One of the Emerald Isle’s most beloved gifts to Hollywood movies, Maureen O’Hara (1920-2015), who would have marked her 97th birthday today, was rather undervalued through the decades among assessors of “the top-tier of the greatest screen actors.” But, setting aside the “critical” perspective, the strikingly lovely redheaded colleen of generous and feisty spirit impressed The Great Movie Stars: The International Years author and historian David Shipman thusly: “Her crisp and somehow innocent competence has combined with that beauty to make her one of the most eternally welcome of leading ladies (and, presumably, her on- and off-the-set niceness has prolonged her career while those of more illustrious ladies have declined).” There was always a strain of confidence and appreciation in her body of work, largely remembered for her associations with fellow luminaries John Wayne and John Ford, but also marked by adventurous encounters and choices also just as rewarding. For example, as she recounted in her 2004 memoir ’Tis Herself (written with John Nicoletti), she went through a three-year dry spell of non-moviemaking following the Wayne/Ford The Wings of Eagles (1957), though she had signed a six-year exclusive contract with Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn after completing The Long Gray Line (1955). (She writes: “Cohn died of a heart attack after the ink was dry. Had he lived I would have worked more for Columbia. He always told me, ‘You’re the one person in Hollywood with the guts to come into my office, sit down, look me in the eye and say no.”). When Lauren Bacall had to drop out of an intriguing role in a Graham Greene/Carol Reed Columbia project set to film in revolution-roiled Cuba, she seized the day and became the leading lady – a British secret agent! – of the espionage caper Our Man in Havana (1959) alongside Alec Guinness, Ernie Kovacs, Noel Coward and Ralph Richardson. There, two iconic figures made a great impression on her. “Che Guevara was often at the Capri Hotel,” she remembered. “I would see him at the restaurant and he'd come to my table to say hello. Che would talk about Ireland and all the guerilla warfare that had taken place there. He knew every battle in Ireland and all of its history. Che knew more about Ireland than John Ford did. I couldn't believe it and finally asked, 'Che, you know so much about Ireland and talk constantly about it. How do you know so much?' He said, 'Well, my grandmother's name was Lynch and I learned everything I know about Ireland at her knee.' He was Che Guevara Lynch! That famous cap he wore was an Irish rebel's cap. I spent a great deal of time with Che Guevara while I was in Havana. I believe he was far less a mercenary than he was a freedom fighter. Today he is a symbol for freedom fighters wherever they are in the world and I think he is a good one.” As to her acting skill among such heavyweights, co-star Guinness bolstered her: “He paid me a compliment, saying, ‘You know, Maureen, I never though you – being Irish – could do an English accent, but you have and it’s wonderful.’ He was a Catholic too, so we went to Mass together during the picture, but if I was one second late, he wouldn’t wait for me. He was a stickler for punctuality and professionalism on and off the set. It was wonderful to work with him because I’m tarred with the same brush that way.”
Following her next two films both of which opened in the summer of 1961, The Deadly Companions (for director Sam Peckinpah, whom she found distasteful to work for) and Walt Disney’s The Parent Trap (writer-director David Swift’s crowd-pleasing box-office hit), she was approached to join another comedic exercise in parenting, starring another top Hollywood favorite: Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962, directed by Henry Koster and adapted for the screen from an Edward Streeter novel by Nunnally Johnson). But like many a family outing, there would be a road-bump to overcome. Following the first day of shooting an easygoing non-dialogue scene with her venerable co-star, she recalled a phone call from her agent, who said: “Jimmy Stewart wants you off the picture right away.” She goes on: “I was stunned. ‘What are you talking about? Why?’ ‘Well, Jimmy said that it was his understanding that you would eventually try to take over the picture and direct it.’ That’s when it hit me. There was only one person who would have said such a thing about me to Jimmy Stewart, and only one person whom Stewart would have believed – John Ford. Stewart and Ford had finished making The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance together only weeks before we began filming Mr. Hobbs. I knew they were still talking. Ford had done this kind of thing to me before, on many occasions.” She asked her agent to intercede with Stewart, and reported to work the next day. Author Marc Eliot, in his 2006 Jimmy Stewart: A Biography, approaches this from a different angle. He asserts: “(Executive producer Jerry) Wald then decided that Maureen O’Hara was ‘wrong’ for the domesticated housewife opposite Jimmy. He offered to buy her out of the film and give her another one, then offered the role to virtually every other leading lady in town, including Loretta Young, Polly Bergen, Lucille Ball, Olivia de Havilland, Ginger Rogers and Rosalind Russell. When they all turned thumbs down on the project, Wald went back and rehired O’Hara, at a considerable increase in salary.” O’Hara plays it close to the vest in ’Tis Herself: “I was never asked to leave the cast. What happened and who changed whose mind I still don’t know. Within a matter of weeks, Jimmy was falling all over himself in an effort to be friendly. I’m sure that I left him with a positive impression when the film was finished, and over the years, Jimmy and I would become good friends. And he would later ask me to be in another picture with him (1966’s The Rare Breed).” Whatever stories one may believe, one lasting truth remains: never underestimate the talent and audacity of birthday honoree O’Hara, seen to disarming advantage in the overlooked comedy gems Our Man in Havana (now in our current Sony Titles Promotion through August 30 at 33% off original list) and Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (available here: http://www4.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/26864/MR-HOBBS-TAKES-A-VACATION-1962/) on effervescent Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays.