The dark haired Texan found her way to Hollywood at an early age when her father relocated the family to southern California during the 1920's with dreams of a career as a motion picture illustrator. Although his dreams did not come to fruition, Mary found herself in a bathing beauty contest at the tender age of 16 which just happened to be judged by silent actress Esther Ralston (you can see my post on Esther HERE). Even though Mary lost the beauty contest Esther was taken with her prompting an interview with the director Herbert Brenon who was looking to cast a newcomer to play Wendy in his upcoming project, "Peter Pan".
Mary as Wendy with Betty Bronson in "Peter Pan" 1924
In a phone interview, Mary won Brenon over and was cast in the hit action adventure "Peter Pan" in 1924. She played Wendy (the studio cut 2 yrs off of her age since they felt 18 was too old to play Wendy.) Esther Ralston played her mother, Mrs. Darling. Anna Mae Wong and Cyril Chadwick were also cast in the picture which was admitted into the National Film Registry in 2000. Mary was just 18 when the film debuted with rave reviews, thus landing her a contract with Paramount Pictures.
Going into 1925 Mary was now 18 and on her way to becoming one of Paramount's brightest stars as she appeared in four silents for them that year. The first would be the romantic adventure "The Air Mail", which starred Warner Baxter, Billie Dove, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (You can read my posts on Billie and Douglas HERE and HERE but stay tuned for my post on Warner.) Sadly "The Air Mail" is one of the many early films that did not survive intact so it's not available for viewing. Only four of the eight reels were saved and are stored at the Library of Congress in D.C.
Brian's second film of 1925 was "The Little French Girl" (also lost) the crime drama "The Street of Forgotten Men" would follow. Percy Marmont and Neil Hamilton would have the lead then there was an adorable young actress named Louise Brooks who would make her first onscreen appearance but not yet be credited. (In case you've seen the silent but missed Louise, she plays a moll.) Mary's final film that year would be the comedy "A Regular Fellow", starring Raymond Griffith and Tyrone Power Sr. Sadly this is another one of Mary's lost early films.
I'm not sure what I was thinking in buying this old promo photo since its huge at over 16x20 and wouldn't even fit on the scanner. But it came with matching ones of Ann Harding, Fay Wray and Bebe Daniels so I couldn't resist a bargain.
At the beginning of 1926 Mary co-starred with the great Lionel Barrymore and Jetta Goudal in the drama "Paris at Midnight" (lost) before being loaned out to MGM to appear in the hit "Brown of Harvard". The romantic drama starred William Haines and Jack Pickford. Mary plays the role of a professors daughter being fought over by the two college jocks. Once the film was rapped she returned to Paramount where she finished another four pictures that year. The most well known being the action adventure "Beau Geste" which starred her handsome leading man Ronald Coleman as Beau Geste to her Isabel. Neil Hamilton, Noah Berry, a young William Powell and Ralph Forbes also starred in the film. "Beau Geste" would be Paramount's biggest hit that year. Another notable performance for Brian that year would be in the comedy "Behind the Front" which starred Wallace Beery and Richard Arlen (you can see my post on Arlen HERE) The story was set during the events of WWI with the two leads struggling to stay out of trouble while on the prowl for romantic liaisons in war torn France.
click on Mary's autograph (on the back of Italian currency) and photos from my collection for a larger view.
While under her four year contract with Paramount, Brian worked steadily, increasing her popularity the previous year upon being selected as one of Hollywood's WAMPAS Babies of 1926 alongside Fay Wray, Joan Crawford, Dolores Costello, Mary Astor and Janet Gaynor. Great company! I must also have a thing for the WAMPAS gals since I've collected autographs and photos from all of them which I've already written about or I will be in the near future. And yes, that includes Joanie who I promise to go easy on.
Mary churned out seven films for the studio during 1927. Her first being the romantic comedy "Her Father Said No" and also her first film where she received top billing. Sadly I don't know anything about the film since it has been lost but it would be nice to know how it rated at least. Next up for Brian that year was another comedy, "High Hat" co-starring Ben Lyon (also a film that's unavailable although there is one surviving copy at UCLA's Film and Television Archives.)
