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Subject: Archive: Johnny Mack Brown, Nov. 14, 1974

Cowboy actor
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Date Posted: Tuesday, November 14, 12:26:48pm

John Mack Brown gained renown as a key player on the football team of the University of Alabama from 1923-5. From the university, he moved almost immediately into the beginnings of a stellar career in silent films. Young, handsome, and personable, he co-starred with the major actresses of MGM Studios. His weak acting in sound films, however, ended his career with the studio. Several years after leaving MGM, he became established as a star of series westerns. Stardom in B-westerns brought him lasting fame and appreciation from western film fans.


John Mack Brown came into films by way of college football. He was a star halfback (1923-1925) at the University of Alabama, leading them to a Rose Bowl win on January 1, 1926. The handsome young athlete met character actor George Fawcett, who was in Alabama making a movie. Fawcett developed a friendship with Brown and suggested that he take a screen test. Subsequently, Brown was invited to take the test. The producers at MGM saw potential and offered him a contract.

In April 1927, Brown debuted with a small part in Slide, Kelly, Slide, starring William Haines. After a few more small roles, he was cast as Marion Davies' love interest in her amusing sports comedy, The Fair Co-Ed (1927). The year 1928 was his most notable at MGM. In January, he appeared with Greta Garbo in The Divine Woman (a lost film). In September he co-starred with Joan Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters. In December, Brown co-starred with Norma Shearer in Lady of Chance, and with Garbo in Woman of Affairs. The personable and handsome young actor complimented his beautiful co-stars. Audience response was positive.


In 1929, Brown made only one film at MGM, appearing with Garbo in The Single Standard, a silent film. His other four films were loan-outs in minor parts, except for his talkie debut as the love interest of Mary Pickford in Coquette.
After a year making talkies for other studios, Brown returned to MGM. The films he made in 1930-1931 were his opportunity to secure his status as a leading man. In Montana Moon (1930), his westerner tames jazz baby easterner, Joan Crawford, but audience response was tepid. His next film, King Vidor's Billy the Kid (1930), represented Brown's best chance for a box office success.

MGM approved the project on condition that Vidor cast Brown as Billy and Wallace Berry as Pat Garrett. The film, an expensive production, was shot in a wide-screen process known as Realife. Brown is satisfactory as Billy, generally holding his own versus scene-stealing Beery, handling the action scenes with ease, and delicately romancing the heroine. Mediocre box-office response to the film damaged his prospects at the studio. His next film, The Great Meadow (1931), was slow, poorly scripted, stolidly acted, and boring, and was a box-office dud. Brown's final MGM film, The Secret Six (1931), was a winner, but he did not benefit. His character is killed before the conclusion, and one of his co-stars, the rapidly rising Clark Gable, received more studio and public attention.

In 1931, Brown had starred in a fifth film, but his version was never released. The film, Complete Surrender, co-starring Joan Crawford, was received poorly by preview audiences. The script was altered and the film, now called Laughing Sinners, was reshot with Clark Gable in Brown's original role.

Due to his success in its silent films, MGM gave Brown a build-up as a star of sound films. However, audience response to Brown was weak. His four released films did unsatisfactory business at the box-office. Consequently, he was dropped by the studio.


After separating from MGM, Brown was not offered a contract by another studio. He freelanced and accepted parts as they were offered. His first role was a substantial part in The Last Flight (1931), one of the most interesting films of the early thirties. He had supporting roles with Joe E. Brown at Warner Bros. and Mae West at Paramount. He starred in films by poverty row studios, such as Chadwick, Mayfair and Mascot. For Mascot he made a serial, Fighting with Kit Carson (1933). He made his second serial Rustlers of Red Dog (1935) for Universal.

In 1935, he signed with Supreme Pictures and made sixteen low-budget, series westerns. For the westerns his name was changed from "John" to the less formal "Johnny". He remained "Johnny" for the rest of his life. Another period of freelancing followed the western series. During this period, he made a couple of serials, co-starred with John Wayne in Born to the West (1937), and appeared briefly in the Joel McCrae starrer Wells Fargo (1937).


Brown's career settled into a permanent form in 1939 when he signed a contract with Universal to make series westerns. Fuzzy Knight was Brown's comic sidekick for most of these films. During the 1942-1943 season, the addition of Tex Ritter produced a pairing of cowboys with southern accents. Joseph H. Lewis, soon to work with bigger budgets and better scripts, directed several of the Universals. Robert Mitchum, playing a bad guy in one of his early roles, has a rousing barroom slugfest with Brown in The Lone Star Trail (1943). In 1943, Universal decreased its output of B westerns and did not renew Brown's contract. Brown had made four serials and 28 series westerns with the company.

