Pat O'Brien: Actor was Hollywood's prolific 'Resident Irishman' and favorite priest
Remember Pat O'Brien? In case you don't, you're not alone despite the fact that O'Brien was featured – in both large and small roles – in about 100 films, from the dawn of the sound era to 1981. That in addition to nearly 50 television appearances, from the early '50s to the early '80s.
Never a top star or – despite his stage training – a critics' favorite, O'Brien was nevertheless one of Hollywood's busiest leading men and second leads of the 1930s. Throughout that decade, mostly at Warner Bros., he was seen in nearly 60 films, from minor Bs (Hell's House, The Final Edition) to major Cs (as in Classics, e.g., Frank Capra's American Madness and Michael Curtiz's Angels with Dirty Faces).
Also worth noting, the former altar boy and ardently Catholic O'Brien played priests several times on the big screen, notably as:
- Father Jerry Connolly in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938).
- World War I infantry chaplain Father Duffy in The Fighting 69th (1940).
- Father Peter J. Dunne in Fighting Father Dunne (1948).
- Father O'Hara in The Fireball (1950).
Curiously bypassing his priesthood gigs, Turner Classic Movies is showing nine Pat O'Brien movies today, Nov. 11, '15, in honor of what would have been the Milwaukee-born (as William Joseph Patrick O'Brien) Irish-American actor's 116th birthday.
Pat O'Brien and James Cagney 'snub'
True, O'Brien and Cagney were never a de facto romantic pair, but one must be excused for sometimes wondering what exactly was going on between these two, as in Lloyd Bacon's surprisingly entertaining Here Comes the Navy (1934), in which the girl (Gloria Stuart) is the one getting in the way of the two U.S. Navy buddies' everlasting bliss.
O'Brien and Cagney were seen together in a total of eight features, in addition to a reunion of sorts – Cagney has a key role; O'Brien has a bit – in Milos Forman's Ragtime (1981). Strangely, none of their joint collaborations has been scheduled for this mini-Pat O'Brien movie festival.
From Adolphe Menjou to the arms of Irene Dunne & Barbara Stanwyck
Instead, TCM is presenting a Pat O'Brien and Adolphe Menjou showcase. One of O'Brien's most prestigious movies, the Howard Hughes-produced, Lewis Milestone-directed The Front Page (1931) features him as journalist Hildy Johnson, who is prevented from marrying his cute-as-a-button fiancée (Mary Brian) due to undue (sorry, I couldn't resist) pressure from his unscrupulous boss, Walter Burns (Best Actor Academy Award nominee Menjou), and the potential of a major scoop.
As O'Brien was hardly the most exciting of actors, the two melodramas listed below are also of note chiefly because of their female leads:
- Paul Sloane's Consolation Marriage (1931), starring Irene Dunne.
- Archie Mayo's Gambling Lady (1934), toplining Barbara Stanwyck.
In the former, which could have been so much better had it been more daring and less sentimental (and ten minutes shorter), O'Brien is married to Dunne – a “consolation marriage,” as both had been jilted by their respective lovers (a pre-stardom Myrna Loy, Lester Vail), who years later reenter their lives.
In the latter, Stanwyck has the title role: a professional gambler yearning to marry into high society, in the form of handsome Joel McCrea. Bear in mind that in his movies, O'Brien was not infrequently the third wheel.
'Flirtation Walk,' 'Bombshell'
Another 1930s Pat O'Brien movie classic is Bombshell (1933). Directed by Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind), from a screenplay by Jules Furthman and John Lee Mahin (from Mack Crane and Caroline Francke's play), Bombshell stars Jean Harlow – known as the “blonde bombshell” at the time – in the title role: vapid, temperamental Hollywood star Lola Burns, who has traits suspiciously in common with the likes of Gloria Swanson (marquis husband), Clara Bow (maid scandal), Constance Bennett (marquis husband, baby adoption), Miriam Hopkins (baby adoption), and Harlow herself. O'Brien plays Harlow's former lover – one who's eager to reignite their old flame.
Frank Borzage's Best Picture Academy Award nominee Flirtation Walk (1934), tagged as a “military musical,” is chiefly of interest so one can attempt to spot 20-year-old Tyrone Power in a bit part. Delmer Daves, the future director of classic Westerns such as 3:10 to Yuma and The Hanging Tree, was credited for the inane screenplay and for co-writing the original story (with Louis F. Edelman). Warner Bros.' lovebirds Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler star.
And finally, also of interest are two Warners programmers – not quite A releases, not quite B releases – with the word “China” in their titles and starring Pat O'Brien as men obsessed with their professional goals: Mervyn LeRoy's Oil for the Lamps of China (1935) and Ray Enright's China Clipper (1936).
