To cineastes and film scholars Maureen O’Hara, who recently passed away in her sleep at the age of 95, is best known as the woman in a number of John Ford-John Wayne westerns, whose ravishing beauty rivaled that of the wide vistas of the Monument Valley locales; and as dutiful mothers in scores of films, most famously in Miracle on 34th Street and The Parent Trap. Like many her other redhead contemporaries, such as Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming, O’Hara tended to get cast in roles that capitalized on her glamour in Technicolor rather than for her talent.
I would like to write a few words about her work in a film that hasn’t been mentioned in any of her other obituaries. One role that utilized more than her eye-candy quality was the starring role as a talented ballerina who ends up working as a stooge for a burlesque show in the oddball, but compelling dramedy Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). Directed by Dorothy Arzner, the sole remaining female director under the Code (though she fizzled out shortly after this film), O’Hara convincingly transitions her character from a docile waif to an a young woman who develops a firm backbone after dealing with various shysters from her demeaning burlesque gig and getting thwarted around like a yo-yo in the shenanigans of bored and snarky married socialites (Louis Hayward and Virginia Field).
She lucidly and forcefully delivers one of the most articulate and impassioned speeches to a crowd of unruly male hecklers demanding to be treated with respect. She is one of the few female characters who chooses her art over a man and doesn’t get punished for it. Did I mention that she engages in one of the most spirited cinematic bitchfights with a belligerent and opportunistic burlesque dancer (Lucille Ball, also excellent in an against-type role)?
Even in her more ornamental assignments, O’Hara imbued each character with sensitivity, intelligence, pathos, and heart. With her passing, we are closer to the end of the classic Hollywood era.