George Brent confuses me. He seems to have led a very interesting life, having been chased out of Ireland in the 1920’s after apparent service with the IRA, had a career on Broadway, signed with Warner Brothers in 1930 and then starred in over 80 movies with the cream of the leading ladies of the 1930’s and 1940’s, was a licensed pilot, married two high-profile actresses and apparently carried on an affair with 13 time co-star Bette Davis as well as many others, but on screen, I find him either extremely wooden, or sort of just mildly amusing. There is no doubt that he was a dapper gent, and as a Warner Brothers star, he certainly had opportunities in leading roles, with exceptional actresses, but why do I find myself alternatingly sort of enjoying him and then wanting to scream in frustration at his performances?
I’m no expert, but of the 19 or so films I’ve seen featuring Brent, I’ve gotten the impression that he wasn’t much of an actor, but he certainly seemed to be promoted as one. I read somewhere that Warner Brothers thought they had a rival for Clark Gable in George Brent. They must have been joking. Clark and the word "stud" seem to be made for each other, but the only time Clark and the word dud have ever come into contact is when Rhett told Scarlett to pack Bonnie Blue’s “little duds”.
I decided I had better re-watch the 18 or so movies of his which I have in my possession. I might add that most of them are not amongst his more well-known films: they include quite a few pre-codes, one comedy with Jean Arthur, several “women’s” films with Kay Francis, one lesser film with Better Davis and one from the 1940’s.
I sometimes believe that being under contract to a studio must have been something of a curse, because they could force you into a lot of horrible films, with ridiculous scripts and dialogue. Case in point: Miss Pinkerton, with Joan Blondell. I found that in this horrible isn’t-it-over-yet? flick, George can make a whole speech without anything but his lips moving - it was bizarre, I felt like I was watching a robot. Difficult to sit through, it’s almost as if George says his lines, then remembers, “the director told me to smile here”. Material for Miss Pinkerton was abysmal, and he got lots of opportunities to put down the lovely and very blonde Blondell, who could act circles around him.
Next came Weekend Marriage with George in a small supporting role, all he had to do was chase after Loretta Young, he was quite tolerable, and sort of attractive. Then, in the opening credits of Lily Turner, he already exhibits more personality in the quick shot of him in which he’s smiling, actually smiling and it’s a genuine smile. Ah, this might be a movie I enjoy him in! (And I did, and it had nothing to do with the fact that he appeared in a singlet, while lifting weights).
As I plowed onward, through the predictable They Call It Sin and onto the enjoyable Desirable, the remarkable Baby Face, and then on to Stranded and The Goose and the Gander, both with Kay Francis and then 42nd Street, I found myself slowly warming to George’s dubious charms. He hasn’t really been given much to do in any of these films, to prove himself capable of carrying a film, if he had to. But I have to admit, there’s something about his two facial expressions, his monotonous, but refined voice, the bland delivery of his lines and his shiny hair. He’s still dorky, and dud-ish, but in a genial way. TCM puts it plainly in their bio of Brent, stating that he was there in “deferential support” of his leading ladies, and I will add that in this he does quite well, if only to showcase their superior acting talents and their abilities with facial expressions. I also realized while watching these films that I chose to view them originally because of their female stars, not for George. It was just secondary that I became intrigued by this man who was so stiff.
There have always been two films of his which I have enjoyed from first viewing, even finding some value in Brent’s own performance. In Person, with Ginger Rogers, and More Than a Secretary, with Jean Arthur, find George with some wit, able to play for laughs even. He seems less formal, more at ease in these films. Although he’s anything but a normal guy in More Than a Secretary, his interactions with and reactions to co-star Dorothea Kent are so natural and appropriate, they do add nicely to the film.
allows him to call Ginger an “ouch-face”, and something about the way Brent nods his head unmusically while Ginger sings to him is endearing. He’s just a poor Pinnochio, who’s found himself in the movies. Despite my enthusiasm for these two movies, he hasn’t won me over yet. At one point in More Than a Secretary, Jean Arthur pretty much sums up my feelings for George, when in a moment of anger, she says to him “you’re nothing but an animated carrot”, and I must say, she’s got something there. I was thinking pole, or board, but carrot will do nicely as a metaphor for George. An attractive carrot, with scant animation.
On to Purchase Price. Stanwyck is her usual self, and Brent, as her mail-order husband looks good on the farm. But it is his acting in this one...especially his attempts at acting as though he has a cold by sniffing repeatedly...that exasperates me. Here’s why I don’t get George Brent. His voice can sound angry, his clenched fists or stiffly hunched shoulders can marginally back his words, but his facial expressions are one-dimensional. I often find myself wondering if they couldn’t have found another handsome leading man who could really emote for his roles?
But once I settled down to watch Female, in which he starred again with wife Ruth Chatterton, I found that George comes alive (well, alive for him anyway) in his role as the engineer who won’t submit to Ruth’s advances. He seems much more comfortable in his part, his facial expressions seem genuine and he’s not so stiff. I also noticed this while watching Lily Turner, also with Chatterton. Was he a better actor when he was in love?
Housewife, in which he appears with Bette Davis is a silly little movie, but when George is with Bette, his acting improves slightly. Just as I started to get my hopes up that perhaps he has some talent, while watching The Crash, again with wife Chatterton and Living on Velvet, where he seems genuinely happy playing his role as a pilot, they showed him in a montage sequence, while Kay Francis is sleeping, and we see Brent in various close-ups, saying his lines, his face completely blank. Argghh. In The Spiral Staircase, I found him difficult to watch. He had not aged well, and while he plays a crazy in the film, the lack of any inflection in his voice almost made me crazy too. The lesser known male co-stars all seemed to be able to put some emotion into their faces and voices...not George. And in God’s Country and the Woman, I was so distracted by that hideous pencil-thin mustache he grew in the mid-30’s and for some reason was allowed to keep, I had to really concentrate to keep my focus on his acting. The scenery was stunning in this film, and I wanted to like George, who is sort of sweet when he smiles, but no, I’m thinking it’s all hopeless.
Am I over-analyzing here? Maybe, but I’m still confused. What it comes down to is this: George Brent did the same thing in his movies: stand straight, deliver his lines, hair mostly neat, sometimes with a mustache and never with much enthusiasm. Why would a man who could grace the screen quite nicely, but without much vocal inflection, facial expression or body stance to convey any kind of emotion, have such success? Maybe that was a style of acting popular back then, that I’m not aware of, just as Ruby Keeler’s buck dancing differs from regular tap, and is I think, not as effective. Or maybe the women in the audience just loved the way he looked. Either that, or he’s the master of under-stated acting. I certainly hope he was more animated in his private life, while wooing countless Hollywood lovelies. He seemed to fare better when he had a larger role. Was he petulant when not the lead, or did the larger part give him the opportunity to grow into the character? Or was it that he was better with certain actresses and/or directors? Or does my affection for certain actresses cloud my perception of his abilities in a film?
Anyway, I’m still baffled, and I’m hoping that when I see Jezebel and Dark Victory over the next few months, I will be rewarded with better performances from my man. Until then, I welcome any instructive comments to help me understand the popularity of this studly-dud.
Written by Georgia Garrett ( originally posted at the TCM Classic Film Union )