Happy Hundredth, O’Hara: A Look at Her Westerns

It is the 100th birthday of Maureen O’Hara today and TCM has made her the focus of today’s Summer Under the Stars programing. It is especially remarkable that she was born in 1920 when you recall that her first films were made in 1938 — when she was but a lass of 18. As a young girl in Dublin she’d been a bit of a tomboy; her first role was Robin Hood in a Christmas pantomime. At 14 she began acting with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where her talents attracted much notice. She won several beauty contests, and in 1936 became the youngest person ever to graduate from the Guildhall School of Music. Harry Richman arranged for her to speak a line in the film Kicking the Moon Around (1938), directed by Walter Forde. Charles Laughton then famously became her major early career benefactor, arranging for her to be in the musical My Irish Molly (1938), followed by two vehicles starring himself, Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939) and William Dieterle’s remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). So commenced a stardom that would last many decades. I first knew her from a lot of her later films, which were considered classics: Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Parent Trap (1961), Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) and Spencer’s Mountain (1963, which became the tv series The Waltons ). In 1991 I had the delightful experience of seeing her in a cinema in a first-run movie, when she came out of retirement to appear in Chris Columbus’s Only the Lonely (1991) as John Candy’s overbearing mother!  She later said Candy reminded her of Laughton — now THERE’S a never-to-be bio-pic that’s to be mourned! O’Hara continued to make public appearances as late as 2013, and passed away at the age of 95.

O’Hara was cast opposite John Wayne on a handful of pretty magical occasions, and the pair came to be regarded as a screen couple, like Hepburn and Tracy, or Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. The two were close friends, though they never crossed the line into offscreen romance. In their movies together, they normally played an estranged couple that would eventually get back together, a template established in Rio Grande. O’Hara often played estranged aloof women and wives, frigid to all appearances but with a heart underneath. I’ve aways found her intriguing: icy and fiery, beautiful but distant and nonsexual. This is a useful quality in a star — it gave nearly every picture she was in somewhere to go if the director was smart enough to work it in.

In real life, O’Hara neither smoked nor drank and remained a virgin believe it or not until her wedding night with her SECOND husband! (Feel free to research that on your own, it’s too much of a tangent for me to go into here). Saintly in real life, she was nonetheless often cast as dance hall girls and the like because — porcelain or not — she was indeed beautiful, with that explosion of crimson hair and those flashing black eyes, which could be warm when the need arose. It seems to me there is a bit of an SM undercurrent in many Maureen O’Hara films — she’s often depicted as cruel and cold and in at least one (Commanche Territory) she cracks a whip! In another (McClintock!) her costar turns the tables and gives her a literal spanking. Hey, I don’t make the news, I just report it.

Today I thought we’d do an appreciation of her westerns, a major strain within her body of work. 

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Buffalo Bill (1944)

Joel McCrea plays one of America’s greatest showmen Buffalo Bill Cody in a film that trades on his name but misses the point of his existence. The picture ignores Cody’s life in show biz (where he made a real, tangible mark) until the film’s last ten minutes, and spends the balance of the picture on fictitious western exploits, depicting him as brokering peace between soldiers and Indians who never existed. But those last ten minutes (in glorious Technicolor) are worth it, for me anyway. The sight of McCrea in full Buffalo Bill drag saying goodbye to his audience makes me wish we’d seen him say hello to his audience! Thomas Mitchell floats in and out of the picture as the man who made Cody’s legend in dime novels, Ned Buntline. O’Hara plays Buffalo Bill’s wife, whom he meets when he rescues her from an Indian attack. 

Rio Grande (1950)

A terrific movie. The third in John Ford’s so-called “Cavalry Trilogy”.  Like all the best ones, is not just a movie about Indian fighting, but is also a drama about the people in that situation. And not just a drama, but an INTERESTING DRAMA, an INTERESTING situation, otherwise why bother to write and film the damn thing? In this one, John Wayne is the commanding colonel of a very rough cavalry fort in West Texas Apache country. The post is undermanned. The men live in tents inside the stockade. A new group of recruits shows up. There are 18 of them; Wayne had asked for 180. One of them turns out to be his son, very young and recently thrown out of West Point for having flunked math. Wayne hasn’t seen him in 15 years. This is the compelling hook for this whole film, and feels surprisingly grown-up, the way it is handled. Wayne and the boy’s mother (O’Hara) split up during the Civil War. She was a Virginian. He, a Union officer, under Sheridan. His worst crime in her eyes was, under Sheridan’s orders, participating in burning everything in the Shenandoah Valley, including her family plantation. Now she comes to the fort and tries to get his son out of the army. Both father and son refuse to comply. One of the many strands of the story is the father-son relationship, which we admire. Neither father nor son believe in privilege. Wayne treats the boy like any recruit, talks to him the same, doesn’t break up a fight he has having with another man. We admire this. This is American–democracy. And the absence of this spirit is un-American!

