George Brent Profile
Born George Brendan Nolan in Shannonsbridge, County Dublin, Ireland in 1899, his early years are shrouded in mystery. Rumor has it that he was a member of the IRA, although whether he was an assassin for Michael Collins during the Anglo-Irish War (1919-1922) and fled Ireland with a price on his head, or whether he was a courier who hid documents in his hair is uncertain. An online search through the Ellis Island ships manifests for a "George Nolan" or a "George Brent" born in 1899 comes up blank. All that can be known for certain is that his real name was Nolan, which he changed to Brent, and that he made his first film at the William Fox Studios, Under Suspicion in 1930. He stayed at Fox for a year or so, even appearing in a now lost Charlie Chan film, Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) before moving to Universal Studios and eventually what would become his home studio, Warner Brothers.
He was perfect for a movie idol: tall (6' 1"), dark, and handsome. Women who went to the movies swooned over him and apparently so did most of the women he worked with, especially a young actress named Bette Davis. Lawrence J. Quirk, in his biography Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis wrote, "Being without ego or star ambition, Brent usually walked through his parts and collected his paycheck uncomplainingly. Around the studio, he was known as "Apple of Jack Warner's Eye" and "Good Old Mr. Dependable." He said he didn't like most of his pictures, but he had some especially caustic words for Special Agent [1935, co-starring Bette Davis], telling Ruth Waterbury of Photoplay that it was "a poor, paltry thing, unbelievable and unconvincing in all its aspects." Ruth later told me that Warner's publicity talked her out of using the quotes for fear of affecting the picture's chances. "It was one of those rare instances where George spoke his mind for print." she told me. "He had had early hardship in Ireland, and a decent paycheck went a long way with George. He never thought much of his acting abilities and told me once he was afraid people would find out how lousy he was and fire him - so he seldom made waves." Waterbury also remembered that Davis had the continuing hots for Brent all through 1935 and that she made no secret of it. "The chemistry between them onscreen was always exciting," Waterbury remembered. "And the chemistry off-screen even more so! But for years it was more on Bette's side than George's. She finally got her reward - reciprocity - but it took her years! And even then, I always felt she was more emotional about it than he was. Of course, George always kept - at least on the surface - that quizzical, detached attitude toward women that they took to like catnip. Women, whether they admit it or not, don't like to get too sure of a man - Bette was no exception."
Brent had been married once early in his career to a woman named Helen, and then to Ruth Chatterton, with whom he had co-starred in The Rich Are Always with Us (1932, which also featured Davis), and The Crash (1932), but he didn't seem to take his wedding vows too seriously. "George Brent's marriage to Ruth Chatterton came apart the year Housewife was released , and Davis seemed to be living off-screen her role of home-breaking siren now that George was about to join the legions of the free. In reality, she did not break up the marriage and Chatterton was certainly not anyone's idea of a housewife! During Housewife, according to Alfred Green, Brent was easing out of the Chatterton marriage as gracefully as possible, and while he continued having affairs with unknowns who could be kept at a distance, the upfront spectacle of co-star Davis following him back to his dressing room unnerved him somewhat - especially as he knew Ham Nelson's [Davis' first husband] temper tantrums by reputation...As of 1935, Brent had been legally free of Ruth Chatterton for a year and was up for grabs, only he was the one doing the grabbing - at the bodies of quite a few attractive Hollywood women, some actresses, some even married, which made Warner extremely nervous, given those eternal moral-turpitude clauses. As Henry Blanke remembered it, Jack called George into his office one day.
'George, why don't you get married again?' he began.
'No thanks - like my freedom!' (Brent was noted for his terse responses.)
'Okay, so why don't you give Davis a tumble! You know she's had the hots for you for years!'
'She's a married woman, Jack.'
'Since when has that stopped you? Anyway, I'm putting you two in another picture together. Two in a row, in fact. The public likes to see you together. They sense the sexual tension. It comes off real onscreen.'
'Maybe from her. Not from me.'
'You start shooting Monday at seven. Now get out!'
By the time they made Dark Victory Davis was in the middle of a divorce and Brent was finally interested so they began their affair. Davis later learned a few things about Brent: he dyed his hair and he could be miserly. "His hair was snow white even then." She giggled. "He used to stain my pillow cases with hair dye! Actually he was a charming, caring, and affectionate man, with a wonderful sense of humor. I never could understand why those qualities didn't come over on the screen more often. He could project sincerity and that was about it. He could be so stodgy on film, but he was good in [Dark] Victory, though, and we had fun when we did Woman of the Year on radio a few years ago. He's one of my few lovers whom I've remained friends with. I haven't seen him in ages; he lives on an avocado ranch somewhere near San Diego....All that seems just like yesterday. But one thing with George, he had no illusions about his talent. He knew he was no Errol Flynn or Clark Gable - whom he somewhat resembled - and he played leading man to everyone - from Garbo to Loy to Fontaine to Stanwyck, Colbert, and Oberon. He used to say that the only thing he had to be careful about was his haircut, to be sure his head was trimmed well in back, because so often that was the only part of him that was photographed! But when George became infatuated with me; I was delirious. After Ham [Nelson], I needed a strong man like George, I suppose some of the doctor's strength [in Dark Victory] affected him during the playing, because eventually he turned out to be sort of weak. Along with Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Kirk Douglas, he was one of the tightest men with money in Hollywood. He once gave me a bracelet, B-E-T-T-E spelled out in diamonds and casually mentioned he was glad I had such a short name. I laughed and said, "Well it's really E-L-I-Z-A-B-E-T-H, you know!" He didn't think it was funny. One good thing about our affair was that it could be public. We were both single. We went to a lot of Hollywood places together, even the racetrack, which, in those days, was about the most public place you could do. With my other affairs, for various reasons I couldn't be seen with the men or they with me. Hal Wallis, who of course knew everything that was going on at the studio, was delighted with our affair. He would come out of the projection room after seeing the rushes, grinning from ear to ear, because he had a gut feeling that the picture would be the huge success it turned out to be. Not so, Jack Warner, who, even after the rave reviews started to pour in, thought we had a flop, and that it would lose box office after a few days. He was wrong and even grudgingly admitted it to me later. He never, ever, liked to face up to the fact that he could be wrong."
Brent was given a few opportunities to be in "men's" films, like The Fighting 69th (1940), co-starring James Cagney and Pat O'Brien, with Brent playing real-life World War I hero Maj. "Wild Bill" Donovan", and Wings of the Navy (1939), but he is primarily remembered as a romantic star.
In the 1950's, Brent, like so many other Hollywood actors, moved into television, working in that medium until he retired in the 1960s. He did come out of retirement in 1978. Although he had changed physically, some things remained the same. Author Whitney Stine wrote, "I mentioned [to Bette Davis] that Brent had just finished a picture, his first professional job since 1956 [sic]. "It's called Born Again," I said. "He plays a judge, Irving Rapper, who directed, brought him up from his ranch in Fallbrook [California]. He was paid seventy-five thousand dollars for one day's work. At the end of the day, Rapper asked Brent if he would come back the next day and do some publicity, and he answered, 'Sure I will - if you pay for the second day's work!'"
George Brent died of emphysema, on May 26, 1979.
by Lorraine LoBianco
The Internet Movie Database
"I'd Love to Kiss You: Conversations With Bette Davis" by Whitney Stine, 1990
"Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis" by Lawrence J. Quirk, 1990