by Kyrah Forbes
“Me Jane.” That’s the first phrase associated with long-standing fans of Maureen O’Sullivan, her best remembered role as Johnny Weissmuller’s wife in the Tarzan jungle adventures. My personal favorite was the 1932 movie, Tarzan the Ape Man.
What a delightful, romantic couple they were! That first Tarzan movie is forever emblazoned in our memories; it was a example of how love doesn’t really need words, but also of how quickly words can be learned. Facial expressions of this beautiful woman and handsome man told the story they wished to convey. How well I remember. Or is it because I still view O’Sullivan movie classics on a regular basis?
Learning she had a blocked artery in her brain, she entered the hospital on June 19 to have surgery, an angioplasty, to clear the blockage. Considering it to be a routine surgery, she wasn’t fearful, but she suffered a tragic reaction which ultimately caused her death on June 23, 1998 in a Scottsdale hospital at the age of 87.
Born in Boyle, County Roscommon, Ireland on May 17, 1911, she arrived in Hollywood in 1930. She was originally under contract with Fox then MGM. Her film roles were usually second leads though some were in major productions. She married writer-director John Farrow, an Australian writer (who would later win an Academy Award for screenwriting), in 1936. In 1942 she retired to raise their seven children, including Mia Farrow and Tisa Farrow. She later returned to an occasional film, hosted a TV series for awhile, and was even a member of the “Today” show. She also appeared in a Broadway play.
At eighteen years old, O’Sullivan was discovered in Ireland by Frank Borzage who directed her in her first film, Song O’ My Heart. She and her mother mother moved to Hollywood in 1930. She was in a total of nineteen films before appearing in her first Tarzan movie.
Her children were Michael, Patrick, Maria (Mia), John, Prudence, Theresa (Tisa) and Stephanie. The first of her children, Michael, died in an airplane crash in 1958. John Farrow died in 1963 and twenty years later she married a real estate contractor, James Cushing.
She was Frank Sinatra’s mother-in-law for a short time during the time her daughter Mia was his third wife.
O’Sullivan’s career included 72 movies and television shows spanning a sixty-year career. Her last appearance was in a television movie four years prior to her death.
Tarzan the Ape Man, 1932
Tarzan and His Mate, 1934
Tarzan Escapes, 1936
Tarzan Finds a Son, 1939
Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, 1941
Tarzan’s New York Adventure, 1942
A notable film appearance was Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters in which O’Sullivan appeared with her daughter, Mia, as the mother of her daughter’s character. One role I remember was the one she played in The Great Houdinis on television.
Her husband, John Farrow, directed her in some highly acclaimed productions which included Anna Karenina, Cardinal Richeliue, Pride and Prejudice, and The Big Clock.
Fans of the “Thin Man” movies may recall O’Sullivan in the first one and perhaps her role in A Day at the Races in a Marx Brothers’ movie.
Other Favorite Appearances
This list is only a few others you may remember:
A Connecticut Yankee, 1931
Tugboat Annie, 1933
David Copperfield, 1935
The Bishop Misbehaves, 1935
Maisie Was a Lady, 1941
Bonzo Goes to College, 1952
Mission Over Korea, 1953
Peggy Sue Got Married, 1986
She attended school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Roehampton, London. So did Vivien Leigh. As a fan of both of these one-time classmates, I was delighted to learn of this fact. The future wife of Tarzan, and the future star of Gone With The Wind actually attended school together! It is, indeed, a much smaller world than any of us can imagine.
When O’Sullivan met the author of the Tarzan books, Edgar Rice Burroughs, she admitted to him she had never read any of his books. Burroughs sent her a copy of every single one.
The seven-minute scene of Jane swimming nude underwater in Tarzan and His Mate was cut. Sometime in the 1990s it was restored. O’Sullivan had a body double for the scene. The original movie, with the nude scene cut, still caused a huge number of objections to Jane’s costume referring to it as “shameful.” How things change!
O’Sullivan owned a bridal-consultant firm. She was a supporter of the Phoenix Arts.
Maureen O’Sullivan is survived by her husband, her six remaining children, 32 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. She was one of the few stars who successfully managed to combine a career with motherhood.
She will always be my favorite jungle diva and the only Tarzan I’ve ever really liked is the handsome Olympic swimming champion, Johnny Weissmuller. The chemistry between them was so realistic that when I was young, I thought they were actually man and wife. And that is what acting is all about – convincing the viewing audience that fiction is fact.
Whenever I think of a Tarzan movie, I can still hear and see “You Tarzan” and “Me Jane.”