By Niall McArdle
A big curly-headed Irishman from Clonmel, with sad eyes and a smile as wide as Wilshire Boulevard. The first time I saw him I thought he might be what you are probably thinking he was, an adventurer who happened to get himself wrapped up in some velvet … He spent hours with me, sweating like a pig, drinking brandy by the quart and telling me stories of the Irish revolution.
The speaker is the fictional General Sternwood (from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep) talking about his son-in-law, bootlegger Rusty Regan. But he could have been describing George Brent, the former Abbey Theatre actor and one-time sidekick of Michael Collins who took Hollywood (and several of its leading ladies) by storm in the nineteen-thirties.
Big, broad, brawny, with a warm speaking voice, he was popular with his audience and his leading ladies. As an actor he might have been merely adequate, but he gained quite a reputation for his Hollywood conquests. Married five times, he had affairs with Bette Davis and Jane Powell, among others. He was quoted as saying “no woman will ever own me, I own myself.”
Born George Nolan in 1899 (debate still rages as to whether he was born in Shannonbridge, Co. Offaly or across the river in Raherbeg, Co. Roscommon), his father was a British Army officer. Nolan was orphaned at eleven. He stayed with relatives in America, but returned to Ireland to study. In 1919 he graduated from university and joined the IRA (he later claimed only that he was a courier for Michael Collins). The Black and Tans had a price on his head; deciding to hide in plain sight, he became an actor and joined the Abbey Theatre.
Acting brought him back to America in 1925 in a tour of the immensely popular piece of Jewish-Irish blarney, Abie’s Irish Rose. He acted on stage in various productions (including one with Clark Gable; on Gable he said, “he stole that damn moustache from me. And he stole a lot of girls, too….”) before moving to Hollywood in 1927. At 28, his hair was already grey. He dyed it jet-black and set about a movie career.
He was never quite a star, but he built a solid reputation as a dependable, sturdy player, and was a fixture in many Warner Bros. movies of the thirties and forties, especially as the masculine foil to strong and ambitious women.
He starred opposite Ruth Chatterton in The Catch and The Rich Are Always With Us. In the latter, playing an old flame, he’s something of a new flame. He lights two cigarettes and passes one to her, a gesture that later would be repeated more famously in Now, Voyager. He and Chatterton were an item on-set and then married, but he had also charmed Bette Davis. Several years later on the set of Dark Victory, now divorced from Chatterton, he and Davis embarked on a stormy two-year affair.
Davis loved him for his big, manly, calm presence, which contrasted with her own driven, neurotic and fiery personality. For his part, he was bewildered by Davis’ thriftiness. He couldn’t understand how someone earning as much as she did couldn’t spoil herself a little. He didn’t know that she was sending the lion’s share of her salary back east to support her mother and sister, who were spending it like water.
He and Davis appeared together in Golden Arrow, a romantic comedy about an heiress and a reporter (there were a lot of films like that made at the time, and one, It Happened One Night, is a classic.) In all he appeared in eleven films with her, and she was one of his favourite leading men, probably because he wouldn’t upstage her. They appeared together (along with Henry Fonda) in the Southern antebellum melodrama Jezebel, about a New Orleans society lady who flouts convention by wearing a red dress, and consequently ruins her life. Next came “a woman’s picture”, Dark Victory, in which selfish, spoiled Davis goes blind and falls in love with Brent as her kind doctor. It also features Humphrey Bogart as an Irish stable lad; Brent obviously didn’t help Bogie with his accent, which roams a lot.
In 1941, Brent was no longer with Davis but he starred with her and Mary Astor in The Great Lie. It’s a very sudsy triangle: he’s a pilot presumed dead, Astor has his baby but doesn’t want it, Davis does. Brent, an accomplished pilot in real life (during World War II he was an Air Force instructor), flies the plane in the picture. But filming was a nightmare. Brent got ill in the desert location; Davis was throwing tantrums; someone actually dropped the baby and seriously injured him. In spite of it all, the film – and Brent – got decent reviews, he and Davis remained friends, and Astor got an Oscar.
In a career that spanned almost 100 films, he made a lot of duds: nonsense like Angel on the Amazon and Slave Girl:
Not that he minded having another pretty starlet to kiss. When he wasn’t acting, he was restoring a famous sailboat.
Like many actors of his time, eventually his career took him into television playlets and guest roles. Near the end of his life, he saw Davis again. She reportedly was appalled at the sight of him. He was old, grey and paunchy. She wondered what she had ever seen in him.
Brent died in 1979 aged 80 in Solana Beach, California