Friday, September 4, 2015

This Day in Film History (Death of George O’Brien—Honored Vet, Western Star, Inspiration for Novelist Son)

September 4, 1985—George O'Brien, decorated veteran of two world wars and a Western star long forgotten by movie audiences who had made him a star in the Twenties and Thirties, passed away at age 86 in Tulsa, Okla., his once-magnificent build a casualty of a stroke six years before that had left him bedridden.

Well, in that last sentenced,“largely forgotten” might be more correct than “long forgotten.” For anyone the least bit interested in John Ford movies, O'Brien is remembered for his appearances, even after his star faded, in the informal “stock company” that “Pappy” kept from one production to another. For fans of fine literature, through son Darcy O’Brien, he inspired one of the saddest but most uproarious Hollywood coming-of-age novels, A Way of Life, Like Any Other.

Since the theater and film worlds love to transfer stories to far more modern settings (e.g., The Tempest becoming Forbidden Planet), let’s try something similar here. Only this time, let’s imagine pre-revolutionary France translated to Hollywood in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when O’Brien and wife Marguerite Churchill, a former actress,  were living like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at Versailles and son Darcy was fawned over like a dauphin. It was paradise.

It couldn’t last, of course. Just as a revolution and their own personal failings led to the royal family’s flight from the palace, so the O’Briens saw their comfortable way of life end because of their own personal circumstances and a studio system no longer able or interested in finding a place for them.

The son of the San Francisco Chief of Police, George had been an excellent athlete (football, baseball, track and swimming) in high school and college, and during WWI won the light-heavyweight Pacific fleet boxing title. He parlayed his deep knowledge of horses (he’d been raised around police stables) and build to become successively a movie cameraman, stunt man, part-time actor, then a leading man.

O’Brien’s best-regarded and most prominent nongenre role might have been as the young country husband who, manipulated by another woman, plans to murder his wife in F.W. Murnau’s 1927 Sunrise. But his most conspicuous success came in westerns. 

Ford plucked him from obscurity to cast him as the lead in perhaps the archetypal silent western, The Iron Horse (1924), and he made the successful transition to talkies, including in an adaptation of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage and a whole slew of B-westerns made for Fox and RKO. Beefcake shots of him shirtless, virtually guaranteed to please his many female fans, won him the nickname “The Chest” in Hollywood.

The activity that may have meant the most to O’Brien, however, was service in the Navy. Already a recipient of five decorations for bravery under fire as a stretcher-bearer in WWI, he didn’t even wait for Pearl Harbor to re-enlist again for WWII service. (RKO had to issue a press release announcing the news to irate fans wondering why one of their favorite stars was no longer appearing on the big screen.)

Once again, O’Brien served with distinction, and in even more important engagements this time, as a "beachmaster" involved in a dozen or more island invasions. But the war wreaked havoc on his career and his marriage, with Churchill complaining that her husband had been “changed radically” by it. George's roles largely dried up, and their finances became pinched. They divorced, after 15 years of marriage, in 1948, with Marguerite winning custody of Darcy and his sister Orin.

A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a roman a clef. or "novel with a key." The title comes from a remark that the Irish poet Seamus Heaney made about O’Brien’s childhood on the family estate (called "Casa Fiesta" in the novel). The irony, of course, is that this upbringing was anything but "like any other.” How many people, after all, become used to the likes of Ford and Charles Laughton coming to the house?

Darcy O’Brien does not provide names for the narrator’s parents, but the details of their lives do coincide closely enough with those of George O'Brien and Marguerite Churchill to leave little doubt whom he is writing about. There are even enough clues about background characters to permit guesses about their real-life counterparts.

(For instance: as an adolescent, the narrator spends considerable time with the family of “Sam Caliban,” a colorful writer-director with a penchant for gambling. Caliban, we are told, had directed the narrator’s mother and Will Rogers onscreen. As it happened, Marguerite Churchill and Rogers had been directed in Ambassador Bill by Sam Taylor, who had also adapted Shakespeare’s The Tempest, featuring a character named…Caliban.)

Both O’Brien and his ex-wife emerge as rather pathetic figures after the divorce in their son’s account (which won the P.E.N.'s Ernest Hemingway Award for the best first novel of 1978). Marguerite Churchill attempted without success to resume the acting career she had given up to raise a family. After a handful of appearances on film and TV after the divorce, she lived abroad. Darcy depicts her drowning in promiscuity and drink, oblivious of the effect of her lifestyle on her tween son (she is even proud that, age 12, he can mix virtually any drink for guests at parties).

George O’Brien emerges somewhat more sympathetically, but still troubled: no longer maintaining the handsome looks that had sustained his career for so long, yet—even as his financial prospects continued to wane—painfully slow to shed the illusion that his career was over. (Old friend Ford continued to toss minor assignments his way from time to time, including a bit part, as late as 1964, in Cheyenne Autumn.)

By Darcy O’Brien’s account, his father was able to achieve something of a measure of grace at last, courtesy of a renewed interest in Catholicism and a deep pride and connection to the Navy. George O’Brien went back on active duty during the Korean and even Vietnam wars. By the time he retired, he had not only achieved the rank of captain, but had been recommended four times for promotion to admiral. He was buried at sea off the coast of San Diego. 

That was, I think, an appropriate metaphor for his career. In the postwar period, because of an anti-trust case lost before the Supreme Court, Hollywood had left him adrift. The one Tinseltown figure who continued to find room in his films for him was the one who, because of his own wartime service, had the deepest affinity for naval men: Ford. 

It is sadly instructive to compare O'Brien's career trajectory with that of another college athlete propelled by Ford to stardom, John Wayne. While O'Brien was off the screen for five crucial years, serving his country, Wayne was capitalizing on the sudden leap to fame he had taken, after a dozen years as a bit player, in Ford's classic western Stagecoach. During WWII, Wayne took every deferment to which he was entitled as a father in his thirties, while others--very much including O'Brien and Ford--chose a different route. The price those Hollywood figures paid--Ford, a wound incurred while shooting the Battle of Midway, and O'Brien, a dimming career--stands in sharp contrast to "The Duke." 

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