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Best Book of the Year (2017) - Classic Images

Bette Davis answered, “George Brent” whenever asked to name her favorite co-star. Her longtime crush on the actor (they teamed in eleven films) culminated in an off-screen affair while filming Dark Victory (1939) for which she received an Oscar nomination and Brent gave what many consider his “finest performance.” Hollywood’s top stars clamored to play opposite Brent, who infused his easy-going warmth into such blockbuster films as 42nd Street (1933). Before long, Garbo demanded that MGM cast him opposite her in The Painted Veil (1934). Brent was perfect foil for cinema’s leading ladies: Ruth Chatterton (his second wife), Ginger Rogers, Loretta Young, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, Kay Francis, Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine, Hedy Lamarr, Merle Oberon, and Ann Sheridan (his fourth wife). Not to be pigeonholed Brent’s perfection as the dissipated Englishman in The Rains Came (1939) and surprise turn as the heavy in The Spiral Staircase (1946) fueled the longevity of his career.

The personal life of George Brent remained undercover. Upon signing with Warner Bros., studio publicity fabricated a back-story for Brent: a graduate of Dublin University (he dropped out of school at 16); a player in the Abbey Theatre (for which no record exists); a dead mother (who was very much alive); and, a dispatcher for Michael Collins during the Irish Revolution (this . . . was true).

Brent’s biography offers a fascinating look into the life of Hollywood’s elusive lone wolf.  Scott O’Brien, whose biography on Ruth Chatterton made The Huffington Post’s “Best Film Books of 2013,” abetted by Irish filmmaker Brian Reddin, sheds new light on Ireland’s gift to Hollywood and its leading ladies: George Brent.     

(Foreword by Wesleyan University’s Chair of Film Studies, Jeanine Basinger.) 331 pages with 125 illustrations capture the glamour and private world of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

One of my favorites, Scott O’Brien, has written another excellent biography, George Brent: Ireland’s Gift to Hollywood and Its Leading Ladies ($29.95, BearManor Media softcover). The title might sound a bit long, but O’Brien’s storytelling ability is first-rate.

      While never a superstar, George Brent (1904-79) was a major name of the 1930s and ‘40s who appeared with top leading ladies: Kay Francis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Fontaine, Ruth Chatterton, Ann Sheridan, Greta Garbo, Joan Blondell, Myrna Loy, Loretta Young, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, Merle Oberon, Olivia de Havilland, Hedy Lamarr, Bette Davis, et al. With the latter, he made 13 films, notably the classics Jezebel (1938), The Old Maid (1939),  and Dark Victory (1939). Many have the impression that Brent was a limited actor, used mainly to support a stronger female partner. Dependable is the way he is most often described. Yet, when given the chance, he turned in some really good performances, in particular The Spiral Staircase (1946). Even in his so-called support performances, he brought a strength that was very appealing, attractive and memorable. Proof of this can be seen in regard to The Old Maid. Initially, Humphrey Bogart was the male lead, but he just wasn’t working out, and he was replaced by Brent. Even when he’s off screen, you remember George Brent. 

      In real life, Brent was catnip to the ladies. He was married five times, and three of his wives were actresses: Ruth Chatterton, Constance Worth and Ann Sheridan.

      O’Brien adds much to our understanding of Brent. He was a complicated man, not easy to like and sometimes difficult, but I can honestly say that the author etches a fascinating portrait that shows both sides of his personality. Brent might not have been easy to know, but I found him ultimately likable. He often preferred to be a “lone wolf,” and O’Brien conveys this aspect beautifully. How his difficult childhood affected his subsequent life is eye-opening.

      It goes without saying that the author has done a tremendous amount of research, and this includes getting Brent’s family involved for a more personal inside look. We have always heard of Brent’s colorful life in Ireland: Dublin University graduate, Abbey Theatre player, and his time with Michael Collins during the Irish Revolution. His childhood has been murky, at best. I cannot even imagine getting to the bottom of all this, especially when it concerns a different country. The research would be a killer. O’Brien, as always, makes it look easy and sorts fact from fiction. His sources are extensive and, unlike hack writers, O’Brien provides pages of documentation.

      The movies are not neglected. O’Brien has a rare skill in describing movies and their memorable and not-so-memorable moments. He truly loves film and whether it is good or bad, it will get a fair assessment. Brent is usually relegated to that “dependable” tag, so to see an analysis of all his performances is welcome. 

      You will find no dirt here, just an excellent, honest and well-written biography of an under-appreciated actor at last getting his due. Icing on the cake: 125 illustrations, including one from 1926, before Brent’s nose job. Talk about shocking! Foreword is by the terrific Jeanine Basinger."

- Laura Wagner, Classic Images


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