George O’Brien (1899-1985) is best remembered today as a star of western films (especially those of John Ford), and is less remembered by mainstream vintage movie buffs. But he also starred in major films outside that genre, the most notable example being F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927).
Born and raised in San Francisco, he was the son of an Irish cop, Dan O’Brien, who himself played a minor role in show business history, as we’ll see very shortly. George served in the U.S. Navy with distinction in both World Wars. In the Great War, he boxed competitively and became the Light Heavyweight champion of the Pacific Fleet. After the war, he made his way to Hollywood, where he is said to have worked as an uncredited assistant cameraman on Tom Mix and Buck Jones pictures. His good looks and athleticism soon landed him stunt work, and bit parts. Meanwhile, his father Dan O’Brien had become San Francisco’s Chief of Police, and he it was that ordered the arrest of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for the alleged rape and murder of Virginia Rappe in 1921, a bit of showboating that does his memory no credit. I can’t help but psychoanalyze: did he want to punish Hollywood for leading his son down a Primrose Path? Then as now, conservatives disapprove of Tinselstown’s reputed free morals. I present it as a logical surmise, I have no certain knowledge that that was the case.
At any rate, by 1922 George O’Brien was appearing on camera. Some early stuff include bit parts in The Ghost Breaker, one of Wallace Reid’s last films, and The Ne’er-Do-Well with Thomas Meighan, both in 1922. In 1924 he starred in John Ford’s The Iron Horse, a smash hit, and the first of many he would appear in for the director. 3 Bad Men (1926) was another important early Ford picture he starred in. Sunrise (1927) took him to the height of his career. He continued to be a star thereafter, though with diminishing cache as the years went on.
During the twenties, O’Brien’s sometime co-star Olive Borden was the woman in his life, but in the end they did not marry. In 1931, he co-starred with Marguerite Churchill in Riders of the Purple Sage. The pair married in 1933. Some other notable early O’Brien from the sound era include the original version of Frontier Marshall (1934) and Daniel Boone (1936).
O’Brien lost his leading man status at some point during the ’30s, and definitely after taking time off to serve in WWII. A good example of his altered status is that when John Ford essentially remade Frontier Marshall as My Darling Clementine in 1946, it was was not O’Brien he cast in the lead but the up and comer Henry Fonda. By those years, O’Brien was a middle aged man and a character actor. As such you can see him in such pictures as My Wild Irish Rose (1947), Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). O’Brien’s last picture from the main trunk of his career was the 1951 comedy western Gold Raiders in which he co-starred with…wait for it…The Three Stooges! Perhaps we cannot blame him for hanging up his spurs at that stage.
Throughout the ’50s O’Brien worked for the Eisenhower administration producing goodwill films. Ford convinced him to come out of retirement one last time for his own last western Cheyenne Autumn (1964). These are just a few highlights of a career that comprised 84 films.
For more on silent film history please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.