“I was going to be the most famous actress in the whole world,” once proclaimed a young Irish girl named Maureen FitzSimons.
While not quite fulfilling that bold statement, she grew up to be glamorous Hollywood leading lady Maureen O’Hara, who reigned as the so-called Queen of Technicolor in a series of costume epics. The flame-haired actress with the regal bearing was a favorite of John Ford and John Wayne and starred in the beloved Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street.
O’Hara was a studio product and rather than slamming the old system, she offers a kind reflection. “I think it kept the picture business more of a family,” she said. “We had great showmen as heads of studio. People don’t want to hear wonderful things about those old boys and want to make them out to be monsters. They were the boss and tough. But there was a unity, and you were taken care of. It was a system where you were cared for and about.”
The star cannot readily be associated with one studio as she served at several studios not of her choosing. The selling of O’Hara began in 1939 when Charles Laughton sold her Mayflower Pictures contract to RKO.
A certain tone comes across in her statement: “John Ford was at Fox and wanted me for How Green Was My Valley. Fox would not give me the part unless they owned a part of me, so they bought one picture a year from RKO. Then Fox sold part of me to Universal, and they sold part of me to Ford at Columbia when I did The Long Gray Line and another bit of me was sold to Warners.”
Acting ambition loomed almost from the beginning. She was born one of six children August 17, 1920, in the Dublin suburb of Ranelagh to Charles and Marguerite FitzSimons. Charles was a wholesale hatter while Marguerite was a former Abbey player and singer. O’Hara wasn’t the only family member destined for movies.
Accomplishments came in a hurry. The 14-year-old began studying at the prestigious Abbey Players Theater. By 17 Maureen was a Shakespearean veteran, winning the coveted All-Ireland Cup for her performance as Portia in The Merchant of Venice.
Maureen was set for an Abbey production when a screen test in London was offered. She took leave from the Abbey and made the test and remembers it as being “horrible.” They dressed her in an ornate gold gown and applied heavy-makeup, topped off my an “overdone” coiffure. At that time,
Charles Laughton and his partner, Erich Pommer, were looking for a young girl to star with Laughton in “Jamaica Inn.” Laughton saw the test and despite the ridiculous attire she was forced to wear, he was intrigued with the obvious beauty of the young woman. After meeting and auditioning, Maureen Laughton cast her in “Jamaica Inn.”
However, before undertaking that role, for camera experience, Maureen made her film debut playing a secretary in the musical “Kicking the Moon Around “(1938), and she was billed by her given name, Maureen FitzSimons. She played big sister to musical child star Binkie Stuart in My Irish Molly (1939) Pommer and Laughton reasoned that “FitzSimons” was a bit too long for the marquee and she was given the screen name of “O’Hara.”
Based on Daphne DuMaurier’s novel, Jamaica Inn (1939) was an Alfred Hitchcock thriller starring Laughton as a respectable squire by day and notorious pirate by night. Laughton was sufficiently impressed by his discovery to take her to Hollywood for his next picture.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) was a huge success, and Lauhghton’s performance as Victor Hugo’s deformed Quasimodo is considered by some as superior to Lon Chaney’s silent rendition. In her American debut, O’Hara achieved stardom playing the beautiful gypsy girl Esmeralda and embarked on a furious career pace. Clemence Dane’s play A Bill of Divorcement was previously filmed in 1922 and 1932, and the 1940 remake was a box office flop toplining Adolphe Menjou as a man released from a mental institution and getting to know daughter O’Hara.
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