Acting Irish in Hollywood: From Fitzgerald to Farrell
By Professor Ruth Barton,
Irish Academic Press, 2006
Someone Should Make This Movie
George Brent was born in Ireland to an Irish mother and a British father, who was either in the British Army, a shopkeeper, or a newspaperman (mysterious inconsistency among the biographies). Brent was orphaned at the age of 11 and moved to New York to live briefly with an aunt. After returning to Dublin as a young man, he became an active member of the IRA where, during the Irish War of Independence, he got into some trouble and had to escape to Canada to avoid being arrested.
Brent got the acting bug while a student at the National University of Ireland and joined a Canadian theatre company while in exile. Eventually, he made his way to New York where he appeared in stock plays and early silent films, also picking up the first of five wives, actress Helen Campbell (1925-27). In 1930, Brent went to Hollywood to appear in minor supporting roles to the likes of Rin-Tin-Tin and Charlie Chan, and to fail a few screen tests. Thanks to actress Ruth Chatterton, who would become his second wife (1932-34), Brent landed a leading role in her film, The Rich Are Always With Us (1932).
And the rest is leading man history.
1932 would see George Brent play opposite some of the strongest leading ladies of the time: Barbara Stanwyck, Loretta Young, and Joan Blondell, Throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s, he was one of Hollywood's most durable leading men, playing opposite such heavy hitters as Kay Francis, Ginger Rogers, Greta Garbo, Jean Arthur, Myrna Loy, Merle Oberon, and Ann Sheridan (wife number four, 1942-43*). His most frequent co-star (11 pictures) was, of course, Bette Davis, with whom he also had a years'-long love affair.
By the late 1940s, an aging Brent found fewer romantic leads and spent a few years appearing in B pictures before retiring from film in 1953. He made a number appearances on television until retiring for good to his California horse ranch in 1960...with wife number five, model Janet Michaels (1947-1974) whom he survived. Brent died at the age of 80 of emphysema on May 26, 1979.
I like George Brent best when he's a rake or a playboy. His noble, long-suffering do-gooder parts tend to leave me cold, with the notable exception of his portrayal of Dr. Steele in Dark Victory, but only because he puts up with Humphrey Bogart's horrible Irish accent so effortlessly.
But I can watch him in Jezebel any day; he really is a perfect scoundrel.
* For those of you keeping score, wife number three was Australian actress, Constance Worth, to whom he was married for several weeks in 1937.