WWI veteran George O’Brien became a star in Hollywood with his breakout performance in John Ford’s silent film epic, The Iron Horse. Handsome and built like the top athlete he was, O’Brien appeared in 11 more Ford movies and 85 films altogether, a successful career punctuated by voluntary and selfless distinction in two more wars, WWII and Korea. O’Brien represented all that was best in Hollywood and in America, which perhaps explains why he is forgotten today by a different Hollywood and a different America.
George J. O’Brien came into the world in April 1899 in San Francisco. His father was Daniel J. O’Brien and his mother Margaret (née Donahue) O’Brien, both born into Irish immigrant families.
George was one day shy of his seventh birthday when, early on the morning of April 18, 1906, an earthquake unlike anything San Franciscans had ever experienced struck. George was hurled out of bed and landed on the floor 15 feet away. His mother looked out the window of their two-story brownstone house and exclaimed, “The street has burst open! People are running from their houses.”
The rumbling and quaking continued for some time, and then there was an eerie silence. By then the O’Briens were in the street, and their house was crumpling. With a low rumble, the quaking began again. Despite the danger, Dan ran back in to retrieve the wedding ring Margaret had left behind. George would later describe his father as extraordinarily calm throughout the earthquake and the aftermath. George was shocked by what he saw in the streets—dying people half buried in rubble and pleading for help, familiar landmarks obliterated, corpses in grotesque positions, gas lines exploding in balls of fire.
San Francisco gradually recovered from the great quake and fire of 1906 and so, too, did the O’Brien family. Dan became a policeman, rapidly rising through the ranks to eventually become chief of police. “It was my luck to have a wonderful father,” said George.
He knew how to manage a boy. He showed me what was what, and then gave me my head, with full liberty to make an ass of myself if I felt like it. His life and standards gave me plenty to live up to.
By the time George arrived at San Francisco’s Polytechnic High his physical prowess was already well known. He became the star receiver on the football team and an all-state guard in basketball, and lettered in track and swimming. In his spare time he learned to ride, rope, and bulldog on a family friend’s ranch near Los Gatos.
Many a college, especially Santa Clara University, wanted George in pads on the gridiron, but with the United States engaged in WWI, George went to a recruiting office to join the Navy after graduating from high school.
George excelled in his service aboard the submarine chaser SC-397. He earned several different ratings and the Navy Commendation Medal. While stationed at San Diego after the war ended, he boxed his way through a series of bouts to become light heavyweight champion of the Pacific Fleet. He was mustered out of service at the end of August 1919.
He enrolled in the Jesuit-founded Santa Clara University, California’s oldest institution of higher learning. At 6 feet and a very muscular 190 pounds, O’Brien looked as if Phidias had sculpted him. While he excelled in football, his academics languished. Then, at a rodeo, he met Tom Mix, Hollywood’s cowboy star. Mix asked him what he did and when he replied “student,” Mix asked, “A student of what?”
“Oh, I play football for Santa Clara, but I want to be a doctor,” O’Brien said. “I’m taking a pre-medical course. I’ve got a long way to go—maybe eight years, and then I don’t know.”
Mix knew O’Brien had served in the Navy and told him if he ever decided to leave school and go to work he should come to Hollywood and look him up. At the end of his first year at Santa Clara, George said goodbye to his professors and headed to Hollywood. When he arrived, he learned Mix was on location in Oklahoma, but George found work as an assistant cameraman at $15 a week. “Assistant” meant doing every grunt job imaginable, but he was excited to be a part of making movies and he was learning a trade. He lived at the Hollywood YMCA, sharing an $11-a-month room with another assistant cameraman.
He found additional work as a stuntman and an extra. However, after two years of this, George grew discouraged and headed back home to San Francisco, where his father was now the toast of the town. When Dan O’Brien had become the city’s chief of police in 1920, he immediately began implementing innovative programs that won widespread praise and greatly improved the department and policing.
George O’Brien would have been a natural for the cops, but decided instead to go to sea. While waiting on a wharf before boarding a ship bound for Hawaii, he bumped into Hobart Bosworth, an actor, director, and producer he knew. “Why the seafaring get-up, George?” Bosworth asked. “Working on a picture?” O’Brien told him he was embarking to Honolulu, and Hobart understood by O’Brien’s dejected tone the young man had given up on Hollywood. Bosworth pulled George into a fight scene he was shooting for a tale of the high seas, telling George, “Get in there and show those birds how to fight.” O’Brien worked on the movie until it was completed three weeks later and was given a second small part in Bosworth’s next movie.
