By Niall McArdle
Una O’Connor is fondly remembered today by film fans for her feisty comic manner, her ear-piercing voice and loud, loud shriek.
She was born Agnes Teresa McGlade in Belfast in 1880. She was educated by the Dominican Nuns on the Falls Road. She was a member of the Abbey Players, and later appeared on the West End and Broadway, before making her film debut in Dark Red Roses (1930).
She had a nice line in busybodies: spinsters, gossips and maids (often Irish). She was described as having “the stare of a detective, the voice of an air raid siren, and the body of a scarecrow.” In an age when there was an awful lot of stage-Irishness in Hollywood films (Abby’s Irish Rose, Mother Machree), it must have grated on her ears to hear so many Oirish brogues.
The Bride of Frankenstein had a curious history; it was intended as a straightforward shlocky sequel to Frankenstein, but James Whale and his cohorts (all English ex-pats) kept to an expressionist style and had script changes that produced a much classier product than Universal probably wanted. The original cut was 90 minutes, but the studio sadly destroyed some of the more interesting elements, and the film runs at 75 minutes. Whale also used her ear-piercing shriek to good effect in The Invisible Man:
Like many former Abbey players, she made several films for John Ford, appearing in his version of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars and in How Green Was My Valley, and The Informer.
She was a friend of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, appearing with him in The Canterville Ghost, with her in The Bride of Frankenstein, and with both of them in Witness For The Prosecution.
She made several films in England (including Murder! for Alfred Hitchcock) before moving to Hollywood, where she appeared in several notable films, including David Copperfield, The Informer, Random Harvest, and The Bells of St. Mary’s.
Her last film was with Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester in Witness for the Prosecution in 1958, repeating the role of the near-deaf housemaid that she had played in the stage production.
O’Connor never married and had no children. She died in New York in 1959, aged 78.
- Saturday Night Cinema: Witness for the Prosecution (atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com)
- Happy Birthday Elsa Lanchester (waldina.com)