Bryan Foy: Boy Wonder of Warner Brothers

A brief of celebration of Bryan Foy (1896-1977) — for a time one of the most important men in Hollywood, and now largely forgotten.

Bryan was the oldest of the vaudeville act The Seven Little Foys, which we wrote about at length here. Amusingly, though Bryan was the eldest of the siblings, he wasn’t the one name after his father, as is the usual custom. Eddie Foy, Jr was his younger brother — their old man waited until he had a son who physically resembled him to bestow that honor. He had to wait until his fourth son!  If you watch the eponymous Bob Hope film about the family, you will see young Bryan portrayed by Jerry Mathers of Leave it to Beaver. As depicted in the film, Bryan was actually with his father Eddie Foy on the day of the Iroquois Theatre Fire, an event which they were both lucky to live through.

Being the oldest, Bryan was the first to leave the family act — he dropped out to serve in World War One in 1918, and much like Gummo Marx, he took the opportunity NOT to return to performing when the war was over. He was a songwriter for a time, and legend has it that he co-wrote the Gallagher and Shean song. He then went into the movie business, initially in the publicity department at Fox. In 1924 he produced and directed a bunch of “Hysterical History” silent comedy shorts lampooning great historical events.

Then “Brynie”, as he was affectionately known, moved to Warner Brothers, where he truly made his mark in a way that is crucially important to vaudeville lovers and readers of this blog. For, from 1927 through 1930, he produced and directed scores and scores of Vitaphone shorts starring vaudevillians, too many to list, most of the big time acts of his day, all old cohorts of his from his performing days. They are the best record we have today of what vaudeville was like, and Foy invariably staged them in a smart, knowing way, given the technological limitations of the time.

But there’s much more! In 1928, he produced the first all-talking feature, Lights of New York, the movie that truly sparked the talkie revolution. This was followed by the Texas Guinan vehicle Queen of the Night Clubs (1929) and the original sound version of The Gorilla (1930), both now considered lost. In 1936 he was made the head of Warner Bros. B movie unit, turning out scores of movies there, including the “Torchy Blane” and “Nancy Drew” series, “Penrod and Sam” films, Crime School (1938) starring the Dead End Kids, and much similar fare. In the 40s he worked at various other studios, such as Fox , where he helmed two of Laurel and Hardy’s last films The Dancing Masters (1944) and The Bullfighters (1945), as well as Kenny Delmar’s It’s a Joke Son! (1947), the first product of Eagle-Lion films. In the ’50s he returned to Warner Brothers, where his notable efforts included two Vince Prince horror films House of Wax (1953) and The Mad Magician (1954). His last movie PT-109 (1963) built on his long track record making World War 2 films over the previous two decades.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville and the famous Foy family, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on early film, read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.