Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Maureen O'Hara

Technicolor Redhead

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

October 10, 2002—"I make Westerns," director John Ford once said, modestly. Though that statement may be true, Ford also made plenty of top-notch non-Westerns, such as The Hurricane, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath and Donovan's Reef.

Perhaps his greatest and most famous non-Western, though, was one of Ford's personal favorites, a film close to his own heart, The Quiet Man (1952), starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. Though it seemed like a natural, and though Ford was already one of the most respected of Hollywood directors, he couldn't get anyone interested in financing "The Quiet Man" for over a decade.

In 1948 and 49, Ford moved on and made two of his most successful films with Wayne, Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which came to be known as the Cavalry films: part war film and part Western. Then the scrappy "B" picture studio Republic came up with an idea. If Ford would make one more low-budget Cavalry picture for them, they would put up the money for The Quiet Man.

Thus came Rio Grande, the first-rate film that completed the unplanned "Cavalry Trilogy." And following that, Ford made the very best Quiet Man he was capable of -- a personal masterpiece.

Artisan Home Video has released both films in splendid new DVDs. The Technicolor The Quiet Man lacks the crystalline picture quality that Warner Brothers gave to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon earlier this year, but it's still worth having. The black-and-white Rio Grande looks great. Each disc contains a host of new and interesting extras.

Actress Maureen O'Hara starred in both Rio Grande and The Quiet Man opposite John Wayne. Ms. O'Hara is happily still with us today, and she appears on commentary tracks and in interview footage for both DVDs.

In addition, I was lucky enough to speak with her by phone from Los Angeles about her experiences making these two films.

According to O'Hara, John Ford approached her as early as 1944 to ask her to play the role of Mary Kate Danaher in The Quiet Man. She was shooting a picture called The Spanish Main when Ford paid a visit to the set. But the young man at the studio gate didn't know who he was, and, put off by Ford's usual disheveled appearance, wouldn't let him in.

By way of apology, the studio literally put out the red carpet for Ford, who returned and asked O'Hara to play the part. She agreed, and on the basis of a handshake, she showed up for work 8 years later.

In the early 50s, Technicolor was still very expensive, but because of O'Hara's flaming red hair, her presence in the film guaranteed a "color commitment." It's a good thing, because O'Hara's hair beautifully off-sets the overwhelming green of Ireland.

"Ireland is beautiful," O'Hara says. "All you do is turn a camera on Ireland and it smiles for you."

O'Hara says she returns to Ireland every year. "I've only missed once in over 30 years! The cottage, Rite o' Morn, is now just a lot of rocks on the ground. When fans from all over the world find where the cottage was, they all take a rock."

The actress arrives each June for a big golf tournament named for her husband Charlie Blair and stays for a big affair at the Foines Aviation Museum in August. "I go fishing, hiking sightseeing, roaming around, all the things that are the pleasure to do."

"I was always sports inclined. My father owned the biggest soccer team in Ireland. I boxed I did judo, I fenced, I could hold my own. I enjoyed rough and tumble. I enjoyed that kind of thing."

This fiery redhead lost her temper only once on the Quiet Man set, despite constant teasing from her male director and co-star. In one scene, a wind machine continually batted O'Hara's wiry hair into her face. Ford barked at her to keep her eyes open during the shot.

"I started yelling at him, 'What would a bald-headed son of a bitch like you know about hair lashing across your eyes?' Everybody gasped. I watched him. It was interesting to watch him. I saw him take in every face on the set and make his mind up whether he was going to kill me or laugh. Thank God he decided to laugh. The whole set fell apart."

Though the shoot was an overall volatile experience, O'Hara remembers one of the quieter moments, a moment she continues to think about to this day.

An old man on the set was in charge of picking up a new roll of film, and he was not particularly light on his feet. One day, John Wayne lost patience and yelled at the old fellow to hurry it up.

"The old man, stopped, looked at Duke and said, 'Look son, God made time and he made plenty of it.' I'll always remember that."

Partial Filmography:
Jamaica Inn (1939)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
This Land Is Mine (1943)
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Rio Grande (1950)
The Quiet Man (1952)
The Wings of Eagles (1957)
Our Man in Havana (1959)
The Parent Trap (1961)
Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962)
McLintock! (1963)
Big Jake (1971)
Only the Lonely (1991)

Movies Unlimtied