Cult Movie: More to Maureen O'Hara than The Quiet Man

Maureen O'Hara shines as Esmerelda in the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Ralph McLean

APPARENTLY when Maureen O'Hara passed away peacefully at the age of 95 last weekend she was surrounded by family with the sounds of The Quiet Man soundtrack wafting gently away in the background.

That John Ford's timeless romantic comedy should make it into the very final moments of the much loved Irish actress is fitting somehow. The 1952 film casts a unique spell over audiences to this day and the performance of O'Hara as the feisty Mary Kate Danaher, a woman with fiery red hair as vibrant as her scarlet-hued skirt, is practically burnt into our collective consciousness.

Watching her spar, both verbally and occasionally physically, with John Wayne – whom she would be paired with in a total of five films – is a viewing pleasure that hasn't dimmed with the passing decades.

That film still packs such a strong cultural punch for movie lovers of a certain age and that performance from O'Hara still impresses to such a degree that it's totally understandable if it tends to cast a bit of a shadow over the rest of her career.

In some ways the rush to remember the pastoral power of The Quiet Man in the week since she passed has obscured the many other gems that pepper the Dublin-born actress's big-screen CV.

Besides collaborating with the notoriously difficult Ford, she also worked with Alfred Hitchcock, making her screen debut in the master film-maker's Jamaica Inn (1939).

There are blood pumping adventure yarns such as Sinbad The Sailor (1947) and Tripoli (1950) to enjoy deep within her filmography and ground-breaking feminist offerings such as Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) to acknowledge as well.

The cliché of the flame-haired Irish firebrand disguises an ability to essay all manner of characters in all manner of Hollywood films. Films such as How Green Was My Valley (1941), her first outing for Ford, and Rio Grande (1950) stand proud as classics of their time while there's much fun to be had with old favourites like The Parent Trap (1961) and McLintock! (1963) which reunited her with the Duke.

She graced Jean Renoir's This Land Is Mine (1943) and appeared in era-defining works such as Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and even her later turns on the big screen, such as when she cut short her retirement in 1991 to appear as John Candy's controlling Catholic mother in Only The Lonely, are worthy of praise. She always delivered the goods.

Best of the lot for me, however, is her performance as Esmeralda in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939). Working alongside Charles Laughton's Quasimodo, she turns in a moving and sensual take on the poor Gyspy girl who wins the bell-ringers heart.

Laughton had first encountered those “hauntingly beautiful” green eyes at O'Hara's very first English screen test and immediately signed her up to a seven-year film contract – that connection is clear to see on the screen throughout. Like just about everything she did, her performance is impassioned, emotional and totally human.


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