The action plot is a little more run-of-the-mill, but interesting enough, the way Ford handles it. The Apaches are preparing to go on the warpath. They keep attacking and retreating into Mexico over the Rio Grande where the American army can’t pursue them. Now Sheridan gives Wayne’s character unofficial permission to take the fight over into Mexico. Wayne sends the women and children out in a separate wagon train to safety, but this wagon train gets attacked. The Apaches take the children as hostages. (The scene is sanitized of course. No massacre, no deflowering of women, and only four troopers dead.) Wayne’s troops arrive. They send three men including Wayne’s to infiltrate the Apache camp and protect the children for the main camp. They are successful. The kids are rescued. Wayne is shot by an arrow. The son pulls it out. Wayne now — finally — calls him “son”. Then they all get medals pinned on them by Sheridan.

O’Hara made many other pictures with Ford but this is the only western. She did however costar with Wayne on many additional occasions in other director’s westerns as we chronicle below.

Comanche Territory (1950)

This one is all about Jim Bowie (McDonald Carey) and his famed bowie knife. Did he ever go this part of the country? Bowie goes and meets Will Geer, a former Congressman who has come from President Jackson with a new treaty for the Comanches, but had it stolen from him. Geer and Bowie come to this huge, flourishing town where they meet Maureen O’Hara as a feisty spitfire, who is bank president, runs the casino and makes a public spectacle of herself betting the town she can gallop a horse down main street without spilling her beer. A bunch of settlers have a plot to undermine the treaty so they can encroach on Indian lands and get at the silver deposits underneath. It should go without saying that O’Hara is the best thing about the movie.

The Redhead from Wyoming (1953) 

O’Hara as a “saloon proprietress who becomes embroiled in a range war and Alex Nicol as the sheriff who tries to prevent it.” She considered this one of her worst movies.

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War Arrow (1953)

Jeff Chandler plays a maverick cavalry officer who comes to a beleaguered outpost with a Washington-endorsed scheme of subduing the marauding Kiowas by enlisting (exploiting) local Seminoles in the fight. The post commander hates the idea and fights him every step of the way to the point of still grumbling and complaining when Chandler’s plan is a success. The whole thing culminates with a big war, with the Kiowas invading the fort. Maureen O’Hara is the love interest, a widow, whose husband has in reality gone renegade and joined the Kiowas (and is content to kill everyone in the fort including his own wife). A side bonus: Dennis Weaver plays an Indian. Noah Beery is also in the film as comic relief and it he who, early in the picture, discovers the eponymous WAR ARROW. One interesting bit, O’Hara sings a comical Irish song and shows she has a very nice singing voice, as well as WAY of singing. As it happens she appeared in several musicals throughout her career, most of them now forgotten.

The Deadly Companions (1961) 

Early Sam Peckinpah! Gunslinger Brian Keith, dance hall girl Maureen O’Hara, and drifters Chill Wills and Steve Cochran go through indian country. When we first meet Wills he is being slowly hung for cheating at cards; the players bet on how quickly he’ll die. Keith frees him, and the 3 start riding together, with the intention of robbing a bank. The outlaws enter a bar but church services are happening. Keith won’t take his hat off. He had been scalped by a reb during the war. It turns out it was Wills – Keith is playing cat and mouse with him. Meanwhile, O’Hara’s boy gets accidentally shot (Keith is responsible). She is an outcast in the town as a scarlet woman. She wants to bury her child near her father in Apache country. The men go with her to protect her. The balance of the film concerns the tensions among the four, that eventually erupt into violence. Keith and Cochran butt heads over O’Hara; O’Hara blames Keith for the death of her son etc etc. The movie pushes the envelope on sex and violence, a clear cinematic pivot point. O’Hara said she didn’t like Peckinpah. She found him “objectionable”. Nonetheless it’s a terrific movie.

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McLintock (1963)

I am tempted to call this movie best non-spoof comedy western. It’s definitely John Wayne’s best comic performance, although that’s not saying much. His comic scenes in John Ford’s and his own movies are usually irritatingly bad, just self-conscious and clumsy. Here it’s a bit of self-mockery and works really well. His comical foil is Maureen O’Hara, his traditional leading lady, also here at her best, a force of nature. Very little real subtlety.  But neither does a freight train possess much subtlety and it can be beautiful nonetheless. O’Hara seems to me the person the phrase “you’re beautiful when you’re angry” was devised for.

