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The Queen of Technicolor.

Aubrey Malone

Maureen O'Hara: The Biography Lexington: University Press of Kentucky,

2013. $29.95

In 1946 Maureen O'Hara, the Queen of Technicolor, made history with the United States Department of Justice. In filing for dual citizenship, she insisted that her previous nationality had been "Irish," not "British," as had been the case since the Treaty because Ireland would remain in the Commonwealth until 1949. She was the first to succeed in this claim, bringing nods of approval from Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, whose diplomats in Washington assured that this would be designation for all future Irish immigrants. The episode, added to O'Hara's eagerness to show the Tricolour, caused a Dublin newspaper to run a cartoon of Dev, scowling at his desk, with a photo of O'Hara on the wall behind him. Aubrey Malone's consistently interesting new biography of O'Hara assures us that the photograph was actually there, and that the red-headed actress loved to boast through her long career that she was "de Valera's favorite pin-up."

Malone's biography comes less than a decade after O'Hara's memoir T'is Herself (Simon & Schuster, 2004), written with John Nicoletti, an often querulous, sometimes vindictive volume. No confessions, though. She assured readers that she had avoided the Hollywood "casting couch" and lost roles to others who submitted and that she really had kind of sister & brother relationship with frequent co-star John Wayne, despite all the on-screen kissing in five feature films. She also let loose with a hail of invective against Irish-American director John Ford. Irish-based Malone, who also publishes under the name Aubrey Dillon-Malone, appears not to have interviewed O'Hara and his biography is almost 100 pages shorter than the memoir, 212 vs. 306 pages. He does not refute the major assessments she had made about her life, but in as many as fifty episodes, significant and minor, he gives a radically different feeling for what happened in an event.

In January, 1941, O'Hara was invited to the White House for lunch and found herself seated to none other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself. A veteran of only a handful of feature films, she was twenty years old. Roosevelt, whose birthday this was, learned forward to warn, "Don't you know that Ireland is a Communist country?" O'Hara responded in fury. Where had the president heard such rubbish? Ireland was and would never be Communist, and so on. In T'is Herself, after sixty-three years of recollection, O'Hara's authorial voice still pulses with anger at such an insult.

Malone reports what the reader of T'is Herself might have perceived anyway. Roosevelt, a well-known tease with an eye for beautiful women, was pulling O'Hara's chain. More is to be taken from the story. The hair-trigger temper O'Hara often projects on screen is a part of her native persona, easily perceived by the astute on first meeting. She was generally unawed in meeting the famous and powerful. And one deduces she wasn't the quickest to get any joke.

Malone clarifies and expands on details that appear quizzical in 'Tis Herself. In O'Hara's telling, her first marriage happened by accident to a minor but assertive British film producer named George Brown. She was but nineteen, living in Britain, flush with her first recognition in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn, and under contract to its star Charles Laughton. Somehow this Catholic girl who said a "Hail Mary" every night found herself hitched to a Protestant without realizing what was happening to her. And it was annulled. Malone tells us that Brown was by no means a minor producer and went on to many successes, such as casting Margaret Rutherford in the Miss Marple series. His far more prominent daughter Tina Brown went became a successful if controversial journalist, editing the New Yorker. After her father died, Tina Brown confronted O'Hara in a public place, asking what really happened in this mysterious "marriage." O'Hara delivered a sharp rebuke and refused to discuss the matter.

More significantly, Malone is circumspect and restrained in dealing with OHara's many charges against John Ford, the vehemence of which headlined most reviews of 'Tis Herself. Scattered over more than fifty pages, her comments allow that his How Green Was My Valley established her as a Hollywood star, and that he directed her in her favorite role, Mary Kate Danaher in The Quiet Man. He might have praised her, "The best effing actress in Hollywood," but he also socked her in the jaw without provocation. He committed gross sexual harassment, drawing cartoons of penises on a sheet of paper as he spoke to her, and also broke into her house to steal letters. These were not the saccharine love letters he also wrote to her. He was, in her view, a chronic fibber whose knowledge of Ireland was extremely thin. Most damningly, she charged that Ford was a closet homosexual who hated women, and that she had seen him kissing a major male star on the lips.

Ford's mercurial boorishness, including the chronic humiliation of John Wayne, is now well documented, and Malone is not about to shrug it off. He supports O'Hara's secondary theory that the love letters are really to Mary Kate, Ford's apotheosis of Irish womanhood. In his view there is no question that Ford was obsessed with O'Hara, but Ford's expressions also included flattery and sweetness. As for the charge of Ford's homosexuality, Malone quotes critic Merle Rubin as dismissing it as an unattractive feature of show business women of O'Hara's generation. It's a curious gay man who virtually stalks a woman. And of her more than fifty screen performances, the seven most notable are directed by John Ford.

