Maureen O’Hara’s Other Male Co-Stars

Maureen O’Hara—The Redhead and the B-Listers

by Henry C. Parke

Maureen O’Hara was so good co-starring with John Wayne that it seems wrong to think that she appeared in Westerns with other actors. But she did quite a few, and while she had very little good to say about the films and the people she made them with, several are well worth watching. She even gave a young leading man his first screen kiss.

The Dublin-born, titian-haired temptress was 17 when her career began. In 1938, Charles Laughton saw her screen test and was mesmerized—not by her performance, which he hated, but by her eyes. He signed her to a contract, and she became Esmeralda to Laughton’s Quasimodo in the classic Hunchback of Notre Dame. Two years later she starred for John Ford for the first time, not in a Western, but in the story of a Welsh coal-mining family in How Green Was My Valley.

It was two years and seven films later when “The Queen of Technicolor” made her first Western, opposite Joel McCrea in William Wellman’s Buffalo Bill. It’s a wonderful film and was a tremendous hit. Much of the history is invented: there really was a Chief Yellow Hand (Anthony Quinn), Bill did kill him, but they were not childhood friends. The film left out the most famous part of the killing when Bill held Yellow Hand’s scalp aloft and announced, “The first scalp for Custer!” Yellow Hand did not have a sister named Dawn Starlight (Linda Darnell) who pined after Bill and ached to wear Louisa’s fine clothes. But while the details were false, the heart was accurate: the Indians were portrayed as honorable people badly abused by the government, and Bill was a friend both personally and professionally to many Indians while many still believed the only good Indian was a dead Indian. O’Hara gives an impressive and moving performance but, surprisingly, Buffalo Bill was not a favorite of hers. In her 2004 autobiography, ‘Tis Herself, O’Hara wrote, “I thought the picture would be forgettable, but it turned out to be one of the biggest moneymakers 20th Century-Fox had that year.” Incredibly, she added, “I didn’t feel Joel McCrea was tough enough to play the lead in a Western. He was a very nice man, a good actor, but not rugged like Duke or Brian Keith.”

O’Hara’s talent and beauty would keep her extremely busy, starring in comedies, dramas, and exotic adventures. There were 13 films, and a switch to Universal before her next Western. Like her first, it was purportedly historical. In Comanche Territory, Katie (O’Hara) and her brother (Charles Drake) are sagebrush entrepreneurs buying up all the silver that’s being mined on Comanche land. Macdonald Carey as Jim Bowie, and future Grandpa Walton Will Geer as his sidekick, arrive in town with an order from the President protecting the Comanche’s rights, but it’s stolen from Geer. O’Hara looks great in her anachronistic cowgirl duds and has some surprisingly fun action. “A fairly decent Western, and the film in which I mastered the American bullwhip. By the time the picture was over, I could snap a cigarette out of someone’s mouth.”

There’s stunning location photography around Sedona, and familiar faces like Iron Eyes Cody, Glenn Strange and James Best. And what a “happy” ending: Bowie tells Katie that he’ll be back to marry her after he takes care of some business at the Alamo!

Her next film would be her first with John Wayne, Ford’s Rio Grande, and in 1952, she traveled across the globe to star in an Australian Western, Kangaroo, playing the daughter of an Irish rancher facing a devastating draught in 1900. “The first script I read in Hollywood was wonderful. It was the reason I had asked Zanuck to cast me in the role. … I was heartbroken when I was given the revised shooting script in Sydney and saw how it had been ruined.”

She tried to quit, but it was not only an important film for Fox, but for Australian and American relations. “I was told that I would be creating a huge political incident if I walked off the picture. Though I hated every minute of the work, I absolutely loved Australia and the Australian people.”

Though sometimes as maudlin as O’Hara complains, it’s fresh and original, with beautiful photography, a terrifying cattle stampede, and a thrilling bullwhip duel between Peter Lawford and Richard Boone (which should have included O’Hara)!

After her success in The Quiet Man, she returned stateside for The Redhead from Wyoming. A woman with a past, Kate Maxwell appears to be the mastermind of an unbranded cattle plot, but is she really just the dupe of a suave saloon-owner? The lawman and eventual love interest is Alex Nicol. His best role was in The Man from Laramie, playing the unhinged sadist who tortures Jimmy Stewart. Here he gives Buster Keaton a run for his money as the Great Stone Face. Among the pleasures of Redhead is spotting Dennis Weaver before he was Chester, Jack Kelly before he was Bart Maverick, and Gregg Palmer before he was a villain in six John Wayne movies.

