Top Ten Maureen O'Hara Films
Maureen O’Hara, the definition of the fiery redhead. She could be warm and inviting, yet hard and willful; but no matter where she fell, she always had a mind of her own. A spirited Irish lass capable of going head to head with John Wayne, she could also portray the most sophisticated and caring mother you could possibly wish for. Maureen is, probably, the ultimate example of a tomboy who knew how to be a lady.
On this top ten list you’ll find a diverse mix of adventure films, dramas, and family comedies. With an actress as versatile as Maureen O’Hara, there really is something for everyone.
Throughout her life, Maureen remained very open to giving interviews about her classic films. In fact, out of the eleven films mentioned on this list, no less than five feature audio commentary by Maureen on their DVDs (a rare and wonderful treat from a star of her magnitude). Out of all of the classic stars I’ve made top tens for, I’ve yet to see another who had more pride for the legacy they left behind or more willing to share their stories with fans.
FYI: I chose the order of my Maureen O’Hara top ten by considering each film's importance in Maureen’s overall career, the size/importance of her role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites such as IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Maureen O’Hara film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
And now, on with the Top Ten:
1. "MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET" (1947)
A timeless classic about retaining faith and hope in a cynical world, Miracle on 34th Street is, universally, considered to be one of the best Christmas movies ever made. Given the film’s popular status, this is probably the first Maureen O’Hara movie most of us remember watching as child and it just seems to get better with age. Starring opposite the very underrated John Payne, Maureen is perfectly cast as no-nonsense single mother Doris Walker. Doris works in a high level position at Macy’s flagship store in NYC and one of her primary duties is coordinating the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. When the parade’s Santa, suddenly, shows up drunk, Doris quickly hires a last minute replacement (played by Edmund Gwenn). The replacement Santa does so well during the parade that Doris decides to hire him as the Macy’s department store Santa for the holidays. But, while trying to illustrate to her daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), that there is no such thing as Santa, Doris discovers that the "Kris Kringle" that she’s hired, actually, believes himself to be the real Saint Nick. Of course, Doris knows that's impossible. Or is it? Filmed on location in the New York City Macy’s and at the actual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the filmmakers took a huge risk using the trademarked names of Macy’s and Gimbel’s in the film. Both companies refused to release their rights until they saw the finished movie (meaning if they didn’t like it, a large majority of the film would need to be re-edited and reshot). Luckily, both Macy’s and Gimbel’s loved the film and, happily, gave their consent. Macy’s even closed early when the movie premiered in order to allow all of its employees to see it. This tender and moving film is smartly written and perfectly executed by everyone involved. But, of course, a large part of the magic depends on the warm and charismatic performance of Edmund Gwenn, who won a well-deserved Oscar for his portrayal of Kris Kringle. This is a true classic in every way and required viewing for anyone who has ever believed.
2. "THE QUIET MAN” (1952)
Considered by many to be director John Ford’s most personal film, The Quiet Man is a sweet love story that, also, acts as a cinematic love letter to Ireland and its people. Ford had, actually, been trying to make the film for years (Maureen was cast back in 1944) but most studios were wary of financing a John Ford movie that wasn't an action movie or a western. So when the little-known Republic Pictures, finally, agreed to finance the film they did it under the condition that Ford and the cast make a low-budget western, as well (which became Rio Grande). The Quiet Man marks the second time that Maureen appeared opposite John Wayne and the chemistry between the two is visceral. Wayne stars as Sean Thornton, an Irish-born American who returns to his birthplace after a tragic accident leaves him shaken. Once he arrives, Sean is immediately drawn to the beautiful and fiery Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen) but, makes a bad impression on Mary Kate’s hotheaded brother, "Red" (Victor McLaglen). To buy his family’s old home, Sean outbid Red for the property and Red is a man who, certainly, holds a grudge. His resentment for Sean grows to the point that he is willing to do anything in his power to ruin Sean and Mary Kate's relationship, regardless of how it may affect his own sister’s happiness or dignity. As the proud and willful Mary Kate, Maureen proved herself to be one of the few leading ladies capable of matching "the Duke" blow for blow and solidified them as one of film's greatest screen duos. The making of The Quiet Man was quite a family affair: most of the principal players had family members involved in the film (either behind or in front of the camera). Maureen’s brothers Charles and James, John Ford’s son Patrick and his brother Francis, and all 4 of John Wayne’s children appear onscreen at one point or another. This movie has developed quite a following over the years and contains, probably, one of the longest and funniest fight scenes in movie history.