One of Brian's box office hits during 1927 was the comedy "Running Wild" where she plays the daughter of W.C Fields character Elmer Finch. She would also appear in three films opposite Richard Dix that year, the drama "Knockout Reilly", the romantic comedy "Man Power" and the adventure "Shanghai Bound" (none of which were restored or archived.) Brian would team up again with W.C. Fields for her final film of 1927 titled "Two Flaming Youths". This comedy is also one of Hollywood's lost films. Perhaps the reason Mary Brian isn't discussed as much when we reminisce about our silent comedic actresses like Pickford, Davies and Mabel Normand to a lesser extent is because so many of her films have been lost.
1928 would be Mary's final year at Paramount and another busy one with six more films added to her resume. Now 21 and no longer playing the child like ingenue she was ready for adult romantic leads. Her first being Richard Arlen's love interest in the early silent western, "Under Tonto's Rim". She would then catch Wallace Beery's eye in the action adventure "Partners in Crime" and the comedy "The Big Killing". Her biggest hit during the year was the drama "Forgotten Faces" opposite Clive Brook. Unfortunately the film has been lost as well. She would also star in the comedy "Varsity" opposite Charles Buddy Rogers (stay tuned for a post on him) then her final film while under contract at Paramount would be the romantic comedy "Someone to Love" where she would again play the love interest of Buddy Rogers. Once again I have to say these films have also been lost. It really is a shame since "Varsity" is Mary's very first talkie which she transitioned to with ease.
No longer under contract, Mary appeared in the crime mystery "Black Waters" which was produced by Herbert Wilcox Productions and the first talkie for a British Production Company even though it was filmed in the U.S. due to the technology being unavailable in Europe at that time. When looking for info on this film I had to laugh upon seeing what IMDb wrote under trivia "This film is presumed lost so please check your attic." Ha! I wish I had a few old films stashed away somewhere. Mary would also reunite with Richard Arlen for the comedy "The Man I Love". The film would have mediocre success even though it was directed by William Wellman and written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. It's a boxing film and with Arlen and Brian in one of their first talkies it can't be all that bad but I haven't seen it so if anyone has please let us know what you thought about it in comments.
One film little Mary Brian was in during 1929 that I have seen and luckily it's available and often re-aired is "The Virginian" with that handsome Gary Cooper, Richard Arlen and the roguish Walter Huston. (I'm still trying to get "Kongo" out of my head! Darn you 'Dead Legs Flint!) One of the very first talkie westerns, the film is a must see and even if you don't like western's it's worth watching for Gary Cooper's performance and Huston as the bizarre cattle thief. (Why do you have to be so creepy Walter?) I thought Brian was well cast and pleasant as the teacher who's sometimes out of her element up against these two heavy weights. Mary's last film of 1929 was the successful romantic drama "The Marriage Playground" co-starring Fredric March, Lilyan Tashman and Kay Francis.
With Gary Cooper in "The Virginian" 1929 (and below)
In 1930 Paramount made "The Kibitzer" which they bought the screen rights from the plays writer Edward G. Robinson. It had been a modest hit on Broadway but because Robinson was still a virtual unknown in Hollywood they gave the lead to Harry Green who played opposite Brian in the comedy. Who's to say what might have happened if Robinson had been given the lead instead, breaking into films via comedies since his early roles were playing the rough and tumble gangster that we've all come to associate him with.
Mary would pair up with Gary Cooper again that year for "Only the Brave". The Depression Era film takes place during the Civil War and co-stars Virginia Bruce and Phillips Holmes. It didn't have the success that "The Virginian" did the previous year but it's still worth watching for all of you Cooper and Brian fans plus it's fun to watch Gary so young in only his third talkie. Of course I'm a huge fan of Mary Brian and her range is incredible from her comedic timing to making me root for her to get the guy in her many romantic leads for being such a delicate little flower.
