Johnny Mack Brown: Of Touchdowns and Tumbleweeds

Johnny Mack Brown (1904-1974) was one of those Jazz Age athletes whose fame crossed over into mainstream pop culture, culminating with movie stardom. He was star halfback of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide during the 1920s. This landed his handsome visage on all the Wheaties Boxes. When Mack graduated, rather than turn pro, this forward-thinking All-American signed a five year contract with MGM. Hollywood was where the big money was, and athletes are forced to retire much younger than actors are. Mack’s first part was a small role in the Mike Kelly bio-pic Slide, Kelly, Slide (1927). Within a few months he was an “A” list leading man. You can see him in Our Dancing Daughters with Joan Crawford, Anita Page and Dorothy Sebastian; opposite Mary Pickford in her Oscar winning performance in Coquette (1929), with Crawford again in Montana Moon (1930), and as the title character in King Vidor’s Billy the Kid (1931) with Wallace Beery. In his “A” list days he was billed as John Mack Brown.

Mack’s career suffered a devastating setback when he was replaced by Clark Gable in the film Laughing Sinners (1931). Scenes had already been shot, but they were scrapped. MGM was grooming Gable for stardom, and for whatever reason, gave up on Brown. Tenaciously, he managed to hang on to stardom — but now in “B” movies, mostly westerns. Occasionally he got an A picture. For example, he had a role in Mae West’s Belle of the Nineties (1934). But mostly: westerns. He starred in numerous serials: Fighting with Kit Carson (1933), Rustlers of Red Dog (1935), Wild West Days (1937), Flaming Frontiers (1938), and The Oregon Trail (1939). In 1943 he signed with Monogram Pictures, replacing their previous western star Buck Jones, who had just passed away. Over the next decade he appeared in five dozen westerns for the studio, usually playing a character named “Nevada Jack”. In 1952, Monagram began to focus on its prestige division Allied Artists and Mack hung up his spurs, but only for a few years. He made some TV appearances towards the end of the decade. In 1965, he re-emerged to make three more films: Requiem for a Gunfighter (with fellow old time cowboys Bob Steele and Tim McCoy), The Bounty Killer, and Apache Uprising.