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Brother Rat

Brother Rat(1938)

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teaser Brother Rat (1938)

When Warner Brothers purchased the rights to the successful Broadway comedy Brother Rat, which had run for 577 performances at New York's Biltmore Theatre from December 1936 until May 1938, they retained director-producer George Abbott's rubber-faced leading man for their planned film adaptation. A one-time circus performer turned stage and radio comic, Illinois-born Edward Albert Heimberger had shortened his handle to Eddie Albert after his Germanic surname was routinely mangled by announcers into "Hamburger." Despite recreating the character he had played on stage, Albert took a demotion for his Hollywood debut. In adapting the play by John Monks, Jr. and Fred F. Finklehoffe, scenarists Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay flip-flopped the prominence of Albert's "Bing Edwards," a cadet at the prestigious Virginia Military Institute who harbors a secret, very pregnant and strictly verboten wife (Jane Bryan), with second banana "Billy Randolph" in deference to rising star Wayne Morris.

Born Bert DeWayne Morris, Jr., the Los Angeles native was scouted from the ranks of the Pasadena Playhouse. Prior to Brother Rat (1939), he had appeared in more than a dozen films and was Hollywood's original Kid Galahad (1937). Morris served with honor as a Navy pilot in the Second World War but the interruption was disastrous for his career; because Warners refused to loan him out to producer Mark Hellinger, Morris lost out on the lead in Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946) to Burt Lancaster. Shortly before his death from a heart attack at age 45, Morris made a memorable appearance in Stanley Kubrick's searing anti-war film Paths of Glory (1957).

Charged with helming Brother Rat was William Keighley. A native of Pennsylvania who had honed his directing chops on Broadway, Keighley was known for the vigor of such Warners crime pictures as 'G'Men (1935) with James Cagney and Bullets or Ballots (1936) with Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart. Entrusted with the lavish, Technicolor The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) starring Errol Flynn, Keighley found himself replaced after a couple of weeks by Michael Curtiz when the Warners brass felt he was taking too long to get his footage. Despite comporting himself with an affected, Mid-Atlantic air, Keighley was an inveterate practical joker. When technical advisor Frank McCarthy (a former classmate of Monks and Finklehoffe and an ex-VMI instructor) arrived on set, he was greeted with the irreverent spectacle of Keighley's cast of mock-cadets wearing their caps backwards and pitching pennies into the cannon pedestal of Stonewall Jackson's statue. However tame by contemporary standards, the stunt would have scandalized "the West Point of the Confederacy." No record was kept of McCarthy's reaction.

Frank McCarthy makes a cameo appearance in Brother Rat, instructing leading lady Priscilla Lane how to handle a saber. (Lane came to the production late, replacing original actress Susan Hayward on the caprice of studio head Jack L. Warner.) McCarthy's involvement with Hollywood was more than passing. He had left VMI with the goal of breaking into show business and used his influence to secure work as a press agent for George Abbott. With the outbreak of war in 1941, McCarthy reenlisted, becoming an aid to General George C. Marshall and attaining the rank of major by the age of thirty. McCarthy was being groomed for a cabinet position in the Truman administration when he abruptly withdrew his name from consideration due to an undefined "illness." Not commonly known at the time but understood in certain circles was that McCarthy was a closeted homosexual whose long-time partner was publicist Rupert Allan. Although he had the protection of powerful friends (ex-boss George Marshall had lobbied powerfully to end the prosecution of gay servicemen and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's dossier on him contained no powder keg data), McCarthy's retirement may have been an act of political self-sacrifice. He returned to Hollywood and worked as the head of public relations for Fox, acting as an in-house censor trouble-shooting problematic material during production. As a producer, McCarthy shepherded the Academy Award® winning Patton (1970) to the big screen and even accepted George C. Scott's Best Actor Oscar® at the 1971 ceremony.

In his reduced status, Eddie Albert was teamed with another rising star Ronald Reagan. "Dutch" Reagan had been a Des Moines sportscaster who came west to cover the Chicago Cubs' spring training on Catalina Island. Through more than six degrees of separation, Reagan used his contacts to obtain a screen test at Warners and had the offer of a seven-year contract before he got home to Iowa.

For Brother Rat, Reagan was paired with Jane Wyman, whose bespectacled bookworm was the perfect foil for Reagan's rambunctious "Dan Crawford" (a role originated by Jos Ferrer). Reagan and Wyman had met on the Warners lot while posing for publicity photos. Despite the fact that he was a sun-worshipping jock and she a club-hopping party girl (and despite the ticklish fact that both were involved with other people), a mutual attraction smoldered between them.

During production of Brother Rat on the grounds of the San Diego Military Academy (subbing for VMI), Wyman separated from her older husband, New Orleans dress manufacturer Myron Futterman, and was divorced within weeks of the film's October 1948 opening. Reagan proposed to Wyman on the set of the sequel, Brother Rat and a Baby (1940), and gossip columnist Louella Parsons hosted their wedding reception on January 26, 1940. The Reagan-Wyman union lasted only eight years but Reagan was made an honorary Brother Rat at Virginia Military Institute and later had some success in politics.

Producer: George Abbott, Robert Lord, Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner
Director: William Keighley
Screenplay: Richard Macaulay, Jerry Wald, Fred Finklehoff (play), John Monks Jr (play)
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Film Editing: William Holmes
Art Direction: Max Parker
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Priscilla Lane (Joyce Winfree), Wayne Morris (Billy Randolph), Johnnie Davis (A. Furman Townsend Jr.), Jane Bryan (Kate Rice), Eddie Albert (Bing Edwards), Ronald Reagan (Dan Crawford).
BW-90m. Closed captioning.

by Richard Harland Smith

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