Obituary: Maureen O'Sullivan
Independent ~ June 25, 1998
THE DELICATELY beautiful, Irish-born actress Maureen O'Sullivan
will be best remembered for two reasons - her performance as Jane in a
string of Tarzan films opposite Johnny Weissmuller, and as the real-life
mother of Mia Farrow. She memorably quipped, when told that Frank Sinatra
was hoping to marry her daughter, "At his age, he should marry me!"
O'Sullivan's own career was a long and distinguished one,
including performances in such major Hollywood films as The Thin Man, Pride
and Prejudice, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Anna Karenina, A Day at
the Races, The Big Clock, and more recently Hannah and Her Sisters, in
which she played mother to her daughter Mia.
Born in Boyle, Ireland, in 1911, O'Sullivan had had no
acting training when she was noticed by the director Frank Borzage at a
dinner-dance of Dublin's International Horse Show. He had the waiter send
her a note: "If you are interested in being in a film, come to my office
tomorrow at 11am", and subsequently he cast her as the daughter of tenor
John McCormack in Song O' My Heart (1930), which was being partly filmed
in Erin before completion in Hollywood.
Though O'Sullivan's inexperience was apparent, the film
was a great success and the studio (Fox) gave the new actress a contract.
Her next film was the futuristic musical, Just Imagine (1930), after which
she was teamed with the studio's top star Will Rogers in The Princess and
the Plumber (1930). O'Sullivan later expressed dissatisfaction with her
treatment by the studio, feeling that they used her as a threat to their
top female star Janet Gaynor, who was on suspension for more money and
a new contract. When Gaynor settled with the studio, O'Sullivan's roles
became smaller and the following year, her contract was terminated.
"I felt lonely, forsaken and unwanted," she said later,
but in 1932 she was signed to a contract by MGM and immediately cast as
Jane in Tarzan, The Ape Man with the Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller
as her co-star. In the Tarzan books, the heroine is Jane Porter of Baltimore,
but MGM made her Jane Parker of London (O'Sullivan had been educated at
the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, and her accent was totally
convincing). The actress had not read any Tarzan books, and recalled that
the author Edgar Rice Burroughs sent her copies of them. "He was a nice
guy," she said recently, "and thought Johnny and I were the perfect Tarzan
and Jane, which is lovely."
O'Sullivan, besides her attractiveness, brought a sense
of humour plus an appealing blend of sophistication and innocence to the
girl who teaches the jungle-bred hero how to speak, starting with "Tarzan
. . . Jane" (not "Me Tarzan, you Jane" as commonly misquoted). The second
of the series, Tarzan and His Mate (1934) is generally considered the best,
matching the first in lyrical beauty and excelling it in excitement and
dramatic impetus. "Everyone cared about the Tarzan pictures," said O'Sullivan,
"and we all gave of our best. They weren't quickies - it often took a year
to make one."
What the critic DeWitt Bodeen called the "sweet paganism"
of the first two films is missing from the later ones, partly because of
pressures from moralist groups who objected to the scanty costumes, and
in particularly a sequence in Tarzan and His Mate (later cut), in which
Tarzan tugs on Jane's garment as they dive into the water and when she
surfaces part of her breast is exposed. "It started such a furore," recalled
O'Sullivan, "with thousands of women objecting to my costume."
In subsequent films Jane's costume was more substantial
while Tarzan's loin-cloth was lengthened. Tarzan Escapes was started in
1934, but was over two years in the making, mainly because its first cut
was too frightening and violent (including a vampire bat sequence). One
of the directors brought in to re-shoot the material was John Farrow, who
fell in love with O'Sullivan. The couple had to wait for two years for
a papal dispensation because of a previous divorce of Farrow's, but their
subsequent marriage lasted 27 years (until the director's death in 1963)
despite his heavy drinking and infidelities. The couple had seven children
- three sons and four daughters, the eldest girl Maria growing up to become
the actress Mia Farrow. Between the Tarzan films, MGM cast O'Sullivan as
ingenue in over 40 films - leading roles in B pictures but usually supporting
roles in major ones.
