At last filming The Quiet Man began in June 1951, during one of the sunniest summers on record. Everything went smoothly. There was a genuine outpouring of goodwill from the people of Cong and everywhere in Ireland, towards the project. The crew and cast were happy. The actors were generous with signing autographs, making guest appearances at charity events, and had an excellent working relationship with the director John Ford. Ford was in wonderful good form. He had exorcised his war ghosts by making an astonishing 10 movies in only six years. Now he was relaxed and cheerful, beaming to be in Ireland with great actors, many of whom were his friends, and a script which he clearly liked. He had already worked out changes which he had discussed with his friend and adviser Brian Desmond Hurst in their rented house in Spiddal.
Ford wanted to make a contribution to the Irish Literary Revival, and had previously made an award winning film of Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer. While making that film, the Abbey Theatre was on its third tour of America, and arrived in Hollywood in February 1935. Ford invited them all to an elaborate lunch on the set of The Informer (a lamp-lit Dublin city street), and the Abbey invited him to their production of The Playboy of the Western World. Everyone got along famously. Ford was enchanted by the Abbey players. He gave the young Denis O’Dea a part in the film, and persuaded RKO producers to bring the Abbey back the following year to film The Plough and The Stars. As a return goodwill gesture the Abbey invited Ford and some of his actors to appear in the crowd scenes in The Playboy. Everyone had fun.
This was the beginning of a steady stream of Abbey actors going to work in Hollywood, and is the interesting theme of Adrian Frazier’s new book Hollywood Irish*.
‘Standing in their shifts’
Ford had seen several similarities between The Quiet Man and JM Synge’s powerful The Playboy of the Western World. Like Christy Mahon in Synge’s play, Sean Thornton arrives in a Mayo village, having killed a man. He falls in love and courts the local beauty (Pegeen Mike), and proves his mettle by winning a horse race. He still ultimately has one last great fight before the story ends. Ford adds two original features: In Synge’s play the horse race is held offstage, watched from the window and door of Pegeen’s cottage. Ford, a master at filming men on horseback, has a breath-taking horse race; and while the play ends in sexual frustration, Ford ends with a well earned sexual consumption that is healthy, and woman centred.
Ford must have been amused and annoyed that the original objections to The Playboy, when it first opened at the Abbey in 1907, was the furore caused when it was suggested that Christy Mahon would be presented with a ‘drift of chosen females standing in their shifts’ (underwear). Certain Puritan members of the audience in Dublin, and in Philadelphia (where the entire cast was arrested!) fiercely objected to the mention of women’s underwear on stage, and considered it to be a slur on Irish Catholic womanhood. As a result Irish women were often portrayed as gentle and timid, and not really ‘ that into sex’. John Ford, a sharp observer of men and women, made it quite clear that in a happy marriage sex was a mutually enjoyed pleasure, and one that was desired by both partners.
Gift from America
And he doesn’t shrink from showing Mary Kate Danaher’s feelings during their courtship. In a long sequence Mary Kate leads Thornton across the field to the river’s edge where, glancing back to see that he was following, she peels off her stockings and shows quite a bit of her shapely legs, before running barefoot across the water. They arrive at a hilltop churchyard:
Thornton: If anyone had told me six months ago that today I’d be in a graveyard on Inisfree with a girl like you that I’m just about to kiss, I’d have told ‘em...
Mary Kate: Oh but the kisses are a long way off yet!
Mary Kate: Well, we just started a-courtin’, and next month, we start the walkin’ out, and the month after that there’ll be the threshin’ parties, and the month after that...
Mary Kate: Well, maybe we won’t have to wait that month....
Mary Kate:.....or for the threshin’ parties...
Mary Kate: ...Or for the walking out together...
Mary Kate: ...And so much the worse for you Sean Thornton, for I feel the same way about it myself!
And finally they do kiss. It all appears a bit corny today, because they kiss in a thunder storm. John Wayne’s shirt becomes wet and clings to his skin. Maureen O’Hara flexes her hand across his manly chest, and the kiss leaves her limp.
Michael Flatley put sex into Irish dancing with his powerful Riverdance, and Irish dancing has never been the same since. John Ford’s gift from America to his homeland was the liberalising of Irish women’s feelings when in love.
This time there were no objections from the Irish audiences who queued round the block to see and enjoy the film again and again. It was immensely popular in Ireland, and ran for weeks and weeks at some cinemas. When it came to woman’s sexuality, Ireland had grown up since the beginning of the century, and the laughable horror of mentioning women’s underwear on stage.
NOTES: * I am quoting liberally from Adrian Frazier’s Hollywood Irish - John Ford, Abbey Actors and the Irish Revival in Hollywood, published by The Lilliput Press, €20.