Happy 112th Birthday, George Brent!

George Brent, born George Brendan Nolan 112 years today in Ballinasloe, County Galway, Ireland, enjoyed an odd sort of career. By any measure, he achieved great success, but outside movie-buff circles, he’s all but forgotten today. Odd, considering that when he arrived in Hollywood, he was touted as the next Clark Gable. The comparison seems almost laughable today, so low-key was Brent compared to the man once known as the King of Hollywood.

George Brent was a rebel during the Irish War of Independence, though how active he was is open to question; he acknowledged having served as a courier for IRA leader Michael Collins. In any case, the British government put a price on his head, at which point Brent (then Nolan) saw fit to hightail it to the United States.

Brent started his career in the theatre, touring in a production of Abie’s Irish Rose and acting in stock theatre around the country. In 1927, he debuted on Broadway in Love, Honor and Obey. Also in the cast? None other than Clark Gable.

Brent headed for Hollywood a couple of years later, appearing in minor roles for Universal and Fox before signing a contract with Warner Brothers in 1932. It was at Warners that Brent achieved his greatest success. Perhaps the greatest strength of his low-key (but hardly milquetoast) on-screen persona was that he was a perfect complement to strong leading women, holding his own but never overshadowing them.

George Brent

Given how little he’s remembered today, it’s remarkable to consider how often George Brent worked with some of the most iconic actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He made eleven features with Bette Davis (enjoying an offscreen romance with her as well), six with Kay Francis, five with Barbara Stanwyck, four with Ruth Chatterton (to whom he was married from 1932–1934) and two with Myrna Loy. He also played opposite Ruby Keeler, Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, Madeleine Carroll, Jean Arthur, Merle Oberon, Ann Sheridan (to whom he was married from 1942–1943), Joan Fontaine, Claudette Colbert, Dorothy McGuire, Loretta Young, Lucille Ball and Yvonne De Carlo. That’s a line-up of costars that any leading man might envy.

By the late 1940s, Brent was appearing in mostly B pictures, and he retired from films in 1953, though he continued to act on television for another seven years. He was married five times, and if you read some of his early interviews, it’s not hard to see why most of those marriages didn’t work out. Brent clearly had no interest in being tied down and seemed to resent the responsibilities that relationships carried with them. “No woman will ever own me,” Brent once said. “I own myself.”

But he and his fifth wife, former model and dress designer Janet Michaels, were together for 27 years until she passed away in 1974.

George Brent, who suffered in later years from emphysema, died in 1979 in Solana Beach, California.

Happy birthday, Mr. Brent, wherever you may be!

Happy 101st Birthday, Ann Sheridan!

The lovely and talented Ann Sheridan was born Clara Lou Sheridan 101 years ago today in Denton, Texas. She gained her entrée into show business in 1934 when her sister submitted Clara Lou’s picture to a promotional beauty competition that Paramount Pictures was running: the prize for the winner was a screen test and a bit part in a movie.

Sheridan was named the winner and her screen test must have impressed, as she signed a contract with Paramount and was given tiny, often uncredited roles in more than a dozen pictures that year and 11 more in 1935.

Paramount seemed to have no bigger plans for Sheridan, however, so in 1936, she signed with Warner Brothers. Her run of small roles continued, however, and Sheridan, now known as Ann, was even called upon to serve as a body double for other actresses. “I used to go to Grauman’s Chinese or Pantages and sit there waiting to see my faceless body on the screen,” she once said of the years she waited for her big break. “Texas began to look awfully near and awfully good, and ‘Clara Lou’ had a sweet sound to my ears.

Ann Sheridan

Sheridan did not return to Texas, however, and in 1938, she finally found her breakout role, as Laury Ferguson in Angels with Dirty Faces.

A reluctant sex symbol, Sheridan’s blend of girl next door attractiveness and spunky intelligence earned her a nickname she never embraced: The Oomph Girl. “They nicknamed me ‘The Oomph Girl,’ and I loathe that nickname!” she once said. “Just being known by a nickname indicates that you’re not thought of as a true actress.”