3. “THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME” (1939)
Released during the most famous year in Hollywood history” (1939), The Hunchback of Notre Dame, also, represents Maureen’s American film debut. She was able to secure her star-making role thanks to the support of co-star, Charles Laughton, who took Maureen under his wing after the two worked together in Britain. Based on Victor Hugo’s famous novel, this movie is widely considered to be the best adaptation of Hugo’s story. Maureen plays Esmeralda, a gypsy girl who has just snuck into Paris. No sooner has she arrived than she runs across the mysterious and feared bell-ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, a hunchback named Quasimodo (Laughton). Horribly deformed and nearly deaf (thanks to the sound of Notre Dame’s massive bells), Quasimodo has been largely cut off from the world and has, therefore, put all of his trust into his guardian, Chief Justice Jehan Frollo. But, the corrupt Frollo takes a lustful interest in the beautiful Esmeralda and compels Quasimodo to chase her down and bring her to him. When Quasimodo is caught and unfairly punished, the malevolent Frollo makes no effort to save his loyal underling. However, Esmeralda takes pity on the bell-ringer and offers him water while others ignore his pleas. Grateful for her kindness, Quasimodo begins to fall for the lovely gypsy girl, but Frollo’s lust for Esmeralda has already turned to hate. If he can’t have her, he's determined that no one else will. One of the most expensive films RKO ever produced, the sets for this movie featured massive replicas of Parisian streets and even Notre Dame, itself. This is a movie made on a grand scale and it’s become famous for its epic crowd sequences. But, without a doubt, the highlight of this film is the brilliant and transformative performance of Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. The film’s last lines (spoken by Quasi) will break your heart every single time.
4. “HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY” (1941)
Based on the popular novel by Richard Llewellyn, How Green Was My Valley marks Maureen’s first time working with director John Ford, with whom she would have a long professional relationship. A quiet family drama peppered by bleak realism (even though the film is sometimes oddly remembered as a purely sentimental piece), How Green Was My Valley is a movie that transports you to a world that no longer exists. Set at the turn of the century in a small Welsh coal mining town, the film focuses on the lives of the tight-knit Morgan family. Seen from the point of view of the Morgans' youngest son, Huw (Roddy McDowell in a star-making performance), the family lives a quiet and simple life until an unexpected pay cut at the mines begins to slowly tear the family apart. Meanwhile, Maureen plays Angharad, the Morgans' only daughter who falls for the town’s local preacher, a man she knows she might never be able to have. Although not discussed as often as other classics, How Green Was My Valley is a moving film that has lost none of its power, highlighting the chilling effects hard economic times can have on even the most tight-knit of communities. Full of striking visuals and strong emotions that ripple quietly beneath the surface, the film is often unfairly compared to the movie that didn’t win Best Picture of 1941, Citizen Kane. But, once you see How Green Was My Valley, it’s easy to understand why it was awarded 5 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Fans of British dramas, like Billy Elliott, will likely enjoy this film. Believe me, it's a movie that stays with you.
5. “RIO GRANDE” (1950)
The third of director John Ford’s so-called “Cavalry Trilogy” (established by Fort Apache and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon), Rio Grande marks Maureen and John Wayne’s first film pairing. Made under unusual circumstances, this poignant Western was the movie that Ford was forced to make in order to finance his real pet project, The Quiet Man. At Republic Pictures' request, Ford agreed to make a black-and-white Western with the same cast he had planned for The Quiet Man (i.e. Maureen, Wayne, and Victor McLaglen). Well, Ford’s pride could never let him make a movie halfway and as a result, this classic Western was created. The film tells the story of Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke (Wayne), a career military man in the U.S. Cavalry who is stationed in Texas, near the Rio Grande. Separated from his family for 15 years, Kirby is shocked when his now-grown son, Jefferson, appears among the new recruits assigned to his unit. Long steeped in military protocol, Kirby is unwilling to greet his son as a father and insists on treating the boy just like any other soldier. But, try as he might, emotional entanglements are difficult to avoid, particularly when Jeff’s mother (aka Kirby’s estranged wife), Kathleen (Maureen), arrives at the fort. Shot mostly in Moab, Utah and along the Colorado River, Rio Grande features some incredible action sequences in between the quieter character moments. The movie even offers a rare display of Roman riding on film, with the actual actors trained to perform their own stunts. Honestly, some of the stunts in this film are so intense they might make you gasp right out loud.