With Gary Cooper in "Only the Brave" 1930
Mary would star in nine films at Paramount during 1930 after signing another four year contract. It's good to see a studio standing behind a young star but we shall see if that lasts. She starred opposite Richard Arlen in another western that year "The Light of Western Stars" which she followed up with the musical "Paramount on Parade" with it's all star cast of some of our favorite early stars like Clara Bow, Jean Arthur, Maurice Chevalier, Clive Brook, Ruth Chatterton, Nancy Carroll, Richard Arlen, George Bancroft, Gary Cooper, Kay Francis, Evelyn Brent. Buddy Rogers and Fredric March.
Now I know I've complained about musicals but I actually love these early studio extravaganzas where they throw our favorite stars into ridiculous costumes while making them sing and dance in awkward settings. And for all of you Clara Bow fans (yes, Venus I'm speaking to you) catch this film if you want to watch her sing and dance to "True To The Nany Now" to some lucky soldiers. I can only imagine the complaining when the studios announced to their stars that they were rolling out one of these fiasco's. I'll blame MGM since they most likely started it.
One of Brian's most successful films of 1930 was the comedy "The Royal Family of Broadway" which starred Fredric March and Ina Claire. This is actually one of my favorites of Mary Brian's films most likely because I adore her in comedies, she stands out alongside the great Ina Claire plus when paired with March she really shines. He was nominated for an Oscar for his role as well.
Mary would star in six more films and one short during 1931, the most successful being the comedy "The Front Page" which would be nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. It co-starred Adolph Menjou (as Walter Burns) and Pat O'Brien with Lewis Milestone at the helm. The 1929 play and film adaptation is based on the life of actual Chicago reporters and acquaintances of writer Ben Hecht. Now, I'll admit that I love Cary Grant in his portrayal of Walter Burns a bit later in "His Girl Friday" but Menjou was brilliant and it really is worth the time to see both films and decide for yourself which version you enjoy more.
Mary, still in demand and maintaining her co-star status, appeared in another four films during 1932. One of which was the comedy "It's Tough to Be Famous" where she plays the sometimes frustrated but dutiful wife of a famous war hero played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. One of her box office successes that year would be "Blessed Event" starring Lee Tracy and Dick Powell. Perhaps I'm a bit off of my rocker but I've never been a big fan of the comedic actor Lee Tracy so the one time I saw this film I just didn't care for it. This type of comedy just isn't for me although I'm sure there many of his fans who will disagree. Another of Mary's films that year was "Manhattan Tower" which I've never had the pleasure of seeing but the info on it sounds like it's a really good knock off of "Grand Hotel" and Skyscraper Souls" so if anyone has seen it please let me know, it sounds intriguing. Mary's co-stars are Irene Rich and James Hall.
With Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in "It's Tough to Be Famous" 1932
No longer under contract at Paramount, Mary freelanced with other studios, churning out another eight films in 1933 all while going back and forth to New York to appear on a vaudeville stage at the Palace Theater. One of her first pictures that year was the very successful romantic comedy "Hard to Handle" opposite James Cagney. This film is fun from beginning to end with Cagney's character working the con game and all of his bizarre schemes to get rich quick then Brian's character being sold off to the highest bidder by her mother played by Ruth Donnelly. If you've seen "Public Enemy" and the infamous 'grapefruit scene' then you'll get a kick out of Cagney promoting his 'grapefruit diet' to the gullible ladies.
With James Cagney in "Hard to Handle" 1933
Mary starred in only four films during 1934 while freelancing which by today's standards would be an amazing amount of work for an actress. One of her more successful films was the comedic mystery "Private Scandal" starring the hilarious Zasu Pitts. Then the musical "College Rhythm" co-starring Jack Oakie and Joe Penner. I really do need to get over my dislike of musicals and I promise I'm working on it. For that reason I haven't seen this film.
