Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Friday, 17 February 2017

Mary Brian - The Real Talent of "The Sweetest Girl in Pictures"

Given the moniker of “The Sweetest Girl in Pictures”, lovely Mary Brian was the perfect 20s ingénue with her long dark hair, adorable good looks and graceful manner. She was girlish and innocent when that was the fashion, and smart and sophisticated when tastes matured.  Yet she remains a difficult actress to truly define as she was never quite a leading actress, far more than a juvenile lead and never tied herself to one particular style or genre. As the film historian Anthony Slide put it, she was a “competent, intelligent, and compliant actress who exudes a natural charm and personality” Slide, a close friend of Brian in her later years meant it as the highest compliment, yet this summation of her career seems lacking in the usual hyperbole and platitudes typically given to stars of the Golden Age.
Make no mistake about it, Mary Brian was a very big star with a extremely successful career as a marquee headliner from 1925 through to the mid 30s and unlike many of her contemporaries transitioned from silent to talking pictures with an enviable ease. During her career she starred with acting heavyweights like Wallace Beery, Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, James Cagney and W.C. Fields and worked with top level directors such as Lewis Milestone, Gregory La Cava, William Wellman and George Cukor. She even had a leading role in an Oscar nominated movie but despite these stellar accomplishments, like so many others, she is sadly still often overlooked and underappreciated.

Mary Brian was born Louise Datzler on February 17 1906 in Corsicana, Texas, the daughter of an oculist. Her father died in an accident when she was one month old and the family then moved to live with her aunt, eventually following her from the prairies of Texas to Long Beach, California in the early 20s. Mary received her big break into the movies when she was spotted by silent star Esther Ralston at a Bathing Beauty contest and through that connection managed to get an audition with the director Herbert Brenon. Despite having little to no experience in acting, Brenon asked her to play Wendy in his forthcoming adaption of 'Peter Pan'. Soon Louise Datzler was signed to a five year Paramount deal and rechristened Mary Brian and a new star was born.

From the very beginning in her successful 1925 debut in Peter Pan, Mary Brian was a popular young leading lady in Hollywood. Her status as a rising star was cemented when she was named as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1926 alongside future greats such as Joan Crawford, Janet Gaynor and Fay Wray. Sadly, very few of her silent films still exist today which is perhaps one of the reasons why she is primarily remembered for her 30s work despite making more than 20 silent movies as a leading actress. Among her most popular movies in the silent era were the football comedy Brown of Harvard with William Haines, adventure epic Beau Geste with Ronald Colman and William Powell and Behind the Front with Wallace Beery, the first of four pictures she made with him. She also become a trusted friend of W. C. Fields and starred with him in two of his silent movies, Two Flaming Youths (sadly lost) and Running Wild.
By the time sound came in, Mary Brian was a mainstay at Paramount and was soon rushed into making a talking picture. Her first, a part talkie, was Varsity (also now lost) with her friend and frequent co-star Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers in 1928. She soon followed it up with a well received turn in The Virginian with Gary Cooper that proved to be a break out role establishing her as a successful sound actress (it didn't do too badly for Cooper's career either). In the early sound era she also lit up the screen in The Royal Family of Broadway (a not so subtle poke at the Barrymore acting clan) and the Oscar nominated fast talker The Front Page. Both roles continue to be fondly remembered today and show her to be a talented and resourceful actress. Despite these triumphs, in 1932 Paramount decided not to renew her contract, choosing instead to move away from the sort of ingénue roles she played to more ‘sophisticated’ fare. Since playing the sort of Mae West and Marlene Dietrich roles preferred by the studio was not her scene, Mary freelanced for the rest of her career.

This post 1932 period brought some memorable roles but the good parts began to slowly dry up. Nevertheless she still made some great films in this time such as Blessed Event with Lee Tracy, Girl Missing with Ben Lyon and Glenda Farrell and Hard to Handle with James Cagney, perhaps her last great film (though she sports atypical platinum blonde hair which doesn't really suit her natural beauty). However, B pictures started to appear more and more on her resume and the A list co-stars became replaced more often than not by the likes of Leo Carrillo, Dick Purcell, Jack Oakie and Richard Arlen (though in the end Arlen became her most frequent co-star, they made an astonishing 11 films together between 1926 and 1933). After that Mary worked in theatre and then during the Second World War tirelessly devoted her time to entertaining the troops with the USO. Her last movie appearance was in the Poverty Row crime drama Dragnet in 1947, and save for a brief television comeback in the 50s Mary then retired to devote herself to her family and her painting.