6. “MCLINTOCK!” (1963)
Inspired by Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, this broad Western comedy proved that both Maureen and John Wayne could handle comedy just as well as the more dramatic fare they were best known for. Wayne stars as George Washington ‘G.W.’ McLintock, a rich and powerful rancher who lives in the small Western town that bears his name. When the time comes for G.W.’s daughter, Becky, to return from college, his estranged wife, Katherine, also, reappears. It turns out that Katherine not only wants a divorce, but custody of their daughter. Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with G.W.. Further complicating things is the fact that both Katherine and G.W. still really want to stay together. If only they could find a way to get along. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen (Victor McLaglen’s son), McLintock is a perfectly executed Western comedy, complete with comedic fight scenes and destructive stunts. The film is cast beautifully with Maureen, actually, managing to perform most of her own stunts. McLintock, also, features John Wayne’s son, Patrick, as Devlin, a down-on-his-luck cowhand desperate to win Becky's favor. He makes a very nice impression onscreen and it’s curious why he didn’t become a bigger star. Fast-paced and boisterous, this is a really fun film for families, or any Western fan who wants to take a walk on the lighter side.
7. “THE BLACK SWAN” (1942)
Based very loosely on the novel by Rafael Sabatini, Disney fans will easily be able to see the influence this film had on the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, as well as, the subsequent films of the same name. The Black Swan pairs Maureen opposite Tyrone Power (The Mark of Zorro) who plays Captain “Jamie Boy” Waring, a carefree and amoral pirate happily enjoying his life of thieving and pillaging. But when the King of England appoints the infamous pirate, Henry Morgan, as the governor of Jamaica, it seems to mark the end of piracy’s “golden age”. Morgan has sworn to rid the Caribbean of piracy and enlists the help of his former friends to aid him in this crusade, including Jamie. While adjusting to his new life as a gentleman, Jamie immediately becomes infatuated with the fiery Lady Margaret (Maureen), the daughter of the former governor. But in order to earn her favor, he must learn to ignore his ruthless pirate instincts and Lady Margaret is less than patient. In fact, she would like nothing more than for all these newly “reformed” pirates to take a long walk off a short pier. Tyrone Power gives an engaging and likeable performance as the roguish Jamie Boy and the chemistry between him and Maureen works very well. The Black Swan, also, features Anthony Quinn in a small role and an unrecognizable George Sanders as the film’s villain, Captain Billy Leach. This big budget swashbuckler, also, features some lovely Technicolor cinematography, even winning itself an Oscar for it.
8. “OUR MAN IN HAVANA” (1959)
Made at the onset of Cold War paranoia, Our Man in Havana is based on the book by Graham Greene and was adapted by him for the screen. In fact, the movie was only made a year after the book was first published. Set in pre-revolutionary Cuba, the film is best described as a black comedy-thriller (yes, apparently, the genre exists!). Alec Guinness stars as James Wormold, a British expatriate and vacuum salesman whose been living in Cuba with his teenage daughter, Milly, for quite some time. As Milly has gotten older, she’s developed expensive tastes and Wormold is now struggling to maintain his beloved daughter’s lifestyle. So, when a British MI6 agent (played by Noel Coward), suddenly, approaches Wormold to become the agency’s Havana operative, he finds himself unable to resist the opportunity for an extra paycheck. But, Wormold has no idea how to be a spy, let alone how to recruit agents of his own. So in order to keep the MI6 paychecks coming, he begins to make up stories to send back to Britain. The system works pretty well for a while, but Wormold slowly begins to realize that the spy game is not really meant to be played with. Maureen plays the part of Beatrice, a trained British spy who is sent to act as Wormold’s official secretary once his reputation begins to grow (an event that doesn’t figure very well into Wormold’s plans). Full of subtle British humor, Our Man In Havana was, actually, shot on location in Cuba mere months after the revolution. Fidel Castro even paid a visit to the set while they were filming in Havana’s Cathedral Square. Even though this is really Alec Guinness’ movie, Guinness allows room for his co-stars to shine, including an unusually restrained Ernie Kovacs and the wonderful Burl Ives. Maureen, in particular, adds a much-needed female energy to this mostly male-dominated film and she makes an unforgettable impression from the moment she makes her first appearance. If you love satirical British comedies, as well as, the occasional political thriller, this is the movie for you.
9. “MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION” (1962)
Based on the novel by Edward Streeter, Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation marks the first time that Maureen starred opposite Jimmy Stewart (the two would later reunite for the Western, The Rare Breed). Streeter, also, wrote the novel, Father of the Bride, and fans of that book’s film adaptations may notice a few similarities, most notably the tongue-in-cheek voice-over that comes courtesy of Jimmy Stewart this time around. Stewart plays the titular Mr. Roger Hobbs, an ordinary businessman who wants nothing more than a quiet vacation with his wife (i.e. away from their 4 children). But, Roger’s wife, Peggy (Maureen) would never dream of spending a vacation away from her children and has taken it upon herself to organize a full-fledged family beach vacation. Not only will they be taking their young son and teenage daughter to the beach, but Peggy has, also, invited their two eldest daughters, as well as, their husbands and children. Very quickly it seems that Roger’s hopes of a relaxing vacation have gone right out the window. As he goes along with this (possibly misguided) family reunion, he’s forced to deal with each of his children’s troubles, as well as, the troubles of staying in a dilapidated old beach house (complete with a bizarre Rube Goldberg water pump). Maureen gives a warm and extremely likeable performance as the eternally optimistic Peggy, desperate for her family to bond during the increasingly problematic vacation. Showing its ‘60s roots, this movie, also, features an appearance by ‘60s teen idol, Fabian, who gets to sing a cutesy little Frankie and Annette-style song at one point in the film. This lighthearted family film has developed a small, but loyal, following over the years and fans of ‘60s family films like The Parent Trap are sure to love it.
