Tom McParland looks at the lives and careers of three Irish filmstars – Maureen O’Sullivan, Maureen O’Hara and Grace Kelly – who blazed a Hollywood trail for those that followed.

Modern movie actors like Brenda Fricker or Saoirse Ronan are up there with the world’s best in the Hollywood firmament. But they would be the first to admit that they sit on the shoulders of three giant Irish stars that successfully trod tinseltown’s path when Hollywood once meant the world.

For over three decades like pretty shamrocks, we felt that Maureen O’Sullivan, Maureen O’Hara and Grace Kelly represented Ireland as the ‘girl’ wife or mother in movies. Space dictates but a brief assessment of their varied careers, characteristics and star worthiness.

Before the days when a night at the pictures became a night at the picture, audiences imagined American movies to be a vague continuum of Hollywood life. A discombobulated place where John Wayne wore cowboy outfits before breakfast in six-guns and lariat pyjamas. Where eight husband-hopping Lana Turner could become synonymous with the fidelity of Madam X.

Movie magazines like Photoplay and Picturegoer in attempting to fill the gaps only widened them by their fictive revelations: ‘Jayne Mansfield’s Confusion – Convent or Hollywood? Infanticipating Marilyn Hopes For Triplets’ and ‘Why I Wed The Wife’s Mother – Rod Cameron’s Tearful Confession!’

Movie star fame usually came after countless failed auditions or after years of stage experience. It was only now and then that a new talent managed to glow in that exclusive galaxy of beauty and charm to ignite a whole new perception of desirability. If acting ability is thrown in, so much the better.

Film audiences don’t want to hear about trial and tribulation. Their magic mirror – the cinema screen – confirms their Snow White as the fairest in stardom. And so it was for Maureen O’Sullivan in the 1930s and 1940s. Maybe we missed her first time around, but not second when her alluring vulnerability grabbed us at children’s matinees, or on grey TV Sunday afternoons.

Baptised in 1911 as Maureen Paula O’Sullivan in Boyle, a small Roscommon town where a fast-flowing river flowed beneath a balustraded bridge. She was educated first in Dublin, Paris and finally Roehampton, London with school chum Vivian Leigh, both of whom were determined later to be actresses.

When only 18 Maureen was spotted by Frank Borzage whilst directing Peg O’ My Heart in Ireland (released September 1930). The Fox movie was supposed to be a starring showcase for John McCormack warbling 14 Irish songs. But McCormack was to acting what woodworm is to walnut. His obese awkwardness did Maureen O’Sullivan a favour, giving her ‘Eileen’ the young-girl timidity and gentleness of someone in love with John Garrick’s callow youth ‘Fergus’.

Her success earned her a Hollywood contract resulting in a repeat ingenue appearance in Fox’s So This Is London (1930) a piece of nonsense with star Will Rodgers. Beloved of Americans for his easy-going, old-world radio whimsy (‘never did meet a man I didn’t like’), O’Sullivan discovered the real Rodgers to be a beloved hypocrite and ‘a nasty piece of work.’

Just six movies later she became a familiar star as skimpily dressed Jane to Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan in six sporadic movies 1932-42 (Tarzan’s yell being overdubbed by opera singer Arthur Leech).
“Chetah,” O’Sullivan reminisced, “had to be kept on a leash as he was gay, fanatically fancied Tarzan and loathed me.” Nine years later she starred in another ape movie, Universal’s Bonzo Goes To College (1952).

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own