George O'Brien

Fedora
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Fedora
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Joined: September 14th, 2014, 9:54 pm

January 9th, 2017, 5:50 am #1

George O'Brien ranks as one of my favorite cowboys. He was handsome, charismatic and a real life war hero (having served in 4 wars, no less!)
Whilst I'm a big fan of his non western Whispering Smith Speaks (and its virtual clone, Park Avenue Logger), I really enjoyed his RKO series. Comprising 16 entries, I found them to be polished productions which tapped into the 'marketability of George O'Brien' (ie there was a dash of humor). The RKO signing (wherein he moved over from Universal's Sol Lesser Productions) must have caused ructions within the 'B' western 'studio hoping' community (especially with Howard Hughes' big, fat cheque book never far away). I notice that along with George O'Brien's studio switch, his regular (and most successful) director David Howard appears to have followed. But upon landing at RKO, the pair met up with an ace cinematographer (and Oscar nominee) Harry J. Wild - and the latter's superb work is up there on the screen for everyone to see
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Bert Greene
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Bert Greene
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Joined: December 1st, 2005, 7:07 pm

January 9th, 2017, 7:20 am #2

I'm certainly a big George O'Brien fan. In fact, his Sol Lesser feature "When a Man's a Man" (1935) is probably my all-time favorite b-western. In its own little, easy-going way, it encapsulates what I love about the genre. O'Brien had such a likeable mix of dry humor and quiet-but-confident strength in just about all his films, and I seem to enjoy and appreciate his performances more and more as each year goes by. Some of his earlier Fox films are just amazing, like "Riders of the Purple Sage" and the great horror-western "Mystery Ranch" (which I have an original window-card to, up on my wall). His RKO's, while more modest, are still extremely entertaining in their own right. Most people seem to cite "Marshal of Mesa City" as the standout, but I'm rather partial to "Stage to Chino," which is just non-stop fun.

But our RiddleRider is the gent to answer all things O'Brien, as he got info right from the source himself. I had the good fortune later on to be at RR's screening of "Riders of the Purple Sage" at a Cinecon in the early-1990s, when he hosted George's son Darcy, and RKO leading lady Virginia Vale (who still looked lovely). Great memories of that event.
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Sgt King
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Sgt King
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Joined: September 6th, 2005, 4:51 am

January 9th, 2017, 8:28 am #3

I really like George O'Brien too. I think I have all of his Fox westerns but they're all sub-par quality. Will we ever see these in good prints??
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The Batman
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The Batman
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Joined: September 4th, 2005, 5:34 pm

January 9th, 2017, 3:34 pm #4


I've only seen George O'Brien in two films, SUNRISE (great movie) and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (it was OK), but have just ordered 3 BAD MEN.

Any other recommendations?


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riddlerider
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riddlerider
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Joined: November 27th, 2005, 5:15 am

January 9th, 2017, 9:52 pm #5

I hardly know where to begin.

George O'Brien was a childhood favorite of mine, one of the few "B" Western stars I saw regularly on TV. One of the local independent stations in New York City, WOR-TV, owned the RKO package and ran the O'Brien and Tim Holt Westerns regularly. When I started collecting 16mm in the early '70s I made a point of going after as many O'Briens as I could find. Bill Everson was also a big O'Brien fan and occasionally scheduled those hard-to-see early Fox talkies for his weekly screenings at NYC's New School for Social Research. Bill's pal Alex Gordon had uncovered the surviving series entries while ramrodding 20th Century-Fox's preservation program, and he surreptitiously made 16mm copies of many films for Bill and himself (which eventually got him fired and escorted off the Fox lot by armed security guards — but that's another story).

When I accepted the responsibility of mounting the 1979 Cinecon to be held in New York, I invited George to be the convention's Guest of Honor, and he graciously accepted. (I think I've told that story on another thread.) We became fast friends and stayed in touch with letters and phone calls. Based on the great time he'd had at Cinecon, in 1980 he accepted an invitation to attend that year's Memphis Film Festival, which reunited him with three-time leading lady Cecilia Parker. I beamed with pride when he introduced me to her as "my old friend."

George invited me to visit him in Los Angeles and offered to let me go through the memorabilia he kept in a storage unit. But before I could take advantage of that invitation, he had the crippling stroke that kept him pretty much bed-ridden for the remainder of his life. His son Darcy, who taught at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa, had George brought to a local nursing home where he could visit. I sent a couple cards and later toyed with the idea of going out to visit him, but I heard he was not always lucid during those final years so ultimately decided against it.