10. “AGAINST ALL FLAGS” (1952)
Much like The Black Swan, Against All Flags is a lighthearted pirate swashbuckler. (Maureen even gets to try her hand at sword fighting this time around). But, this pirate film has the added bonus of pairing Maureen with the king of the swashbucklers, Errol Flynn. Maureen and Flynn enjoy a believable chemistry and it's really a shame they didn’t make more films together. Flynn plays Brian Hawks, a British naval officer chosen to lead a dangerous mission to infiltrate a pirate base in Madagascar. Although Brian and his men succeed in entering the pirates’ society, emotional entanglements threaten to undermine their entire mission. Naturally, this is where Maureen comes in. She plays the aptly named, Spitfire Stevens, a highly respected pirate captain and lone female member of the pirates’ Coast Captains tribunal. Brian’s gentlemanly ways soon start to win over the independent Spitfire, but this doesn’t sit very well with the bad-tempered Captain Brasiliano (Anthony Quinn), who has been attempting to woo the lady pirate for quite some time. This simple pirate film is bolstered enormously by the talents of the actors involved and, without a doubt, Maureen has never looked lovelier than she does in this film. As for Flynn, he approaches the role of Brian Hawks with real sincerity, proving himself to be an underrated actor. This film, actually, ended up being Flynn’s last Hollywood swashbuckler (however, he would make a couple more in Europe). Behind the scenes, Maureen has stated that Flynn was a pleasure to work with, but his growing alcohol addiction caused some headaches. During the morning hours, Flynn was always prepared and never missed a line, but by the late afternoon (when his drinking started to take its toll) he would need to be sent home. Of course, you could never guess that there were any problems when you watch the finished film and both fans of Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood and young pirate lovers will surely enjoy this swashbuckling adventure.
HONORABLE MENTION: “THE PARENT TRAP” (1961)
I couldn’t possibly finish a Maureen O’Hara top ten without mentioning this family classic. Based on the German book, Lottie and Lisa by Erich Kastner, this smart family comedy was written and directed by former Disney animator, David Swift. The film has since become famous for its groundbreaking split screen effects, developed by the co-creator of Mickey Mouse, Ub Iwerks. The film stars Hayley Mills as both Susan Evers and Sharon McKendrick, a pair of identical twins who have been separated by their long-divorced parents for the bulk of their lives. With each parent taking a twin after the divorce, the two girls have become completely unaware of each other’s existence. So when the twins, unexpectedly, reunite at summer camp, the two concoct a scheme to bring their estranged parents back together again. They decide to switch places, allowing each twin to get to know the parent they’ve never met and, more importantly, forcing their parents to coordinate switching them back. Maureen plays Susan and Sharon's mother, Maggie McKendrick, who has been raising Sharon in Boston. Brian Keith plays the girls’ father, Mitch, marking the first time the actor ever appeared in a comedy (a genre he would, eventually, become known for, thanks to his later role in the classic sitcom, Family Affair). As was typical for the Disney studio, Walt Disney was very involved in the production of The Parent Trap and even came up with the film’s title. He would often visit the set while filming and even awarded Hayley Mill’s double, Susan Henning, a rare Duckster award (only 3 exist) for her uncredited contribution to the film. As for Maureen, she gives a witty and surprisingly sexy performance as Maggie, who runs the gamut from sophisticated to earthy as she simultaneously flirts and fights with her old flame. This witty and adorable comedy is a classic for a reason and no child should ever go through life without seeing it.
And if you would like to learn more about the feisty and versatile Maureen O’Hara, I recommend her own autobiography, ’Tis Herself, as well as, Maureen O'Hara: The Biography by Aubrey Malone.
For More Maureen
© 2012 Luna B.
More by this Author
An overview of the very best films in the acting career of the famed "Lavender Blonde," Kim Novak.
Highlights the top ten films of the vivacious Shirley MacLaine.
An overview of the very best films in the acting career of America's favorite good girl, Doris Day.