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Star of the Month: Maureen O'Hara
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,Fire over Africa

Fire Over Africa

To head a largely British cast in the international thriller Fire Over Africa (aka Malaga, 1954), producer Mitchell "Mike" Frankovich chose American ringers Maureen O'Hara and Macdonald Carey, who had previously appeared together in Universal's Comanche Territory (1950). In the film, O'Hara plays a former O.S.S. agent who takes on smugglers in Tangiers, where she must also resist the advances of handsome rogue Macdonald Carey. Cast in the role of a friendly nightclub proprietor, Binnie Barnes had appeared with O'Hara in The Spanish Main (1945) and was married to producer Mike Frankovich. Playing Carey's Arab confederate is Ferdinand "Ferdy" Mayne, a reliable exotic in British cinema for a quarter century before achieving cult superstardom as the undead Count von Krolock in Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers (Dance of the Vampires, 1967). Behind the camera was cinematographer Christopher Challis, better remembered for his collaborations with "The Archers," Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

When the cameras began rolling on Fire Over Africa in mid-November 1953, Maureen O'Hara was 33 years old, divorced from her second husband and engaged in an ugly custody battle over her 9 year-old daughter. She had come a long way since her days as a £1-a-performance player on Dublin's Radio Éireann. Brought to America at 19 to be Esmeralda to Charles Laughton's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), O'Hara racked up an impressive resume over the next fifteen years. If she had come to Fire Over Africa with little enthusiasm, the assignment would prove invaluable a few years later. In 1957, the tabloid Confidential ran a story claiming that O'Hara was once caught engaged in sexual shenanigans at Grauman's Chinese Theater during a showing of Ben Hur (1959). O'Hara sued and the subsequent court case became a media circus. The "Queen of Technicolor" was able to prove that she could not have been so engaged on the dates alleged by the scandal sheet because she was in Spain filming Fire Over Africa – and had the visa stamps to prove it. O'Hara's victory, court fines and libel suits totaling $28,000,000 put Confidential to bed permanently by February of 1958.

Fire Over Africa producer Frankovich was the adopted son of wide-mouthed comic Joe E. Brown. An All-American quarterback in his days at UCLA, he later entered the entertainment business post-college as a radio commentator and producer. By 1930, Frankovich was making himself useful in Hollywood as a technical advisor on sports films, in addition to working as an editor, a production manager and an assistant director. He played bits in films (Buck Privates [1941], Meet John Doe [1941]), often as radio and sports announcers. Frankovich got his start as a film producer with Republic Pictures. His wartime experience as a pilot with the Army Air Corps in Europe would serve him well in his postwar career as an independent film producer abroad. As he had on the literary costumer Decameron Nights (1953), Frankovich split principal photography of Fire Over Africa between Spain and London.

Growing up in New York, Richard Sale, the film's director, had set his heart on becoming a writer and sold his first magazine story at the tender age of 12. As a pulp writer-for-hire, Sale banged out hundreds of novels and short stories that he sold to magazines such as Argosy and Detective Tales. He began contributing to the Hollywood screenplay mill by the mid-1930s. In 1940, his novel Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep was adapted for the Republic production Strange Cargo, starring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. During World War II, he served as a Navy correspondent for The Saturday Evening Post. While Sale's film scripts were mostly dramas and thrillers – most notably Suddenly (1954) with Frank Sinatra and Abandon Ship! (aka Seven Waves Away, 1957) with Tyrone Power – his métier as a director was light entertainment. Sale took on Fire Over Africa between the frothy Fox musicals The Girl Next Door (1953) and Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955). Sale is also infamous as the author of the trashy bestseller, The Oscar, which became a legendary bad movie classic.

As for Fire Over Africa's screenwriter Robert Westerby, he specialized in tales of intrigue on the Dark Continent. Cairo Road (1950) followed Egyptian cops Eric Portman and Laurence Harvey on their mission to ankle narcotics traffickers while South of Algiers (1953) pitted archeologist Van Heflin against plunderers in the hunt for a priceless ceremonial mask.

Producer: M.J. Frankovich, Colin Lesslie
Director: Richard Sale
Screenplay: Robert Westerby
Cinematography: Christopher Challis
Film Editing: Bert Bates
Art Direction: Vincent Korda, Wilfred Shingleton
Music: Benjamin Frankel
Cast: Maureen O'Hara (Joanna Dana), Macdonald Carey (Van Logan), Binnie Barnes (Frisco), Guy Middleton (Soames Howard), Hugh McDermott (Richard Farrell), James O'Hara (Danny Boy).
C-84m.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
'Tis Herself: An Autobiography by Maureen O'Hara with John Nicoletti
The Pulp Jungle by Philip Gruber
The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz
Time, "The High Price of Virtue," May 1958 VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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