I’ve always likes Mary Brian immensely since she first caught my eye in The Marriage Playground. There she plays the oldest of a large group of children living with their rich, disinterested parents. Despite being incredibly pretty and the camera simply loving her, she was still overshadowed by her co-stars Fredric March, Lilyan Tashman, Kay Francis and particularly Mitzi Green. Next up was Blessed Event, a newspaper caper where she generally stands around while Lee Tracy blitzes the screen with his incendiary delivery and presence. She still looks incredibly pretty though. More recently I watched her in Girl Missing where she plays one half of a crime solving team of gold diggers with Glenda Farrell. The movie has a tour de force performance from Farrell, who commands the screen and gets all the best lines. Mary gamely hangs in there and gives capable support but is really only there to provide a romantic subplot with Ben Lyon. Finally, a couple of weeks ago I watched Charlie Chan in Paris. To be honest, I don’t even remember what she did in the movie and in fact I have no memory of her even being in it. It appears that by that time (1935) she had almost disappeared into the background entirely. 

Going back to Anthony Slide’s earlier words, what at first seemed like faint praise is actually a perfect summation of her talent. She truly is “competent, intelligent and compliant” – a true professional whose role in movies was to be the featured actress there to support a star impeccably without smothering them. Additionally she definitely has “charm and personality”, yet never to the point that detracts from her afore mentioned purpose. What first struck me about Mary Brian was her everyday fresh faced looks and simple style that lived up to her moniker “The Sweetest Girl in Pictures”. She was a girl next door, or a beloved big sister - dependable and gracious, at times streetwise but never brash or rude. This quality, especially when paired up with a larger than life co-star made her believable in her roles and equally trusted by audiences. There is an honestly and charm to Mary Brian that is real and very appealing and could quite easily hold a film together despite being paired with large personalities.

For this reason it’s no wonder that she was so revered by W. C. Fields and was requested by him to play his daughter in one of his best films, The Man on the Flying Trapeze. Throughout the film she is the one person who not only stands by Fields’ character and defends him but who holds together the chaos that he brings. She once said of him “He knew he could count on me to do certain things and never look as if I don’t know what it is. A comedian depends on a straight man…their timing depends on what you feed them” The fact that she could work so easily with a comedian as spontaneous and unpredictable as Fields and not only keep up with him but feed him exactly the reactions he needed speaks volumes about Mary Brian’s talents more than perhaps any one performance. Just like her work with Lee Tracy, Glenda Farrell and James Cagney (and it can’t be a coincidence in her freelancing years that she was hired out to team up with the three fastest talkers in Hollywood) being the straight man is a vastly underrated skill that is essential to the success of the other part of the equation. And if you can do all that and look lovely while you are doing it...well, then that is even better.

Again, when reading reviews of The Front Page, with its constant chatter and cross talk, you very rarely hear anything said about Mary’s performance in the movie. In a way it means she has done her job and let the others shine despite not always getting to show her own skills so prominently. Watching the movie and particularly her performance, she is adept at stunned reactions and timing her feed lines to let the rhythm of the dialogue flow. Of course the problem with being a good straight man is that if the parts across from you are not very well written or performed than your own role is diminished too. Sadly this happened all to often in Mary’s career in its later years where she just turns up and looks pretty (like the afore mentioned Charlie Chan film) or even worse just stands about doing nothing as the nominal romantic interest in a dull picture.

Sometimes in the case of comedy double acts I wonder what would have happened if one of the pair had made solo films or worked as character actor. Would Bud Abbott have managed to show more of his comic range (so tantalisingly hinted at in Little Giant)? George Burns certainly flourished when he went solo though it took him a while to truly find his voice.  In the case of Mary Brian, ever the perfect sounding board for actors and actresses to bounce off, would she have been successful if given Joan Crawford or Carole Lombard level parts? Given her talent and adaptability I have no doubt that she would have been wonderful but in cinema, just like in life we each have a role to play and Mary Brian’s role seemingly was to help others shine. It was often became a thankless job but one that she was supremely gifted at. At her best, Mary Brian was a radiant, charming talent that had a likeability and connection with audiences that made her a popular favourite for over a decade.  Despite sharing the screen with bigger personalities or nearly disappearing into the background with sub par scripts, Mary Brian with charm and grace always gave it her all and made us believe in her, and for me will always be one of the brightest stars in Hollywood. Happy birthday Mary!