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While never the major star some of his friends and closest colleagues were, Pat O'Brien was very popular with audiences for his ability to play comedies, military action stories and gritty crime flicks (playing characters on both sides of the law) with equal ease. But what he did best was a kind of gruff role model for men who were either younger, less directed or more troubled.
In the 1930s, despite the variety of his roles, O'Brien became identified with a particular type of character, the ghetto priest, a tough guy who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, found direction in the church and returned to his roots to help other less fortunate boys like himself, usually bucking his childhood-pal-turned-criminal James Cagney. It's not that O'Brien played a great number of those characters, but he did it so well it's impossible to think of his film career without the type coming to mind.
In the 1940s, O'Brien's screen image became equally tied to another character, the hard-driving, inspirational sports coach who molds his young athletes into a winning team and gains their lifelong respect. Again, not a huge body of films featuring this character type in fact the image is based almost entirely on one indelible entry, Knute Rockne, All American (1940). But O'Brien proved so potent as the real-life legendary Notre Dame football coach, he returned for a very similar part three years later in this picture.
Another true-life story, The Iron Major (1943) follows the life of Frank Cavanaugh of Dartmouth, Boston College and Fordham. Father of ten, dedicated to his loving wife, a firm believer in God and country, Cavanaugh pursues a highly successful coaching career, consistently leading various college teams to winning seasons, despite severe eye damage in World War I. Even as total blindness begins to overtake him, Cavanaugh coaches Fordham to a memorable victory over Oregon State in 1932. Based on a book by Cavanaugh's wife Florence, the movie follows him from childhood to his death.
The picture was considerably enlivened by exciting gridiron scenes, including newsreel footage of Cavanaugh-coached games, most significantly the famous Fordham-Oregon State match. Because the picture was released at the height of World War II, Cavanaugh's World War I experiences were given major emphasis to draw parallels between his service and that of the GIs fighting in the new war.
O'Brien was given a strong supporting cast, including Ruth Warrick as his wife Florence. Warrick made a memorable film debut a couple years earlier as the wife of Orson Welles in the title role of Citizen Kane (1941). Soap opera fans may remember her from her long stint as the matriarch Phoebe on All My Children.
The Iron Major was a big boost for the up-and-coming career of Robert Ryan. The young actor met Pat O'Brien when they were both cast in the war drama Bombardier (1943). O'Brien took an immediate liking to Ryan, partly because of his professionalism and honest, straightforward way of dealing with people and partly because of their shared Irish heritage. It was O'Brien who lobbied heavily for Ryan to play the part of Father Donovan, Cavanaugh's priest and former teammate. In his autobiography, O'Brien wrote that Ryan was "magnificent" and, referring tongue-in-cheek to his own priest roles, "stole some of my usual ecclesiastic glory." Shortly after this film, Ryan had a major breakthrough as Ginger Rogers' husband in Tender Comrade (1943), the last of six films he released that year. He made only one picture in 1944 before joining the war effort, but when he returned to the screen in 1947, Ryan soon appeared in a string of critical and commercial successes, re-embarking on a career that remained strong until his death in 1973.
One of the editors on this film was Robert Wise, who went on to win Academy Awards for his direction of West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).
Director: Ray Enright
Producer: Robert Fellows
Screenplay: Warren Duff, Aben Kandel, based on the book by Florence Cavanaugh
Cinematography: Robert De Grasse
Editing: Philip Martin, Robert Wise
Art Direction: Carroll Clark, Albert S. D'Agostino
Original Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Pat O'Brien (Frank Cavanaugh), Ruth Warrick (Florence Cavanaugh), Robert Ryan (Father Tim Donovan), Leon Ames (Robert Stewart).
by Rob Nixon