Sheridan, a rough-and-tumble tomboy as a child, had no interest in being pigeonholed as merely sexy; she had too much else to offer: “I can whistle through my fingers, bulldog a steer, light a fire with two sticks, shoot a pistol with fair accuracy, set type, and teach school…”

And act. She could definitely act. She displayed a versatility that served her well, starring in dramas, films noir and comedies in the 1940s, such classic pictures as Kings Row, They Drive by Night, Nora Prentiss, Woman on the Run, The Man Who Came to Dinner and I Was a Male War Bride. But in the 1950s, her film career in decline, she moved to New York intent on working on television or in theatre. She did find work on TV, guesting on various series and anthology drama programs. She appeared on the soap opera Another World in the mid-’60s and starred on a comedy western series called Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats.

Ann Sheridan was three times, all very briefly, to a trio of actors: Edward Norris, George Brent and Scott McKay, who has been married to her for just seven short months when Sheridan died from cancer in January 1967, a month short of her 52nd birthday.

Happy birthday, Ms. Sheridan, wherever you may be. You had plenty of oomph, it’s true, and so much more.

A Ginger-infused potpourri

It’s always a kick to see what familiar stars were up to before they became household names, and tonight’s lineup of early Ginger Rogers pictures on Turner Classic Movies provides just such an opportunity for fans of the twinkled-toed hoofer.

Rogers, a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1932, is best remembered, of course, for her storied association with Fred Astaire, with whom she made ten pictures, but she’d already appeared in nine movies before she was paired with Astaire for the first time in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio. Six of those movies are included among tonight’s offerings on TCM.

42nd Street is a title familiar to many, as much for its second life as a Broadway stage musical as anything, but if you’ve not seen the original picture, you should; it’s grittier (and sexier) than you might expect — a true Pre-Code musical.

Here’s the full line-up, beginning at 8pm and extending well into Thursday morning:

8:00pm42nd Street (1933)
The definitive backstage musical, complete with the dazzling newcomer who goes on for the injured star.
Cast: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers. Dir: Lloyd Bacon.

9:45pmGold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Three chorus girls fight to keep their show going and find rich husbands.
Cast: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers. Dir: Mervyn LeRoy.

11:30pmProfessional Sweetheart (1933)
A radio star’s pure image leads to a fake engagement to a hayseed.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Norman Foster, ZaSu Pitts, Frank McHugh. Dir: William A. Seiter.

1:00amRafter Romance (1933)
A salesgirl falls for a night worker without realizing they share the same apartment.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Norman Foster, George Sidney, Robert Benchley. Dir: William A. Seiter.

2:15amCarnival Boat (1932)
A logger defies his father to court a showgirl.
Cast: Bill Boyd, Ginger Rogers, Fred Kohler, Hobart Bosworth. Dir: Albert Rogell.

3:30amSuicide Fleet (1931)
Three Navy shipmates fight over the same girl.
Cast: Bill Boyd, Robert Armstrong, James Gleason, Ginger Rogers. Dir: Albert Rogell.

5:00amChance At Heaven (1934)
A society girl steals a simple gas station attendant from his working-class girlfriend.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Joel McCrea, Marion Nixon, Andy Devine. Dir: William A. Seiter.

6:15amThe Tenderfoot (1932)
An innocent cowboy sets out to back a Broadway play.
Cast: Joe E. Brown, Ginger Rogers, Lew Cody, Vivian Oakland. Dir: Ray Enright.

7:30amYou Said A Mouthful (1932)
To sell his unsinkable bathing suit, an inventor passes himself off as a championship swimmer.
Cast: Joe E. Brown, Ginger Rogers, Preston S. Foster, Allen “Farina” Hoskins. Dir: Lloyd Bacon

9:00amThe Tip-Off (1932)
A dim-witted boxer helps a naive friend romance a gangster’s girl.
Cast: Eddie Quillan, Robert Armstrong, Ginger Rogers, Joan Peers. Dir: Albert Rogell.

10:15amFinishing School (1934)
A boarding-school girl has to cope with family problems and puppy love.
Cast: Frances Dee, Billie Burke, Ginger Rogers, Bruce Cabot. Dir: George Nicholls Jr.