In the film, Wayne plays the title character, and the founder of the fictional town that also bears his name. He is a big man in every sense of the word. The whole town loves him, not just because he is the most powerful man in town but because he is a straight up guy to boot — and nice.  He lets Mexican kids climb up his trellis. His best friend is the Jewish merchant from town. His ranch is in the Cherokee Strip and they are about to let settlers in (it’s the 1895 run), but his run-ins with them are all humanitarian. Unlike a neighboring rancher he doesn’t vow to “run ‘em out”. He explains to them that the land they’ll be getting is bad. And he stops the lynching of an Indian by settlers. He even hires one of the young settlers (played by his actual son Patrick Wayne) for a cowhand, and his beautiful mother (Yvonne DeCarlo, va va voom) for a cook.

McLintock’s utopia is upset when his wife (O’Hara), from whom he has been separated for two years, returns to town from back east. She wishes to prevent their daughter (Stephanie Powers, again with the va va voom) from moving back home. The wife and daughter are both snobs, despite the wife coming from the same upbringing as McLintock did it. She puts on airs, bosses people around. The fact of the couple’s separation seems to recall their earlier film together Rio Grande, as does the fact that they really love one another. Bit by bit O’Hara starts to melt as she begins to remember who she is. (This is egged along by an astounding Taming of the Shrew scene, where McLintock pursues his wife through the town in her underwear. She and one of the town prostitutes are dunked in a water trough, in a somewhat problematic and sexist scene that climaxes with a good, hard spanking. Meanwhile the daughter falls in love with the ranch hand and they live happy ever after. There must be ten recognizable character actors from westerns in the film, including Strother Martin as a dude Indian agent in spectacles. Jerry Van Dyke as the daughter’s dude boyfriend from college who does a hilarious cakewalk “it’s the latest thing!” A minor classic of the genre.

The Rare Breed (1966)

Jimmy Stewart as a drifter hired by widow Maureen O’Hara to look after an extremely valuable prize European breeding cow. (O’Hara had previously worked with Stewart on Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation and later said he was a selfish scene partner!) Brian Keith plays a semi-comical Scottish villain, a neighboring rancher who tries to foil their plans. A memorable section is concerns their desperately needing to keep the cow alive through a freezing winter, and Stewart enduring great privations in order to do it, because that’s the job he signed on for.

Big Jake (1971)

A great movie, well constructed and entertaining — yet really out of step in the era of Little Big Man and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. As they had been in Rio Grande and McClintock, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara play an estranged couple who really love one another, but have a hard time admitting it. It is Texas, near the Mexican border in 1909. O’Hara’s ranch is attacked by a gang of bad guys (hilariously introduced at the top of the movie by a voice-over) and led by the always terrific Richard Boone. Several people are killed: ranch-hands, servants, even women and children. O’Hara’s grandson is kidnapped. Also her son, played by Bobby Vinton is injured (he has about four lines — I speculate that he gave a terrible performance and wound up on the cutting room floor). O’Hara sends for her estranged and famously difficult (ex)husband Big Jake (Wayne) whom she hasn’t seen in ten years.

The town marshall has a plan to bring several automobiles into the desert and cut the bad guys off at the pass. Wayne’s two young sons (one of them is Patrick Wayne, the Duke’s son)  decide to go with the marshall, while Wayne is independent and declines to use these new-fangled inventions. Big Jake’s partners are a very well trained dog named dog, and an Indian named Sam (western veteran Bruce Cabot). Of course the fleet of cars is attacked and made worthless. Jake’s two sons now come with him (and learn manhood along the way). The government people walk home with their tails between their legs — excellent! And Big Jake saves the day by breakin’ a lot of rules.

The Red Pony (1973)

I guess I’d get into trouble if I said I’d like to see a movie by this name in which O’Hara played the title character, bridle, harness and all, coltishly snorting and whinnying, so I won’t. Instead, this is a made-for-tv adaptation of the Steinbeck short story, with her Spencer’s Mountain costar Henry Fonda, Ford cohort Ben Johnson, Jack Elam, and Clint Howard as the kid!

This was O’Hara’s last screen work for a while. She was only 53! Yet “retired” would be the wrong word to use — she went on to be CEO of an airline and publisher of a magazine. The reality was that no one put a harness on Maureen O’Hara.