I have been extremely fortunate in meeting most of my film favorites — that is, most of those that were still alive and ambulatory once I started attending the conventions and writing about movies. The vast majority of those meetings have been pleasant but limited. In some cases, though, they blossomed into genuine friendships. And I treasure my friendship with George — brief though it was — more than any other relationship I've had with Hollywood people of that vintage. He was always willing to reminisce about his movie-making days but we discussed many other things as well and he took an almost fatherly interest in me, encouraging me to continue writing and even telling a mutual friend that he worried I was gaining too much weight. (Which I was.)

Fedora mentions Whispering Smith Speaks. That's a particular favorite of mine because it best represents George's true personality — breezy, humorous, self-deprecating, quick with a quip. He was a long-winded storyteller and jokingly referred to himself as "a man of few thousand words." A single question posed to him at the '79 Cinecon — "How did you get the part in John Ford's The Iron Horse?" — elicited an hour-long answer. But the audience hung on every word.

Once again I find myself in perfect agreement with Bert Greene. I consider Riders of the Purple Sage and Mystery Ranch to be the best of George's early Fox talkies, and When a Man's a Man tied with Whispering Smith Speaks for top honors among the eight Fox-distributed films he made for Sol Lesser's Atherton Productions. I too am partial to Stage to Chino, albeit for sentimental reasons: it was the first of George's RKO films I obtained in 16mm, and I screened it at least a half-dozen times for various people.

Batman asks for recommendations. You can't go wrong with the two sets of RKOs available from Warner Archive. Marshal of Mesa City, a remake of The Arizonian (a 1935 Richard Dix RKO) is excellent. I'm also strong on Lawless Valley, Timber Stampede, and Racketeers of the Range. But, really, there isn't a stinker in the bunch, although some are weaker than others.

I wish we could get nice-looking copies of the early Fox Westerns (several of which are lost altogether) and the better Athertons, but it doesn't seem to be in the cards.
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The Batman
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The Batman
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Joined: September 4th, 2005, 5:34 pm

January 10th, 2017, 1:11 am #6


Thank you, RR, for the memories and the recommendations. I don't care if you have told these stories before, I love hearing them. Especially the ones about the stars we admire who turn out to be decent people.

Amazon North has both sets, the RKO Western one is a reasonable $30, great deal for 9 films, so I'm thinking I will go with that one for starters. The other set, containing 3 films, is going for about $75-80, a little pricey.

It's a shame that Marshal of Mesa City is on the expensive set. But, hey, we can't win them all.

Again, appreciate the feedback.


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Fedora
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Fedora
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Joined: September 14th, 2014, 9:54 pm

January 10th, 2017, 6:17 am #7

Fabulous writing from RR - thanks
It's so nice to hear about the real people behind the screen persona
These guys should have lived forever - and I guess they do ... of sorts, albeit on a big (or TV) screen
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Bert Greene
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Bert Greene
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Joined: December 1st, 2005, 7:07 pm

January 10th, 2017, 3:54 pm #8

The Warner archive series covers most of the O'Brien RKOs, but there are still a few outstanding, like "Gun Law," "Border G-Man," "Painted Desert," and "Racketeers of the Range.". I hope there's no problems with the elements, and WB can eventually release those as well. I do recall the released copy of "Trouble in Sundown," there was an instance where there was a mild quality dip for a singular reel in which they had to resort to a 16mm source.

As for the public-domain Lessers, the Alpha copy of "When a Man's a Man" is missing the first five minutes, in which O'Brien wakes up at home to the sound of movers taking away the furniture. Sinister Cinema's copy is complete. The latter also seems to have better copies than Alpha of "Cowboy Millionaire" and "Hollywood Cowboy," if I recall correctly. Lots of good, decent prints around of "The Dude Ranger."

I wish all the Fox films had circulating prints that looked as nice as Fox Archive's release of "The Seas Beneath.". The only one of the group I ever officially saw on television was "The Golden West," which seemed to be a part of that syndicated batch of 50 Pre-1935/merger Fox films that used to pop up on occasion. Lots of good action in that film, but I was never quite fond of it due to its choppily jarring time-span jump.

Still a fair number of O'brien's Fox films seem unavailable. I hope they're not as irretrievably lost as Ed seems to imply. One Fox oddity I've long been curious to see is O'Brien's non-western romantic comedy, "Ever Since Eve" (1934), co-starring Mary Brien. I have it checked off as existing, although it received a telling "not viewed" in the AFI 1930s books. I've long had an original little movie herald to the film, with inset photos, and to directly quote it's written blurb: "merry, speedy, romantic. Her wiles against their wits. Three crusty old gold-miners trying to protect their foster-son against a gold-digger's charms. But what chance has a mere man had... Ever since Eve? There's color...life... music... smartness... and laugh after resounding laugh.". Fox's advertising department wouldn't fool me, would it?
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