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Success on the gridiron at the 1926 Rose Bowl got Crimson Tide halfback John Mack Brown's face plastered on boxes of Wheaties cereal, prompting Hollywood to tap the strapping Alabaman for the movies. Brown was paired frequently with rising Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer star Joan Crawford and costarred with Mary Pickford in her first sound film but the advent of talking pictures proved problematic due to Brown's Southern twang. Metro attempted to work around the limitation by casting Brown as Billy the Kid (1930) and reuniting him with Crawford for the western romance Montana Moon (1930) but the studio would ultimately choose not to renew his contract. One of Brown's final films for MGM was The Great Meadow (1931), based on Elizabeth Madox Roberts' 1930 novel of frontier life, which made good use of his cornpone pedigree by casting him as a Virginian making a go of the Kentucky wilderness. A surprisingly brutal film for its time (after killing Brown's onscreen mother, Lucille La Verne, Shawnee brave Black Fox waves her scalp in his face), The Great Meadow was filmed in an early widescreen process known as Realife. Brown completed two more pictures for MGM but his scenes in Laughing Sinners (1931) were scrapped and he was replaced by Clark Gable. Work in low budget westerns awaited him, at which point the actor was rechristened Johnny Mack Brown and a cowboy star was born.
By Richard Harland Smith