More movies and bit parts followed. O’Brien was earning $25 a day and now known as an actor. His handsome visage, physique, and athletic prowess got him an audition for the lead in Ben-Hur. For a time it looked as if he might get the part. His high hopes were dashed when the studio decided it needed a name actor. He was so disappointed he thought of returning to San Francisco and joining the SFPD.
He stayed in Hollywood, though, and worked regularly in small roles, usually as a sailor or a cowboy. In 1924 John Ford was hired by Fox Studios to make a Western epic to top all others, a story about the building of the transcontinental railroad titled The Iron Horse. Dozens auditioned for the lead role of Davy Brandon but Ford remained unsatisfied. Fox finally sent O’Brien over for an audition. Ford rigorously tested O’Brien in several scenes and was happy with what he saw, especially a fight scene that had O’Brien vaulting onto a horse after pummeling an enemy. O’Brien’s vault was as good as any stuntman’s but when he hit the saddle the cinch broke and O’Brien hit the ground hard. Nonetheless, he immediately sprang to his feet and was ready for action. Ford was sold.
The Iron Horse was both a critical and commercial success, making George O’Brien a star overnight. He and John Ford became fast friends. They were both Irish Catholics, former star football players, lovers of the sea, and American patriots. They were very different in other ways. Ford smoked and drank, often to excess, and would experience periods of alcoholic depression and rage. O’Brien was a physical fitness buff, who shunned drinking and smoking and, because he was on screen, thought it important he set a good example for the youth of America.
George O’Brien’s great success with John Ford in The Iron Horse meant top directors now demanded O’Brien for leading roles. From 1924 through 1928 he starred in 24 movies and, in addition to John Ford, worked with such directors as Emmett Flynn, Jack Conway, Howard Hawks, F. W. Murnau, Allan Dwan, and Michael Curtiz.
By 1928 and 1929 the studios were abandoning “silents” for “talkies” after the success of The Jazz Singer late in 1927. Some stars didn’t have the voice to make the transition. O’Brien had a voice rich in timbre and resonance and made the transition easily. His first all-sound movie was Salute, a tribute to West Point and Annapolis and the football rivalry between the academies. Directed by John Ford, O’Brien plays West Point’s star halfback. The movie is mostly forgettable, but it does have scenes with a couple of football players from the University of Southern California who would go on to become stars in their own right, John Wayne and Ward Bond. From 1929 through 1940, O’Brien starred in nearly 50 films, mostly B-movie Westerns. When he wasn’t a cowboy, he was a cop, or a soldier, or a sailor. He became a husband in real life in 1933 when he married actress Marguerite Churchill. Their first son died shortly after birth, while their daughter became a member of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and their second son a prize-winning novelist.
Shortly after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, George O’Brien reenlisted in the Navy. A 41-year-old veteran of WWI, O’Brien could have chosen to avoid service and continue his Hollywood career. Initially, he was assigned to San Diego to improve training regimens for recruits, but he later served in amphibious operations in landings on Japanese-held islands in the Pacific, including Attu, Saipan, and Leyte. He was in the thick of the battles as an officer in charge of a unit that was responsible for ensuring landing craft actually got onto the beaches. He ended the war at the rank of commander.
After the war, O’Brien was reduced to character roles, but those included playing cavalry officers in two of John Ford’s greatest Westerns, Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). “I was slowly but surely rebuilding my second career in films when the trouble in Korea started,” O’Brien said. “Maybe it was my inner sense of loyalty…but whatever it was forced me to again abort my career in films and resume the life of an officer in the Navy.” O’Brien served in an intelligence unit and later in the 1950s as a naval attaché to NATO before finally retiring in 1960 as a captain.
At age 65, O’Brien appeared in his final movie, the John Ford-directed, Cheyenne Autumn. He died in 1985 and was buried in a Navy ceremony at sea off San Diego.
Image Credit: above: George O’Brien in John Ford’s classic silent film The Iron Horse, 1924 (Fox Film Corporation / Alamy Stock Photo)