We’ll stipulate that Brian Aherne (William Brian de Lacy Aherne, 1902-1986) was one of the more non-descript members of Hollywood’s British colony during the classic studio years. We have stiffs enough on these shores without needing to import them from the Mother Country! But his story interlocks with some of those we have told, and he is not without some minor significance. And it is very likely that he was more impressive on stage than on screen, for he was never off the boards for very long.
His father William de Lacy Aherne was a fashionable Arts and Crafts style architect from the Fin de Siècle to the First World War. His older brother, Patrick, is also interesting: he was a champion boxer and a motorcyclist who actually knew William Harley and Arthur Davidson. Pat Aherne was also an actor, although usually a bit player and extra. Like Brian, he started in films in the mid ’20s, though his best remembered films came late in his career, including Green Dolphin Street (1947), Bwana Devil (1952) and The Court Jester (1955). His last screen credit was a walk-on in Witness for the Prosecution (1957).
The family was from the Birmingham area. Brian began acting in plays at what is now the Birmingham Repertory Theatre at the age of eight. He planned to followed his father into a career in architecture, but continued success as an actor made such a gear change unwarranted. The Eleventh Commandment (1924) with Fay Compton was his first film. He countinued to alternate stage appearances with British movies into the early ’30s.
Aherne came to the States to appear on Broadway with Katharine Cornell in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1931, followed by revivals in 1935 and 1945). He was to be a major part of Cornell’s company, appearing also with her in Lucrece (1932), Romeo and Juliet (1934), Saint Joan (1936), The Constant Wife (1951), and Dear Liar (1960) in which he played George Bernard Shaw to Cornell’s Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Without Cornell, Aherne’s Broadway productions include Robert Edmond Jones‘ version of Othello (1937) opposite Walter Huston (Huston was Othello, Ahene Iago), and a 1949 revival of She Stoops to Conquer with Burl Ives.
Aherne’s last British film was Basil Dean‘s The Constant Nymph (1933). Among his many Hollywood pictures, some notable early ones include Gregory La Cava’s adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s What Every Woman Knows (1934) opposite Helen Hayes, the title role in James Whale’s The Great Garrick (1937), and Maximillian I in Juarez (1939). He was cast opposite Rosalind Russell in Hired Wife (1940), My Sister Eileen (1942), and The Beautiful Cheat (1943). From 1939 through 1945 he was married to Joan Fontaine.
Aherne, an amateur pilot, left films for a time to serve in World War Two. The postwar years were filled with a combination of stage, radio, and television work, and a more tentative resumption of his film career, in such things as Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), Titanic (1953, as the Captain), and two turns as King Arthur, in Prince Valiant (1954), and Lancelot and Guinevere (1963). Aherne had already retired to Switzerland when he was induced to return for one last picture in 1967 opposite his old co-star Rosalind Russell in Ruth Gordon’s Rosie! After this he wrote two books, a memoir called A Proper Job (1969) and a book about his friend George Sanders called A Dreadful Man (1979). Aherne married his second wife, Eleanor de Liagre Labrot, sister of Broadway producer Alfred de Liagre Labrot, Jr in 1946.