GEORGE BRENT -AN UNDERRATED ACTOR
There are few groups more loyal than classic film fans. Many of us have our favorite movies, genres, actors and actresses and can passionately articulate what we love about each. Equal to our love is our dislike of those things that don’t live up to our standards or that we find disappointing. Actors and actresses particularly earn our derision, though we usually only discuss this within our own circles.
George Brent is an actor I’ve often heard mentioned with disdain. Many classic film fans denounce him as wooden, his performances lacking emotional depth. I won’t deny that he is compared unfavorably to his contemporary counterparts. But unlike some, I’ve always enjoyed Brent’s films. I believe he has been unfairly and too harshly judged. I’m here today to convince you of the same.
SUPPORTIVE LEADING MAN
For me, one of Brent’s strength as an actor is how well he supports his leading ladies. Brent was cast often as the male lead opposite formidable, charismatic and talented actresses. He appeared with women such as Kay Francis, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Ruth Chatterton, Olivia de Havilland, Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert and Ann Sheridan.
In fact, Bette Davis has been quoted as saying Brent was her favorite co-star. Indeed, they appeared in eleven films together. Most stars were under studio contract during this era and didn’t have much control over the films they were cast in and who the starred opposite. Still, some of the bigger stars were able to see certain demands fulfilled. Davis is often considered one of the best actresses of her time. Given Bette Davis stature and popularity, I can’t imagine the forthright and career motivated Davis putting up with a leading man who lacked talent. The same could be said of Barbara Stanwyck, with whom he starred in five films.
Though Brent lacks the charisma or charm of men like Clark Gable, Cary Grant or James Stewart, his performances were mostly solid. I would argue that it is exactly these types of solid performances that enhanced the talents of his leading ladies. Like the setting for a magnificent jewel, his performances acted as a sturdy foundation for showing off the talents of Davis, Stanwyck, Loy and others. These women never had to worry about Brent upstaging them or stealing the scene. In fact, I believe Brent’s onscreen support allowed for these ladies to portray strong, independent women onscreen, in an era where many movies were still depicting women as submissive house wives and mothers.
HIS OWN MERITS
But let’s not relegate Brent’s talent to simply being an outstanding supportive leading man. There are movies where his charm and talent sneak out and he surprises with a more nuanced performance. In some films, he even manages to be playful and spry, though he is more suited for dramatic roles.
I’ve made an effort to watch as many of his films as I can find. What I’ve discovered is just how under rated he is. That’s not to say, he was of the same caliber as some of the more popular or award winning leading men. But he certainly does not deserve some of the scorn classic film fans have heaped on him. He played many different roles, from newspaper men, doctor, author, pilot, farmer, businessman, soldier and appeared in melodramas, romantic comedies, action and military films. He played the married playboy Greta Garbo cheats on her husband with, a subordinate engineer to real life wife Ruth Chatterton’s female boss, a doomed convict who falls in love with Merle Oberon’s dying woman, a profligate artist and former fling of Myrna Loy who redeems himself, doctor and husband to a dying Bette Davis.
But it is his lesser known films where he really gets a chance to shine. One of my favorites is The Goose and the Gander. Partnered with Kay Francis in a comedy of errors, Francis tries to use Brent to prove to her ex-husband that his new wife is cheating. Brent has remarkable chemistry with Francis and tosses off one-liners and flirtatious remarks with a twinkle in his eye. In Snowed Under, another lesser known comedy, he is a playwright on a deadline who gets snowed in with a bunch of women who won’t leave him alone, including two ex-wives and a girlfriend. Brent plays the character’s exasperation for great comic effect.
Watching two of his more obscure films increased my respect of this actor. In God’s Country and the Woman Brent is a he-man style logger who goes toe to toe with the tough female manager of a rival company. In a part which would have suited Clark Gable to a tee, he tames a woman who looks and acts more like a man while showing the growth of his character. Even with the film’s faults, Brent commands the screen.
But perhaps the biggest surprise among all of Brent’s films is his role in The Go-Getter. As the sole big name on the marquee, it is his responsibility to carry the film. And boy, does he! As an injured war hero, he returns home with one less limb. Jobs are tough to come by. No one wants to take a chance on a man without a leg even if he is a hero. Brent musters all his talent to portray a man with the courage enough to say no to self-pity and begin a career from the ground up. His optimism, determination and integrity make him a success against all odds. I honestly think this is his best role. It’s a shame that the film is not more readily available, so that everyone could experience Brent at his best.
George Brent may not make my list of favorite classic film actors, but his films have given me hours of pleasure and entertainment. He is definitely an actor who I believe deserves more credit, but also another look. Hopefully, I have convinced a few readers to judge him a little less harshly.
This post was written to celebrate a whole Month of Classics Blog Party over at Write on Cordy!. Stop by her website to check out other contributions to the party.