Between 1927 and 1953, Johnny Mack Brown made over 150 films. While he continued to make movies through 1966, he also made appearances on television. He’s remembered now for his series of low-budget westerns and serials that made big money for several “poverty row” studios. But for a while Brown was a big star at MGM and worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
Brown was an All-American halfback at the University of Alabama and hero of the 1920 Rose Bowl, where Alabama defeated Washington. Trailing 12-0 at halftime, Alabama changed its offensive strategy to utilize Brown’s pass-catching abilities. In the third quarter, Brown was on the receiving end of 61-yard and 38-yard touchdown pass plays. Alabama won the game and boasted a perfect 10-0 record for the season. Many assumed Brown would become a professional player, but he chose the silver screen over the football field when he graduated.
Signed to a contract by MGM in 1926, Brown debuted as himself in Slide, Kelly, Slide (1927) with William Haines in a hit film about baseball. This film was followed by The Bugle Call (1927), which starred Jackie Coogan.
After several more small parts in minor films, Brown landed the “leading man” role opposite MGM superstar Marion Davies in The Fair Co-Ed (1927), playing the basketball coach and love interest of Davies and her rival, played by Jane Winton. (This film seems to be currently making the rounds at silent film festivals and was recently screened in Los Angeles.) The film was a hit, and Brown’s career was off and running.
In 1928 Brown appeared in eight films. He landed roles opposite Greta Garbo in The Divine Woman (with Lars Hanson), the only Garbo film that is mainly lost: only one reel is known to survive (and the titles are in Russian). Brown co-starred again with Garbo in the terrific A Woman of Affairs (with John Gilbert) in a story that opens with the wild Diana (Garbo) driving recklessly down the road. Garbo’s character is a carefree woman who has loved Gilbert since childhood. She has a brother (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), a pampered youth who’s so bored with his life that his only satisfaction is boozing. To no avail, his friend (Brown) tries to stop him from his wicked ways. The film follows the loves of Diana and their sad outcomes until she simply becomes a woman of affairs. While Gilbert is the male star here, Brown has a solid role opposite Garbo.
Brown also nabbed a major role opposite Joan Crawford in the smash hit Our Dancing Daughters (the male lead). This is the film that made a star of Joan Crawford and features her famous and frantic tabletop Charleston. Although Crawford and her female co-stars (Anita Page, Dorothy Sebastian) take center stage, Brown is quite good as the wealthy but naïve man Page steals away from Crawford. Closing out 1928, Brown co-starred with Norma Shearer in her final silent film, A Lady of Chance. A movie star to her core, Shearer made sure she starred with every hot male property on the MGM lot.
In 1929 MGM cast Brown in another Garbo silent film, The Single Standard. This film examined one woman’s desire to be as sexually free as most men. This was the third and final film Brown made with Garbo.
1929 saw Brown in perhaps his most highly-visible role, starring with Mary Pickford in their talkie debut, Coquette. The film was a big hit; it won Pickford an Oscar and a ton of publicity. The Broadway play, starring Helen Hayes, ran for a year in the late 20s. Pickford hoped that this vehicle would be a solid entrance into the new sound medium as well as scuttle her “little Mary” image that had plagued her for years. Brown plays Michael and excels as the doomed boyfriend. He exhibits some real fireworks in the argument scene with Pickford’s father (the hammy John St. Polis) and has a very touching death scene. But the success of Coquette did not launch Brown toward major stardom.
Despite having a pleasing voice (although heavily accented), his good looks only carried him so far. By 1930 he had yet to really find his place at MGM where Clark Gable and Robert Montgomery were already winning the starring roles that Brown was up for, so he signed for a western with director King Vidor. But Vidor did not want him for Billy the Kid. Brown starred with the always-difficult Wallace Beery, and the set was not a happy one. Even though the picture was successful, Brown’s career at MGM was doomed after his re-teaming with Crawford in Montana Moon, a modern western that flopped. In it, Crawford escapes the lecherous Ricardo Cortez by bailing off a train in Montana and meeting up with Brown. They instantly fall in love and get married. But it turns out the ranch he works for is owned by her father. Worse, Crawford’s whole “crew” of young friends is at the ranch for an extended weekend party. Will Cortez win Crawford? Will Brown mix with the society friends? Audiences didn’t care.
Although his A-list stardom seemed derailed, in 1931 Brown was still going strong in films like The Secret Six, a gangster film that boasted a great cast: Beery, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, and Ralph Bellamy. The Great Meadow is an interesting “western” about the settling of Kentucky (with silent star Eleanor Boardman) and was Brown’s final film for MGM.
The Last Flight was a loan out to First National. It’s an amazing film in which Brown co-stars with the great Richard Barthelmess as members of the “lost generation” who wander around Europe looking for something to believe in. The film perfectly captures the Hemingway/Fitzgerald feeling of hopelessness after World War I and also boasts terrific performances. Barthelmess stars with the fragile Helen Chandler, Brown, David Manners, Elliott Nugent, and Walter Byron as a group that boozes its way from Paris to Lisbon following the war. Each has his/her wounds (physical or emotional) as they try to find their balance after the hideous war. Chandler’s remark whenever she’s confused or bored is “I’ll take vanilla.” The film is full of wry humor and a deep sadness that is palpable. Barthelmess is solid as always; Brown and Chandler are nothing short of superb. This is the first American film for German actor/director William Dieterle. But as good as The Last Flight is; it signaled the end of Brown’s starring roles in A-list films.
None of these 1931 films did well at the box office. Brown made only three films in 1932, all duds. And in 1933, Brown appeared in Female, a snappy film for Warners starring Ruth Chatterton (who was nearing the end of her reign as “queen of the lot” at First National/Warners). The film made money, but that seemed to be the end of his starring career in films since Chatterton’s husband, George Brent, got the male lead role in the film and Brown had only a few scenes.
It seemed like Brown was on his way out as a movie star, but he got the last laugh. Although he still appeared in occasional dramas like Belle of the Nineties with Mae West, after 1933 Brown made westerns almost exclusively, and they were for poverty-row studios like Mascot. Brown descended to westerns at even lower-rung Supreme Pictures and made serials (a format even lower in stature than B-films) like Wild West Days (1937) at Universal. In 1943 Brown moved to Monogram Pictures, where he made over 60 westerns. Although he was relegated to westerns and serials, Brown consistently ranked among the top ten moneymakers in westerns from 1942-50 and kept working for decades after his glory days at MGM. His cowboy character was so popular there was even a series of comic books based on the movies.
Unlike other movie cowboys like Roy Rogers, Brown didn’t take his act to television when the cowboy genre started to die out in movies. He made a few guest appearances on TV shows, but after 1953’s The Marshal’s Daughter, he semi-retired. Brown made a few more appearances in minor film roles in the 1960s; his final appearance was in 1966’s Apache Uprising.
Brown has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the College Football and Cowboy Halls of Fame. He died November 1, 1974 of heart failure in Woodland Hills, California, survived by his wife of 48 years and four children. His hometown of Dothan, Alabama holds an annual film festival in honor of their “Hollywood Hero”.