Maureen FitzSimons, the second of six children, was bom to an upper-middle class, cultivated family in Ranelagh, when it was a distant suburb, August 17, 1920. The family's political allegiances were plastered on to her father's name, Charles Stewart Parnell FitzSimons. A retail hatter, Charles owned Blythe Draperies on Kildare Street, Dublin, and was one of the first directors of the Shamrock Rovers, a popular soccer club. Mother Marguerita Lilburn FitzSimons was a red-haired operatic contralto, and daughter Maureen retained a lifelong love of opera, hating what she called "boogie woogie." If music was her first love, theater was second, with movies way down the list. As child she never aspired to be on screen. Her mother and brothers appeared on stage at the Abbey.

O'Hara joined the Abbey at fourteen, where Lennox Robinson was her mentor, but performed only menial tasks like sweeping or painting sets at first. Later she would complain that she was never given sufficient chance at the Abbey. Nonetheless, one lead role (not named) at seventeen caught the attention of actor-singer Harry Richman, who arranged for a screen test at Elstree Studios in London.

While in Dublin as a teen she won a beauty contest and earned a prize at the Feis reading the role of Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Her training was slight but significant. Throughout her life, even in old age, she thanked the Ena Mary Burke School for teaching her how to speak properly. That did not mean the immediate erasure of her accent. When she took small roles under the name Maureen FitzSimons in two hard-to-find films made in London, Kicking the Moon Around and My Irish Molly, she still had, Malone testifies, a thick Irish accent. That changed quickly in the same year, 1938, when she was cast in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn opposite Charles Laughton. By that time she had mastered the elevated British stage diction that she employed, with variations for the rest of her career. She could easily swing up to cut-glass Mayfair English, as in Our Man in Havana, but more often, especially in American films, it is the trans-Atlantic edition. Malone does not address this question, but it seems likely that O'Hara's default accent, as we hear in the Robert Osborne interviews on Turner Classic Movies in summer, 2014, nine years after her stroke, sounds as though she was bom in Ranelagh.

Charles Laughton, a closeted gay man, was deeply smitten with the young Irish actress, not yet nineteen, and put her under contract to his own small company. Laughton, whose mother was Irish, also changed Maureen's name, telling her FitzSimons would not fit on a marquee. He favored something like O'Meara or O'Hara, choosing the latter. No explanation was given, but as the year was 1939, apogee of the Gone With the Wind craze, he was likely thinking of Scarlet O'Hara. Uncharacteristically, Maureen FitzSimons agreed meekly. Laughton then brought O'Hara to Hollywood to appear in the huge hit, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as Esmeralda the Gypsy; red hair appears gray in black and white movies. Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester resented O'Hara, not least her prominent "no smoking, no drinking" virtuousness, prompting the celebrated barb: "Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, or anywhere else."

The surety of Laughton's judgment was soon proved when John Ford cast her in How Green Was My Valley, the first of a long list of commercial successes. For all her talent, a key element in her rising fame was unquestionably her dazzling beauty, which startled many more men than the president of the United States. O'Hara thought her face too square and diminished by one crooked tooth. She also thought her mother and her sister Peggy, who became a nun, her superiors. Her physical allure led to countless unwanted advances as well as endless rapturous compliments. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., said she was like "frozen champagne." Longtime character actor Anthony Quinn who appeared opposite her as first a villain, later a husband but also as a servant, confessed that he was overcome just looking at her and often couldn't remember his lines.

O'Hara's looks contributed to her being cast in Technicolor costume dramas, like the Black Swan, when most films were black and white. Despite her self-sustained reputation for abrasiveness, she got on well with terrible-tempered studio heads, like the notorious Harry Cohn of Columbia. She was always working, perhaps too unselectively. There were too many assignments she called "stinkeroos," and some she refused to see. Unlike like some academic film critics, Malone resists the temptation to find pearls in what was sometimes industrial humdrum. Instead, he dutifully details forgotten items as well as those no longer available. Quite a few of her films are still shown and fondly remembered, prominently Miracle on 34th Street, mostly for non-artistic reasons. Both O'Hara and Malone think The Quiet Man her finest performance. Once reviled by Irish intellectuals, The Quiet Man and O'Hara's performance along with it have been reevaluated upward in recent years.

Her choice of roles contributed to one of O'Hara's sharpest disappointments. During the 1950's, she was developing a glowing reputation for her silvery soprano, appearing on television shows and releasing LP recordings. This persuaded Twentieth Century-Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck to cast her as Anna Leonowens in The King and I. When composer Richard Rodgers heard of the casting, he threw up his hands in horror and roared, "A pirate queen to play my Anna? No!" To which O'Hara pined, "They never even listened to my recording." Caledonian redhead Deborah Kerr, who had taken more prudent casting assignments, got the role. She could not sing a note.

O'Hara's other disappointment was never having been nominated for an Oscar. That oversight was remedied November 8, 2014, when the 94-year old received an honorary statuette.
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Title Annotation:Maureen O'Hara: The Biography
Author:MacKillop, James
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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