In 1935 Brian starred in another comedy with Buddy Rogers "Weekend Millionaire". Another film that there is no information on as it's been lost somewhere. She did however star in "Charlie Chan in Paris" that year with Warner Oland. This was my first introduction to Mary Brian in my early teens thanks to my mother's insane love for everything Charlie Chan. A beautifully done piece of cinema and my favorite of the Chan series hands down.
With Jack Oakie, Lanny Ross and Lyda Roberti in "College Rhythm" 1934
Mary made one film in Hollywood during 1936, "Spendthrift" opposite Henry Fonda and with Raoul Walsh at the helm before traveling to England to shoot three more films that year. It was there while filming the romantic drama "The Amazing Adventure" opposite Cary Grant that she would fall in love and become engaged to her leading man. What a lucky girl! Unfortunately their love affair would not last just like many of Mary's other engagements throughout the years with other actors including Jack Pickford, one of Hollywood's most blatant and unapologetic womanizers of the day. From what I've read he made Errol Flynn's antics look like child's play. Mary was also engaged to actor Dick Powell for a short period of time during the 1930's.
With Bruce Cabot in "Shadows of Sing Sing" 1933
By the time 1937 rolled around Mary was back from England and mending a broken heart while trying to find work at the ripe old age of 31 (over the hill by early Hollywood standards.) With her work ethic and resume she landed a few B movies to pay the bills. The first being the comedy "Navy Blues" co-starring Dick Purcell then the comedy drama "Affairs of Cappy Ricks" starring Walter Brennon and Lyle Talbot. I've been sitting here for the past 10 minutes trying to think of an actress that's 31 working today and I've got nothing! I think I'm getting old over here in my 40's because the one's I assumed were around that age are all closer to 40 and to make a point they are all working and at the beginning of their careers. Things certainly have changed in Hollywood and for the better. I can only imagine the amazing performances we would have been exposed to if actresses had not been pushed aside in their 30's to make way for young starlets.
Mary would take a few years off from making movies and not return until 1943. During that time she did find love and married magazine illustrator, Jon Whitcomb. Sadly, their marriage would last only six weeks before an annulment. She did find happiness during her downtime while touring and entertaining the troops during WWII which would take her back to Europe and then to the South Pacific.
Brian's first picture in 1943 was for Hal Roach Studio's. The comedy titled "Caboose", another of the studio's 'Streamliner' western comedies starred Jimmy Rogers and Noah Beery Jr., a forgettable little film. Fortunately she would have better success with the mystery drama "I Escaped from the Gestapo" which co-starred Dean Jagger and John Carradine. She would then rap up 1943 with another comedy which she was successful at "Danger! Women at Work" opposite the zany Patsy Kelly. I haven't been lucky enough to see this one but with the description '3 women inherit a 10-ton truck and decide to go into business together' then with Patsy Kelly in it I feel like I'm missing out.
By the mid 1940's Mary had found her niche on the stage as she traveled with the play "Mary Had a Little.... " over the next two years. She would then return to the silver screen one more time in 1947 for "Dragnet" playing Anne Hogan opposite Henry Wilcoxson as Inspector James. That same year she married for a second time to film editor George Tomasini. They would remain married until his death in 1964.
With Jackie Oakie and Gary Cooper in "Paramount on Parade" 1930
Mary transitioned to television appearances during the 1950's like so many of her fellow actors, starring in several episodes of "Meet Corliss Archer" where she played Janet Archer. She passed away at the age of 96 from heart failure after a successful Hollywood career that included close to 80 films. Her resting place at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills can be viewed HERE. She was buried next to her first husband George Tomasini.
Thanks for joining me for a look back at Mary Brian's career and please enjoy her great film with Cary Grant "The Amazing Adventure" below. She really was stunning in it even at the old age of 30!
Cliff, being the walking encyclopedia that he is on all things Warren William has not only seen "Skyscraper Souls" that I mentioned but he also wrote a very detailed and fantastic article about it which I've linked to on the sidebar. Thanks Cliff!