Movies provide an undeniable level of comfort and entertainment. Today Ireland is home to no shortage of great actors, but what of the Irish Hollywood stars of old? Read on to learn about three early pioneers of Hollywood movie magic.
This week we enjoyed welcoming people from all over the world to our Hollywood-themed webinar. If you missed Thursday's meet up, here is another chance to catch up with the historical characters that were discussed.
William Desmond Taylor
William Desmond Taylor was born William Cunningham Deane-Tanner, in the civil parish of Painestown in County Carlow on the 26th of April 1872. Born into the Irish gentry, Taylor grew up in Evington House. His father was a military man. Taylor was one of five children.
As a young man, Taylor emigrated to the United States. It was there that he rekindled a love of acting which he had first been introduced to in his school years. He originally arrived in America to work on a dude ranch in Kansas, but soon found himself making his way to New York City. It was there that he met his wife, actress Ethel May Hamilton. The two were married on the 7th of December 1901 and had a daughter a year or two later. The relationship was a tempestuous one. Taylor was said to have had a number of affairs with other women. On the 23rd of October 1908, Taylor vanished, abandoning his wife and child. Friends had commented on his poor mental state in the run up to his disappearance, and it was generally accepted that he had wandered off during a bout of amnesia. His wife was able to get a state divorce in 1912.
That same year, Taylor reappeared in San Francisco. He had changed his name and no longer went by his birth name of William Cunningham Deane-Tanner, but William Desmond Taylor. Little is known about where he went during his 4 year absence but it is generally accepted that he travelled through Canada and Alaska, picking up whatever work he could in mining and acting. Upon his reappearance, some of his old friends from New York gave him money to get set up on the west coast.
In 1913 Taylor's acting career took off as he began to take on roles in movies. A year later he made his directorial debut, and would go on to direct more than 50 movies over the next few years.
In 1918, towards the end of World War I, Taylor enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. That same year he was found out by his ex-wife and child. Ethel recognised him on screen and wrote to the studio to inform her ex-husband that the jig was up. Taylor visited Ethel and their daughter in 1921 and officially made his daughter his legal heir.
With such a mysterious life, it is hardly surprising that Taylor came to an equally mysterious end. On the 2nd of February 1922, his body was found in his home. A self-proclaimed doctor who arrived on the scene pronounced that Taylor had died of a stomach hemorrhage, but when forensic investigators examined the body, they found that he had been shot in the back. The supposed “doctor” who made the original diagnosis was never seen again and Taylor's killer was never found. Although there were many theories and suspects, there was no hard evidence to convict anyone and the crime went unpunished.
The life and death of William Desmond Taylor has become one of the great mysteries of early Hollywood.
Errol Leslie Flynn was born on the 20th of June 1909 in Tasmania. His grandparents on his father's side were from counties Leitrim and Meath.
As a young man, Errol relocated to London where he was schooled for two years from 1923. His time in London was short lived as he returned to Australia in 1926 to resume his education. His years of learning would come to an abrupt end when he was expelled from a grammar school in Sydney. After this he took on a number of odd jobs and spent some time in New Guinea. At this time Errol was completely unaware of how dramatically his life was about to change.
In 1933 he was cast as the lead in the movie In the Wake of the Bounty. Though the film was not a great success, Errol had clearly been bitten by the acting bug. He left Australia for Britain once more, this time to pursue a career as an actor. There he had some success, being cast in a number of theatre productions and even getting some film work, but his career would not take off fully until he relocated to Hollywood.
Upon arriving in Hollywood, Errol was quickly picked up by Warner Bros. who cast him in a number of swashbuckling roles, the type of characters which he would be best known for playing. Most famously he played Robin Hood in the 1938 movie. It was this performance that shot Errol into super stardom.
In 1959, Errol's ghostwritten autobiography aptly entitled My Wicked, Wicked Ways was published. In the book Errol claimed that he had been involved in piracy before playing pirates on the silver screen. He also made a number of claims regarding his personal life, and although many of the details may be exaggerated, it cannot be denied that he certainly led a colourful life as a renowned womaniser. He was also a heavy drinker and a deeply unhealthy man, as evidenced by his failure to pass the medical exam for entrance into the U.S. Army.
Errol Flynn died on the 14th of October 1959 leaving behind him a legacy of Hollywood hits and personal scandals.
It’s impossible to think of the Irish in Hollywood without calling to mind the enigmatic Maureen O’Hara. She was born Maureen FitzSimons on the 17th of August 1920 in Beechwood Avenue in the Dublin suburb of Ranelagh. As a young child she was quite the tomboy and enjoyed sports and fishing in the Dodder river. At the age of 10 she began her acting training when she joined a theatre company in Rathmines. Four years later she joined Ireland’s National Theatre, The Abbey. She left Ireland to complete her acting training in London where she attended the illustrious Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
It was in London that Maureen began to make films. After a few smaller appearances, her first starring role was in an adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel, Jamaica Inn in 1939. Recognition for this role won her an entrance into Hollywood as she was cast in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The rest, as they say, is history. Maureen O’Hara’s star continued to rise to dizzying heights with her most notable role being that of Mary Kate Danaher in the 1952 movie The Quiet Man.
Maureen O’Hara played an integral role in the early years of Hollywood, particularly with regards to the introduction of technicolour. Her extensive filmography is packed full of iconic roles in some of the world’s favourite movies. In 2014, Maureen’s contribution to filmmaking was recognised when she was awarded an Honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Maureen O’Hara died in Boise, Idaho, USA on the 24th of October 2015 aged 95.
Hollywood’s Irish Legacy
The three individuals discussed here are just a small representation of the Irish contribution to the early years of Hollywood. Countless men and women passed through the studios of L.A. as actors, writers, and directors. So next time you’re watching a classic movie, keep an eye out for those tell-tall Irish names as the credits roll.
Click on the images to learn more about the entries that inspired this Chronicles Insight.
William Desmond Taylor 1872
Erol Flynn 1909
Maureen O'Hara 1920
Did one of your ancestors 'make it big' in Hollywood? (Remember that this could also refer to set-builders!)
Please consider adding them to the XO Chronicles to share their story with their Irish place of origin and the community living there today, as well as with others descended from the same place, living all over the world.