Fortunately for Brown, Monogram Pictures needed a cowboy star for a new western series. The studio was replacing two cowboy stars, Tim McCoy (who had gone into military service) and Buck Jones (who had died in a tragic fire). Brown's new sidekick, Raymond Hatton, a film veteran, had been the sidekick of McCoy and Jones. From 1943 to 1952, Brown made 66 series westerns for Monogram.

In addition to his series westerns, Brown also made several higher budget films. He starred in Flame of the West (1945) that was produced as a Monogram special with relatively high production values and longer running time (71 min compared to the usual 60 min). The film co-stars Douglass Dumbrille, a more important and polished actor than the typical actor of a series western. Brown plays a supporting role to star Rod Cameron in two Allied Artists features, Stampede (1949) and Short Grass (1950). Allied Artist was a Monogram affiliated company and produced the studio's better-quality films.


Production of low budget series westerns was ending in the early 1950s as Brown was completing his contract with Monogram. Nearing fifty, his active film career was at an end. Thereafter, Brown made a few appearances in film or on television. He is a poker player in the bizarre, Ken Murray-produced film The Marshal's Daughter (1953). He acted in one episode each of three TV series, Official Detective (1957), Perry Mason (1958) and Tales of Wells Fargo (1958).
In 1965, Brown appeared in three final films. The supporting casts of these films featured senior, experienced western actors, such as Richard Arlen, Buster Crabbe, Tim McCoy, Don Barry and Brown. Producer Alex Gordon closed out ten years of low-budget, independent production with two westerns that included Brown in the cast: Requiem for a Gunfighter and Bounty Killer. At this same time, A. C. Lyles Productions was turning out numerous low-budget westerns for Paramount Studios. Brown had a small part in Lyles' Apache Uprising.


Brown was born September 1, 1904 in the small town of Dothan, Alabama. The second in a family of nine children, he enjoyed a happy and stable childhood. After graduation from high school (where he was voted handsomest boy in his junior and senior years), he attended the University of Alabama. During his three years as a halfback on the football team he was known as the "Dothan Antelope". He scored two touchdowns in Alabama's win over favored Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl.
During his lifetime, Brown's football achievements were honored by induction into the College Football Hall of Fame (1957) and the State of Alabama Sports Hall of Fame (1969).
In 1926, Brown graduated from Alabama, married his college sweetheart, Cornelia Foster, and signed a contract with MGM. In early 1927, the young couple moved to California. They had four children, all born in Beverly Hills. Their family life was socially active, but relatively conservative and uneventful. Brown enjoyed playing tennis, dancing, and hunting.
During his early years in film, the athletic Brown played in the polo games organized at the Pacific Palisades ranch of actor and humorist Will Rogers. Jeanette MacDonald, a family friend, was a frequent visitor at their home. Brown and Connie were members of the wedding party at the marriage of MacDonald and Gene Raymond (June 1937).
Johnny Mack Brown died November 14, 1974 at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital, Woodland Hills, California. He was 70 years old.

Brown's career started at the highest level in Hollywood. After a few preparatory roles, he was cast as the co-star of some of MGM's most important actresses. Although lacking acting experience, he quickly mastered the acting techniques used in silent films. Tall, handsome, rather sensitive looking, he was a good type for a silent film leading man.

The advent of talking pictures required new acting techniques, most importantly the actor had to project his thoughts and personality through spoken techniques. During the two years after the films became talking, MGM gave Brown the opportunity to improve his acting skills and to develop audience support. It did not happen. The talkies revealed his southern accent and gentlemanly, but rather soft and vulnerable, manner that lacked the urban accents and forcefulness of Gable or the sophisticated, worldly tones and demeanor of Robert Montgomery. His acting was generally stiff, and he emoted weakly. Although he was young and handsome, he did not project a lot sex appeal. The studio gave him a build-up as a westerner. However Montana Moon and The Great Meadow are dull films, poorly directed with slow story development, stiff acting, and stilted dialogue. Billy the Kid, directed by King Vidor, is superior to both of them, and under Vidor's direction, Brown's acting is more dynamic and genuine. However, the public was not interested in large-scale westerns in 1930, and the film was only moderately successful. When the studio paired him with Joan Crawford in an urban setting, the result was unsatisfactory, and MGM gave up on him.
During his years of freelancing Brown's appearance matured. His looks hardened, his voice deepened, and he gained weight. These changes eliminated the rather soft and vulnerable demeanor of his youth and produced a good-looking, resolute hero of B-westerns.

The characterizations and dialogue of series westerns did not require a great deal of acting ability. The western star needed to look good in western outfits, speak clearly, ride a horse confidently, and fist fight realistically. Brown was proficient in all these areas. He practiced gun handling and had a fast draw and could spin a gun expertly. He had excellent horseback riding skills. He was terrific at fake, but realistic looking, fist fighting. He spent 17 years in B-westerns and was always a fan favorite.

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