St. Patrick’s Day draw near, an appropriate birthday week for the actor George Brent (George Nolan, 1904-1979). Brent wasn’t the most memorable fellow, being just one of a slew of Hollywood’s Irish Georges (George Murphy, George O’Brien, George O’Hara) and a rather nondescript mug that looked a bit like Walter Pidgeon’s. Yet he led an interesting life, and he graced many a classic film with his presence.
Born in Ballinisloe, Galway, Brent spent part of his childhood in New York. He returned to Ireland as a teenager, where he became a courier for Michael Collins during the Irish War for Independence. During these same years he got his first stage experience at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. A bounty on his head convinced him to return to New York, where he was cast in A.A. Milne’s The Dover Road (1921-22), his first Broadway role. For the next several years he toured America with stock companies, including a two year stint in the road company of Abie’s Irish Rose. He then returned to Broadway for Night Hostess (1928), The K Guy (1928) and Love Honor and Betray (1930) with Clark Gable.
A supporting role in Under Suspicion (1930) marked Brent’s arrival into talkies. He subsequently attained over 100 credits over a 30 year screen career, including such fare as Edna Ferber’s So Big! (1932, opposite Stanwyck), The Rich Are Always With Us (1932, opposite Ruth Chatterton, who became his second wife), the all-star 42nd Street (1933), The Keyhole (1933, opposite Kay Francis), Baby Face (1933, again with Stanwyck), The Painted Veil (1934, with Garbo). He had an affair with Bette Davis and appeared opposite her in no less than 11 pictures, including Jezebel (1938), Dark Victory (1939) and In This Our Life (1942). Major female stars seemed to love working with Brent, and it’s not hard to imagine why. I always remember the women; I never remember a damn thing about Brent!
Brent was at home in the all Irish ensemble in The Fighting 69th (1940) with Cagney, Pat O’Brien, and Pat McHugh. He co-starred with Ann Sheridan in Honeymoon for Three (1941); she was to become his fourth wife. Some of Brent’s notable post-war films included The Spiral Staircase (1946) with Dorothy Maguire and Lover Come Back (1946) with Lucille Ball. During this period he rapidly sank to B movie status. His last starring film was Monogram’s Mexican Manhunt (1953). In 1956 he was cast as the lead in The Death of a Scoundrel (1956) but became ill, and so was replaced by George Sanders, although you can still see him in one shot during a party scene. The rest of the ’50s were spent in television. He was the lead in the short-lived series Wire Service (1956-57), and did guest shots on live TV drama anthology shows like Schlitz Playhouse.
At the young age of 56, Brent retired to breed race horses. He emerged just once more in 1978 to take a supporting role in the film Born Again, the story of Nixon aide Chuck Colson’s prison conversion to Christianity, with Dean Jones, Anne Francis, Jay Robinson, and Dana Andrews.