She was the distraught daughter who asks investigator
Nick Charles to locate her missing father in The Thin Man (1934), the first
of the series and the start of a lifelong friendship between the actress
and Myrna Loy ("I loved Maureen's warm exuberance," wrote Myrna Loy later).
In The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), she was Henrietta, the romantically
rebellious younger sister of Elizabeth Barrett, and in George Cukor's classic
film of David Copperfield (1935) she was Dora, David's silly and ill-fated
She was a flirtatious relative of Anna (Greta Garbo) in
Anna Karenina (1935) and in Tod Browning's bizarre Devil Doll (1936) she
was the daughter of a wrongly convicted banker who gets his revenge by
reducing his enemies to the size of dolls. With Allan Jones, she provided
the romantic element in A Day at the Races (1937, starring the Marx Brothers)
- O'Sullivan played the owner of the sanatorium over which Dr Quackenbush
(Groucho) is put in charge - and she came to England in 1938 to film A
Yank at Oxford in which she vied with Vivien Leigh for Robert Taylor. (Leigh
had been O'Sullivan's best friend at Roehampton when they were girls).
One of the film's uncredited writers was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who reputedly
developed a romantic admiration for the actress and built up her part.
O'Sullivan was unhappy, though, that she was primarily
identified with the role of Jane, and asked the studio to release her from
the Tarzan series. A script was written in which the couple would have
a son (adopted to placate the censors), and Jane would be killed by a hostile
tribe, but when word leaked out, public protest proved so great that the
studio re-shot the ending of Tarzan Finds a Son (1939) and gave O'Sullivan
a raise in salary.
She was given the role of Jane Bennett in Pride and Prejudice
(1940) but this was her last major MGM film, and when her contract expired
after Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942), O'Sullivan settled down to raise
her large family. She returned to films in 1948 in her husband's fine film
noir The Big Clock, playing the wife of a magazine editor (Ray Milland),
and followed this with another of Farrow's films Where Danger Lives (1950)
as a girlfriend of the doctor (Robert Mitchum).
In the mid-1950s she hosted a television show, Irish Heritage,
but spent most of her time nursing Mia through a bout of polio. In 1958
her son Michael was killed in an aeroplane crash while taking flying lessons
and in 1963 her husband died.
O'Sullivan had by then begun an active career in the theatre
and in 1962 had opened in a hit comedy Never Too Late, receiving the best
notices of her career as a middle-aged wife who becomes pregnant. Wrote
Variety: "She looks great and handles light comedy with a warm, gracious
flair." She starred with the same leading man, Paul Ford, in the screen
version (1965). She also starred in the Broadway version of the British
comedy No Sex Please, We're British (1973), gave an excellent performance
in an all-star revival of Paul Osborn's Morning At Seven (1983), and continued
until a few years ago to be active in television.
O'Sullivan often professed a desire to remarry: "Children
don't take the place of a husband," she said. "Many women - and I am one
of them - need both." In the late 1960s she fell in love with the actor
Robert Ryan and it was thought that they would wed, but he then became
ill and died in 1973, with O'Sullivan at his bedside. In 1983 she finally
married again, to James E. Cushing, a building contractor.
A liberal, outspoken woman - when her two sons were arrested
for possession of marijuana she commented that if youths want to indulge
in activities it is their decision - she played mother to Mia in Woody
Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), but Allen fired her from his film
September (1987) and five years later, when his romance with her daughter
broke up, she denounced him as a "desperate and evil man". Over the years
she came to appreciate the eternal appeal of the Tarzan films and their
place in cinema history. "It's nice to be immortal," she stated, "and film
has given us immortality."
Maureen Paul O'Sullivan, actress: born Boyle, Co Roscommon,
Ireland 17 May 1911; married 1936 John Farrow (died 1963; two sons, four
daughters, and one son deceased) 1983 James E. Cushing; died Phoenix, Arizona
22 June 1998.