In 1953’s War Arrow, Jeff Chandler seems a better romantic lead than Nicol, but O’Hara wrote, “Jeff was a real sweetheart, but acting with him was like acting with a broomstick.” But he made it look good. She’s the widow of an officer, being pursued both by Chandler, and his superior, Wagon Train’s John McIntire. The plot concerns fighting the war-like Kiowa by training the peaceful Seminoles to fight, led by Henry Brandon, who later played Scar in The Searchers.

In 1955 she starred for John Ford in a non-John Wayne film. His son, Patrick Wayne, recalls, “Maureen was like family, just a great gal. She gave me my first screen kiss in The Long Gray Line,” a West Point turn-of-the-century story. “I’ll always have great respect for her and care for her [because] when my father passed away, she and Elizabeth Taylor spoke to Congress and pitched for my dad to get the Congressional Medal of Freedom. They were very instrumental in seeing it through.”

The 1960 smash-hit Disney comedy The Parent Trap rejuvenated O’Hara’s slowing career, and she and her brother produced her next film, The Deadly Companions, reuniting her with Parent Trap co-star Brian Keith. An uncompromisingly bleak Western, it features the darkest ‘meet cute’ in film history: trying to foil a bank robbery (of a bank he was intending to rob), Keith accidentally shoots and kills O’Hara’s son, and escorts her through Indian country to bury him. Calling the shots was first-time feature director Sam Peckinpah. “It was a total fiasco,” O’Hara remembered, “Peckinpah  might have been a great television director, but he didn’t have a clue as to how to direct a movie … Peckinpah made a Western about wild Indians without any Indians at all!”

In 1963 she starred with Henry Fonda in Spencer’s Mountain, the film that would be the blueprint for The Waltons, and co-starred with John Wayne in McClintock! 

The Rare Breed … is forgettable in every way except for a wonderful character performance by Brian Keith and the screen debut of Juliet Mills,” O’Hara wrote. It’s really much better than that. O’Hara and Juliet Mills are a widow and daughter escorting the first hornless Hereford bulls to Texas, hoping to breed them with Texas Longhorns. James Stewart is the cowhand hired to transport the animals, and Keith is the rancher with a yen for O’Hara, just like Stewart. But in fact, O’Hara was not a fan of Stewart. “I discovered that in a Jimmy Stewart picture, every scene revolves around Jimmy Stewart. He was a remarkable actor, but not a generous one.” One time, “I poured everything I had into a scene we were doing and knew I had stolen it from Jimmy.”

But the shooting day ended early. “Mr. Stewart had suddenly come down with a serious illness.” The next morning, “new pages of script were handed out. The scene had been completely rewritten overnight and was now impossible to steal.”

Juliet Mills has much more positive memories of the filming. “[Director] Andrew McLaglen was so experienced at that kind of thing and he was just wonderful. And working with Jimmy Stewart, it was a dream. He was such a lovely guy. And Maureen, of course, I knew anyway. She actually played my mother twice and [sister] Haley’s mother once. I adored her.

Years later, Mills remembers,  “The last time I saw her was when she came to Los Angeles. [They] were doing a tribute to her, and they showed The Corn is Green. I had tea with her at the Roosevelt Hotel. I think she was 90 then. She was still so beautiful. When I did Rare Breed with her, she was breathtaking. Her skin was like alabaster. She had that wonderful red hair and those huge green eyes. She was an Irish beauty for real.”

About Henry C. Parke

Henry’s new book, The Greatest Westerns Ever Made, and the People Who Made Them, published by TwoDot, is now available. The Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based writer has contributed articles to the INSP blog since 2016, been Film Editor for True West since 2015, and has written Henry’s “Western Round-up,” the online report on Western film production, since 2010. His screenwriting credits include Speedtrap (1977) and Double Cross (1994). He’s the first writer welcomed into the Western Writers of America for his work in electronic media. He’s done audio commentary on nearly thirty Spaghetti and domestic Westerns.