Monday, November 28, 2016

George O'Brien - A Heroic Man

"Gorgeous George" and "The Torso" were just a few of the many nicknames of hunky actor George O'Brien throughout the 1920s and 1930s. And very fitting titles these were. Not only was George a charismatic actor, but he boasted one of the finest physiques in Hollywood. Clothing looked unnatural on him since his muscles always seemed like they were about to bust his shirts apart. Here was a truly rugged man. O'Brien's leading ladies never feared danger when he was by their side. 

George had all the attributes of a natural born cowboy. Hence, saddles and spurs suited him well. Between 1929-1940, O'Brien starred in over 35 westerns, most of them for RKO studios. This association with westerns began as far back as 1922, when he first came to Hollywood from San Francisco. His father was Frisco's chief of police. George not only inherited his father's physical prowess, but strove to emulate his values in being honorable and serving others. In high school, he played football, baseball, track and field, and swimming, and when World War I broke out, he joined the Navy, serving first on a submarine chaser and then as a stretcher bearer where he earned five decorations for bravery under fire. 
George also learned how to box in the Navy. In fact, he was so good in the ring that he won the light-heavyweight Pacific fleet boxing title. When he returned to college, he found visits to the RKO studios more absorbing then his studies and decided to enter pictures. Stunt work in westerns led to a few supporting roles in silents, which caught the eye of John Ford who was looking for a leading man to play in his western epic The Iron Horse. O'Brien was ideal. This part not only earned plaudits for O'Brien and a ten-year RKO contract, but John Ford became a life-long friend. 

Noah's Ark 
Several silent films followed, including Fig Leaves and Three Bad Men, both of which starred O'Brien's sweetheart Olive Borden. And then, in 1927, he starred in F. W. Murnau's silent film classic Sunrise : A Song of Two Humans ( 1927 ). His performance of "The Man" who gets lured away from his wife and child by a city woman, is still O'Brien's most recognized work, and a fan favorite. Janet Gaynor may have been the film's Academy Award nominee, but it was George who gave the standout performance as the sensitive husband. He personally loved the part and was proud of his work in Sunrise. In 1979, at the end of a screening of Sunrise in New York City, he received a standing ovation for his performance and was moved to tears. 

George found westerns the most exciting films to work on, and since he loved to ride ( and audiences loved to see him sport a cowboy hat ) he was frequently cast in the genre. O'Brien quickly became a favorite B-western star for RKO appearing in such films as Lone Star Ranger, Riders of the Purple Sage, The Golden West, Frontier Marshal, and The Renegade Ranger ( 1938 ) which co-starred Tim Holt, who would become his successor as RKO's top western star. 

George's films tended to follow a formula, usually beginning with his character having a chance encounter with the leading lady who would express her dislike for such a rogue as he ( much like the Errol Flynn films of the late 1930s ). Then they would find themselves in danger and his winning smile would make her realize how she misjudged him; finally ending with them being involved in a dangerous situation and him demonstrating his fisticuffs technique on the villains in order to save them both. 

O'Brien as a miner in Hard Rock Harrigan ( 1935 )
George always liked to flash a grin in the face of danger. He usually found every situation amusing...never worrying about the outcome. Take, for example, Windjammer ( 1937 ). In this film O'Brien has the simple task of delivering a subpoena to a commodore aboard his yacht. In doing so, he finds himself on the vessel bound for Hawaii, working in the galley as a cook. He never grumbles about the task, but thoroughly enjoys it. Later, when gunrunners kidnap them, they are taken to China, and then the Commodore and his daughter find George to be a kindly ally, relying upon him to take them out of danger. 

Expecting this formula is what makes his films so entertaining, and since most of them were merely 60 minutes long, they were fast fun packed with plenty of action. 

Two happy Irishmen : O'Brien and Tracy
In 1933, George married Marguerite Churchill ( The Big Trail ) whom he met when making Riders of the Purple Sage that same year. They had three children, Brian, who died in infancy; Darcy, who became a popular true-crime novelist; and Orin O'Brien, who is considered to be one of the foremost double bassists in the history of the New York Philharmonic orchestra. 

Their marriage was a happy one....until World War II, when George re-joined the Navy and served in the Pacific for the length of the war. Like many veterans, he came back a changed man, and Marguerite filed for divorce shortly thereafter. George never re-married but stayed on friendly terms with Marguerite. 
George continued to appear in westerns upon his return to Hollywood, notably John Ford's Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but roles were few for an aging cowboy, and so George went back into active service, not only to help America settle the mess taking place in Korea, but in Vietnam as well. George was a highly decorated naval officer and was recommended for the rank of admiral four times. 

When his term of service had ended, he retired to a ranch in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, living the life of a true American cowboy up until his death in 1985 at the age of 86. 


  1. Thorough and entertaining look at George O'Brien is now among my favourites on your site. Not only because I am partial to the western star, but because it is one of your best (and that's saying something!).

    1. So glad you enjoyed our post, CW! George O'Brien really is someone special.