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George Joseph O'Brien

1899 - 1985


(From Old Corral image collection)


Special thanks to guest commentator Paul Dellinger for authoring the narrative below on George O'Brien.



(From Old Corral image collection)

O'Brien wore buckskins and carried a flintlock in DANIEL BOONE (George Hirliman/RKO, 1936), the first of his four films for producer George Hirliman.


(From Old Corral image collection)

THE RENEGADE RANGER (RKO, 1938) included Ray Whitley, a young Tim Holt in an early film role, and a young Rita Hayworth as the female lead.




Western movie star George O'Brien (1899-1985) started out and ended up working for director John Ford, with a long detour for movie series at Fox and RKO plus one strange little outing with none other than The Three Stooges. His RKO image was often as the husky, dark-clad cowboy with his hat tilted rackishly to one side, riding a horse named Mike, and with a ready grin, even in the face of adversity. One example comes in MARSHAL OF MESA CITY, when he gets the drop on some would-be stagecoach robbers and makes them unmask their faces: "I don't blame you for keeping them covered", he chuckles.

Ray Whitley, one of O'Brien's co-stars at RKO, once said at a film convention that he and O'Brien came to a friendly parting of the ways over Whitley's musical interludes. He said O'Brien told him he thought people came to his movies expecting action, and he intended to give it to them, so the musical numbers would be out.

Lash LaRue said he patterned his original black outfit, in the Eddie Dean outing, SONG OF OLD WYOMING , on that of George O'Brien, whose movies he admired. LaRue wears a white bandana with the dark outfit, as O'Brien frequently did; in his future outings, he would wear a black bandana but the likeness to O'Brien's 'uniform' is easily seen in that first western with LaRue.

Tim Holt was also one of O'Brien's co-stars, in fact having the title role in THE RENEGADE RANGER (which also starred a young Rita Hayworth). Holt went on to succeed O'Brien in RKO's westerns and become that studio's last western series star.

Born April 19, 1899, in San Francisco, O'Brien was the son of a policeman and future police chief. A natural athlete, he learned horseback riding early and played football, baseball, track and swimming while attending Polytechnic High School and Santa Clara College. During his Navy service in World War I, he won the light-heavyweight Pacific fleet boxing title. No wonder he won all those on-screen fights.

O'Brien emerged from the war with five decorations for bravery under fire, as a stretcher-bearer. He returned to college but found himself more interested in visiting the nearby Fox Studio where he struck up an acquaintance with Charles Gebhart, later better known as Buck Jones, who helped him get a job there.

O'Brien became an assistant cameraman on some Tom Mix movies (at $15 a week) and was soon doing stunt work at Fox. After supporting roles in various silents, he was tested by John Ford for an epic western, THE IRON HORSE (1924) and got the role. He also got a ten-year Fox contract.

More than twenty starring roles at Fox quickly followed, but in dramas rather than westerns, until 1926 when he was reunited with Ford in THREE BAD MEN. Other non-westerns followed, including the acclaimed drama SUNRISE (1927), directed by F. W. Murnau, which landed an Oscar for camera work. It was 1930 when he got back to such westerns as THE LONE STAR RANGER and LAST OF THE DUANES, based on Zane Grey books, and, in 1931, FAIR WARNING and A HOLY TERROR, based on Max Brand stories.

After that, the westerns began outnumbering the dramas, comedies and adventure movies: RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE (1931) and, in 1932, THE RAINBOW TRAIL, THE GAY CABALLERO, MYSTERY RANCH and THE GOLDEN WEST. The following year brought ROBBERS' ROOST, SMOKE LIGHTNING, LIFE IN THE RAW and THE LAST TRAIL.

In 1934, O'Brien starred in FRONTIER MARSHAL, one of the many re-tellings of the Wyatt Earp story as novelized by Stuart N. Lake. It was also his last film made directly by Fox, which was in some financial hot water.

O'Brien's next batch of films were produced by Sol Lesser, with Fox doing the releasing, and these were westerns alternating with the occasional drama or adventure movie --- THE DUDE RANGER, WHEN A MAN'S A MAN, THE COWBOY MILLIONAIRE, THUNDER MOUNTAIN, HARD ROCK HARRIGAN, WHISPERING SMITH SPEAKS and O'MALLEY OF THE MOUNTED. THE BORDER PATROLMAN in 1936 marked the end of O'Brien's work for Lesser.

O'Brien then connected with producer George Hirliman for a quartet of films, the first of which was the 1936 DANIEL BOONE, followed in 1937 with PARK AVENUE LOGGER, HOLLYWOOD COWBOY, and the non-western WINDJAMMER. Hirliman then sold O'Brien's contract, and his subsequent films were made directly by RKO.

Ray Whitley became O'Brien's singing sidekick starting in 1938 with GUN LAW, BORDER G-MAN, THE PAINTED DESERT (the last two with Laraine Day as the leading lady), and THE RENEGADE RANGER in which Tim Holt joined Whitley in support of O'Brien. But both sidekicks were absent in LAWLESS VALLEY, which completed the year.