In the former, O'Brien neglects Josephine Hutchinson so he can give it all to an American oil company doing business in China. In the latter, which is set in the U.S. (“China Clipper” refers to an airplane), Beverly Roberts is the neglectee while O'Brien tries to make his big, brash, boisterous American Dream come true.
'Knute Rockne All American'
I should add that TCM isn't showing Knute Rockne All American (1940), which features Pat O'Brien in the title role as the University of Notre Dame football coach who, referring to deceased player George “The Gipper” Gipp (Ronald Reagan), tells his team at a 1928 game, “Win just one for the Gipper.” The line, shortened to “Win one for the Gipper,” would take on an obnoxious ring after being used ad nauseam by Reagan himself during his long stint as a populist right-wing politician.
As found in O'Brien's autobiography, The Wind at My Back: The Life and Times of Pat O'Brien, his three favorite movie roles were those in The Front Page, Knute Rockne All American, and William Keighley's adventure drama The Fighting 69th, co-starring James Cagney and George Brent.
Pat O'Brien suffered a fatal heart attack at age 83 on Oct. 15, 1983, in Santa Monica.
O'Brien's widow, Eloise Taylor, had been a minor actress in the early 1930s (Damaged Love, Convict's Code), in addition to being briefly featured in Ragtime. O'Brien and Taylor had been married since 1931.
Roommate Spencer Tracy and Broadway nights
 Pat O'Brien and fellow Irish-American Catholic Spencer Tracy were roommates while they were both struggling actors on the Broadway stage in the 1920s. O'Brien and Tracy would be featured together in only two movies: John Sturges' The People Against O'Hara (1951) and John Ford's The Last Hurrah (1958).
O'Brien's handful of Broadway appearances included those in Gertie (1926) and This Man's Town (1930), the latter featuring another soon-to-be Hollywood celebrity, Constance Cummings.
Actor Pat O'Brien movies on TCM: Schedule (PT)
3:00 AM THE FRONT PAGE (1931). Dir.: Lewis Milestone. Cast: Adolph Menjou. Pat O'Brien. Mary Brian. Edward Everett Horton. Walter Catlett. George E. Stone. Mae Clarke. Slim Summerville. Matt Moore. Frank McHugh. Clarence Wilson. Fred Howard. Eugene Strong. Spencer Charters. Uncredited: Gustav von Seyffertitz. Francis Ford. Richard Alexander. James Donlan. As per the IMDb, Clark Gable can be spotted as an extra, but his appearance is unconfirmed and seems unlikely. B&W. 100 mins.
4:45 AM CONSOLATION MARRIAGE (1931). Dir.: Paul Sloane. Cast: Irene Dunne. Pat O'Brien. John Halliday. Myrna Loy. Lester Vail. Matt Moore. B&W. 81 mins.
6:15 AM FLYING HIGH (1931). Dir.: Charles F. Riesner. Cast: Bert Lahr. Charlotte Greenwood. Pat O'Brien. B&W. 81 mins.
7:45 AM BOMBSHELL (1933). Dir.: Victor Fleming. Cast: Jean Harlow. Lee Tracy. Pat O'Brien. Frank Morgan. B&W. 96 mins.
9:30 AM I SELL ANYTHING (1934). Dir.: Robert Florey. Cast: Pat O'Brien. Ann Dvorak. Claire Dodd. B&W. 70 mins.
10:45 AM GAMBLING LADY (1934). Dir.: Archie Mayo. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck. Joel McCrea. Pat O'Brien. B&W. 66 mins.
12:00 PM FLIRTATION WALK (1934). Dir.: Frank Borzage. Cast: Dick Powell. Ruby Keeler. Pat O'Brien. Ross Alexander. John Arledge. John Eldredge. Henry O'Neill. Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams. Frederick Burton. John Darrow. Glen Boles. Uncredited: Carlyle Blackwell Jr. Tyrone Power. Frank Dawson. Maude Turner Gordon. Shep Houghton. Dick Winslow. B&W. 98 mins.
1:45 PM OIL FOR THE LAMPS OF CHINA (1935). Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Pat O'Brien. Josephine Hutchinson. Jean Muir. B&W. 97 mins.
3:30 PM CHINA CLIPPER (1936). Dir.: Ray Enright. Cast: Pat O'Brien. Beverly Roberts. Ross Alexander. Humphrey Bogart. Marie Wilson. B&W. 88 mins.
Actor Pat O'Brien movies' cast info via the IMDb.
Pat O'Brien movies schedule via the TCM website.
Pat O'Brien publicity shot via Doctor Macro.
Humphrey Bogart and Pat O'Brien China Clipper image: Warner Bros., via Greenbriar.
Mary Brian and fellow The Front Page actor Pat O'Brien image: United Artists.