Obituary: Maureen O'Sullivan

Tom Vallance
Thursday 25 June 1998 00:02 BST

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 wife.

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.

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