It was Maureen O'Hara's destiny that, despite a long and varied career, she would be best remembered by far for being John Wayne's romantic screen partner. It was the second of her five collaborations with Wayne--and also, not incidentally, her third with John Ford, after "How Green Was My Valley" and "Rio Grande"--that became the iconic film of her career: "The Quiet Man." Everybody remembers the scene in a ruined Irish cottage, in the midst of a raging thunderstorm, in which she answers Wayne's soul kiss with a roundhouse swing. Even if you've never seen "The Quiet Man" itself, you saw Steven Spielberg quote that scene in "E.T." But for me it's her first scene in "The Quiet Man" that is her iconic image. Wayne, as disillusioned prizefighter Sean Thornton, has just returned to the village where he was born, and his first sight is that of a flame-haired shepherdess leading her flock into a wood. That shepherdess is Mary Kate Danaher, played by O'Hara; in the moment she turns around to look at Thornton, we know that Mary Kate symbolizes everything he hopes to find, and regain, in Ireland.
"The Quiet Man" may have been O'Hara's greatest film--"How Green was My Valley," her first collaboration with Ford, was probably its only real rival in her filmography. But she had many other unforgettable moments. Her role as Doris Walker in "Miracle on 34th Street," earnestly trying to persuade her daughter (Natalie Wood) that there is no Santa Claus while Edmund Gwenn is claiming to be Santa in the flesh, has become a Christmas classic. And no one who ever saw her Hollywood debut, as Esmeralda to Charles Laughton's Hunchback of Notre Dame, could fail to be enchanted by her. Her late career turn, as John Candy's smothering mom in "Only the Lonely," was a genial comic performance in which she showed a great and unexpected rapport with her co-star. O'Hara's screen persona seemed very much like how the real woman appeared to be: scaldingly honest, generous, good-hearted, and the scourge of anyone who dared to belittle her or test her will. She had many talents--among them a lovely singing voice--that Hollywood failed to capitalize on. But what Maureen O'Hara was, and what she achieved, were glorious.