ARIZONA LEGION opened the 1939 season, with Laraine Day back and Chill Wills joining the cast as Whopper, a role that would be passed along to other RKO sidekicks in the Holts. Whitley and Wills (this time as a character named Tombstone) both returned in TROUBLE IN SUNDOWN, but then it was Wills alone as Whopper in RACKETEERS OF THE RANGE and TIMBER STAMPEDE, after which he vanished. Next came THE FIGHTING GRINGO (in which O'Brien as a freelance do-gooder had a whole posse of sidekicks) and MARSHAL OF MESA CITY, yet another version of the Wyatt Earp story with a differently-named marshal (Henry Brandon played Duke, who corresponded to Doc Holliday). Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Vale were the major feminine leads.

In TIMBER STAMPEDE, Robert Fiske plays a hired gunman sporting a brace of stag-handled pistols and,in MARSHAL OF MESA CITY, Brandon starts out as a hired gunman with a brace of pearl-handled pistols. But O'Brien stuck to the single plain pistol, worn with the holster tilted slightly forward in the style John Wayne would popularize in later movies like RIO BRAVO.

LEGION OF THE LAWLESS ushered in 1940, followed by BULLET CODE, PRAIRIE LAW, STAGE TO CHINO and TRIPLE JUSTICE, all with Virginia Vale and without sidekicks, singing or otherwise. That ended the O'Brien series at RKO because, by then, he (soon to be joined by his successor, Tim Holt) was back in the service for World War II. The studio had to issue a news release to explain to irate fans where their hero had gone.

O'Brien served in the Navy through early 1946, initially in a recruit training command and later, as a "Beachmaster" involved in a dozen or more island invasions.  He stayed in the Naval Reserve and was back on active duty during Korea and Vietnam.

His marriage to Marguerite Churchill was a casualty of his military duty, and they divorced in 1948.  Churchill and O'Brien appeared together in one film, RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE (Fox, 1931). They had married in 1933 and had three children. Daughter Orin is a world-renowned bassist with the New York Philharmonic and you can find more on her in the links section. Son Darcy was a professor of English at the University of Tulsa from 1978-1996.  He also was a best-selling author and his books include Murder in Little Egypt and Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers. Darcy passed away in March, 1998, and more info on him is in the links section on a subsequent webpage. The O'Brien's first child was a son, but the infant contracted pneumonia and passed away in June, 1934 when he was ten days old.



(Courtesy of Les Adams)
On the left are leading lady Marguerite Churchill (1910 - 2000) and John Wayne in a publicity pose from Raoul Walsh's epic THE BIG TRAIL (Fox, 1930), Wayne's first starring film.

Churchill and O'Brien met during the filming of RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE (Fox, 1931) and they were married from 1933 - 1948.

In a July, 1948 newspaper article about their divorce, Churchill is quoted as saying "that his war experiences had changed her husband radically ..." and the article also notes that "the actress won custody of their two children, and got half the community property ..."



(From Old Corral image collection)

Above - George O'Brien vs. Victor McLaglen in a lobby card from the John Ford directed THE FIGHTING HEART (Fox, 1925). This was one of about a dozen John Ford films in which O'Brien worked (that number includes several military documentaries in which O'Brien did the narration).



(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above center are George O'Brien and Janet Chandler with Chief John Big Tree on the left and Bill Hazlet/Chief Many Treaties on the right in a scene from THE GOLDEN WEST (Fox, 1932).


O'Brien retired from the Navy as a Captain.

In between his Naval stints, he made four more movies: MY WILD IRISH ROSE (1947), starring Dennis Morgan and Arlene Dahl; two John Wayne/John Ford classics, FORT APACHE (1948) and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949), and the 1951 western-comedy, GOLD RAIDERS, co-starring the Three Stooges. In that movie, it appeared that O'Brien was transported back in time to 1940 when his RKO series ended; he still handled the action well.

His last appearance on the big screen came in another John Ford star-studded epic, CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964).

In Leo Miller's book, THE GREAT COWBOY STARS (1979, Arlington House Publishers), O'Brien said he does not think much of the westerns being made at that time, the anti-hero spaghetti westerns, for example. Asked about his favorite western actors for that time, he named John Wayne for movies, and James Arness and Richard Boone for television. Quite a few fans would list him as a favorite as well.

George O'Brien passed away on September 4, 1985, in the Franciscan Villa, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. He had been a resident of the nursing home since a stroke left him partially paralyzed in 1979.

Go to the In Search Of ... page on the Old Corral and check the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). There you will find a record for: George O'Brien, issued in California, born April 19, 1899 and passed away September, 1985 in Oklahoma.

The Motion Picture Herald and Boxoffice polls were conducted from about the mid 1930s through the mid 1950s.  With a few exceptions, the annual results would list the 'Top Ten' (or 'Top Five') cowboy film stars. In most cases, the winners were what you would expect --- Autry, Rogers, Holt, Starrett, Hoppy, etc. George O'Brien was also a popular cowboy movie hero.


Popularity Rankings of George O'Brien
Year Motion Picture Herald
Poll Ranking
Boxoffice
Poll Ranking
1936 2nd Boxoffice poll didn't start until 1937
1937 5th 2nd
1938 4th 3rd
1939 4th 3rd
1940 4th 4th



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