towards her... Bam! She was more than ready to get beasty, tumble in the dirt and fight off whoever provoked her, whether it was a man or a woman, and even trained 'till her body was sore in order to be skilled with a sword for the fencing scenes. All this - and still looking drop-dead-gorgeous..!! If anyone doesn't get just a little impressed when they see Maureen O'Hara act on the screen, call me an ol' hag!

Maureen doing the art of fencing in "At Sword's Point", 1952.
She described herself as “the first woman swashbuckler ...
I was tough. I was tall. I was strong.
I didn't take any nonsense from anybody.”*

It's perhaps not a surprise that she would get these roles, considering the time, since the steretypical prejudice about women with red hair being feisty, stubborn and tempered (which still goes strong, apparently) suited her perfectly for typecasting. And since she was more beautiful than one dare to utter, she went well together with an almost as beautiful dress, too, so that she didn't scare the men off entirely. Feminists might be protesting loudly by now, not to say myself, but, alas, such were the times, however much one wish her to be an early voice for women's independency (however, she did show off this 'voice' in "Dance, Girl, Dance", 1940). This was how many actresses - actors as well - were treated by the studios and the public when it came to big blockbusters. Not to mention, it was constantly the same people who played the heroes and the villians when it came to westerns and adventure films. Notice that Anthony Quinn always played the 'ethnic' bad guy opposite Maureen, though a very sweet gesture reuniting the pair of them in Maureen's last picture "Only the Lonely" (1991). However, if you do some research you'll be able to find some more 'controversial' films with some of the stars and directors who dared step a bit outside the norm.

How little Maureen actually fought this stereotypical casting of roles compared to other wilful ladies of the screen, as I've mentioned in previous posts, I've yet to discover (boy, I really need to read that biography of hers!). Later in life she became rather self-critical and mocking of the way her beauty and talent was propelled, saying she was a "ham" of an actress, though she credited her Irishness for her ferocity on screen*. Though she claimed she was an old-fashioned gal who wanted husband, children and to stay at home to cook and clean, I still think that much of the energy she portrays on the screen - the energy that makes her characters feisty and self-willed - somehow reflects her own mind and spirit. At least, I have a hard time trying to imagine her without it!

And in that sense, she isn't that much different from e.g. Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis.  They were all 'merely just' women who weren't timid in life, in confrontation or in show of guts and spirits. They transgressed borders implicitly and explicitly while remaining grounded in their own sex and I think that scared and secretly fascinated studios as well as audiences, because of its controversy in the - at times - rather prudish and hidebound Hollywood. These women didn't built their lives on the single fact that they had an 'ethereal' or an 'unusual' beauty or whatever the media or the public viewed them as, but on themselves, their feelings and passions and views on life. That is why they are all equally beautiful as human beings in my eyes. That is why, I think, they're legends.

Maureen being adorable, once again in "The Quiet Man", 1952.

At an age of 93 (as of 2013) Maureen O'Hara is one of last remaining major stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood - and is still active in attending film festivals and different ceremonies and anniversaries in connection to her film career and co-stars (recently for John Wayne), answering fan mail and watching football (fantastic!) among other things*.
However, I still think she's rather underrated as a star and given way to little credit for her career to this day considering she's still living (for one thing, there're shockingly few blogposts about her) and I somehow hope this little, humble post will bring some attention to her :)

Her impressive and charming beauty, talent and wit, not to mention groundedness, boldness and fiery ambition along with a great understanding of sensitivity (just look at the above gif!), have always been an inspiration for me.
Bless you, mo darlin' cailín rua!

This is my video tribute to Maureen on her 93rd birthday, August 17th:

Rest in Peace, Maureen. You'll be sorely missed :'(

*revised 2016*