Cranky old-timer – even when young
Many Western fans will think first of Walter Brennan in his parts as cantankerous old-timer sidekick of John Wayne, his Groot in Red River and his Stumpy in Rio Bravo, and indeed, he was very good in those parts. But Brennan’s Western CV is far richer than that, and it stretched from tiny roles in Hoot Gibson silent Westerns of the 1920s right through to Alias Smith and Jones episodes in the 1970s. He was a versatile actor and you don’t win three Oscars and get nominated for another without being darn good in the business. For me, his very best Western appearance was as the scoundrel Judge Roy Bean in William Wyler’s The Westerner in 1940, one of the Oscar-winning performances. He was outstanding in that.
As a young man Brennan enlisted during the First World War and served in France, where it is said that exposure to mustard gas affected his vocal chords and left him with that trademark high reedy voice which would be beloved of later celebrity imitators. He made a lot of money in real estate in the 1920s but then lost it. So he started working as an extra at Universal, at $7.50 a day. His first Western was as Racing Spectator in Grandstand at Rodeo (uncredited) in Hoot Gibson’s The Calgary Stampede in 1925. After that he supported the likes of Jay Wilsey and Hal Taliaferro before the talkies came in and he got a part in The Fourth Horseman, a Tom Mix picture – well, almost a part: he was Toothless Town Drunk (uncredited).
Gradually, the parts got bigger. You can spot him in the excellent 1932 Law and Order, with Walter Huston and Harry Carey. True, he was only cleaning the spittoons in the saloon, but still. He was promoted to crooked sheriff, with a speaking part, in Texas Cyclone and Two-Fisted Law, Columbia Tim McCoy programmers – the first two of the seven times he acted with John Wayne. In fact he’d work eight times with Tim McCoy in the 1930s.
Brennan’s first big part in a Western came in 1935, when he was fourth-billed, after Miriam Hopkins, Edward G Robinson and Joel McCrea, as the eye-patched character Old Atrocity in Barbary Coast. He was only 41 then but already making a thing of the roguish old-timer. “That really set me up,” he said later.
Then he was one of the Three Godfathers (the old one, of course) in MGM’s talkie remake of 1936, and in ’37 he continued old-timering when he was second-billed as Gramp Hercules Flynn in the Alfred L Werker-directed Fox comedy Wild and Woolly.
He got a good part the following year in the Gary Cooper/Merle Oberon Samuel Goldwyn semi-Western The Cowboy and the Lady, and with Randolph Scott in The Texans at Paramount.
In 1939 (though it was not released till 1940) he got a strong role in Metro’s clunkily-titled ‘Northwest Passage’ (Book I — Rogers’ Rangers), as Hunk Marriner, a cranky old-timer, naturally. In that one he has the worst teeth ever seen on film. But he had what he later described as “the luckiest break in the world” when he was taking part in a fight scene and an actor accidentally kicked him in the teeth. Dentures solved the problem. “I looked all right off the set”, he said. “But when necessary I could take ’em out – and suddenly look about 40 years older.” He could also put in bad false ones as needed, as in Northwest Passage.
By 1940, Brennan could command parts in big pictures, though in supporting roles, rarely as lead. That year he was cast by Samuel Goldwyn as Judge Roy Bean in the William Wyler-directed The Westerner. Although Gary Cooper topped the billing, Coop’s part was curiously minor compared with that of Brennan, who definitely stole the show. Brennan’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (as indeed all his Oscars were) was in a way for ‘Best Actor’.
Brennan caught the ruthless steel under the ‘amusing old rogue’ persona brilliantly. He was certainly the best screen Bean of the many there have been. The Westerner was in fact the fourth time Brennan had acted with Coop and he would do it three more times, most notably, of course, in Sergeant York in 1941, another Oscarable performance.
In 1944, in the non-Western arena Brennan had considerable success (as a grumpy old man, of course) at Warners with William Faulkner’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, directed by Howard Hawks and with Brennan alongside Bogart and Bacall. But back to proper films, i.e. Westerns:
In 1945 Brennan was one of several Wayne buddies to appear in Republic’s Dakota, a distinctly ropey Vera Ralston vehicle in which Walter was third billed, in a broadly comic part as the riverboat owner Captain Bounce (I say broadly comic to avoid the word hammy).
But Western glory was to return as the 40s progressed because in ’46 he was a brilliant Old Man Clanton in John Ford’s wonderful Earp myth My Darling Clementine. In fact he didn’t get on with Ford at all – wouldn’t put up with the bullying – but it was a wonderful performance. Historical hooey, of course (Old Man Clanton is at the OK Corral fight) but he laid down a marker as the old-man father-figure outlaw. This and his Judge Roy Bean were his very best Western roles, in my view.
Brennan certainly referenced the Old Man Clanton performance in a picture he did back at Republic in 1949, Brimstone, a Joe Kane meller headlining Rod Cameron, with Brennan in the title role as Pops Brimstone, a vicious paterfamilias with no-good sons Jim Davis and Jack Lambert. It wasn’t a great film but Brennan once again stole the limelight.
Before that, though, he was excellent in the superb noir Western Blood on the Moon, directed by talented Robert Wise from a Luke Short story, which came out in November 1948.
The year ’48 was more notable however for the great Red River, under Howard Hawks, finally released, after a long gestation period, in August. Brennan’s Nadine Groot, cattleman Thomas Dunson’s factotum and cranky old sidekick, was one of the most memorable of all Brennan’s Western performances. And like Wayne, he ‘aged’ really cleverly in the picture – in Walter’s case from old-timer to even-older-timer. I just love this movie and Brennan is one of the reasons I do.
As that great Western decade of the 1950s dawned, Walter Brennan did some much more forgettable pictures, a comedy semi-Western at Universal, Curtain Call at Cactus Creek, Singing Guns with crooner Vaughn Monroe, in which he was the town doc, another stodgy plodder with Vera Ralston, Surrender, and a Bill Elliott oater at Republic, The Showdown, all in 1950. Much better, though, that year was the entertaining A Ticket to Tomahawk, a picture Fox had intended John Ford to direct but, probably to Brennan’s relief, they yanked it from Ford and gave it to Richard Sale. It was a lot of fun and Brennan, for once not an old-timer (but still playing up the cantankerous part) was the train driver. So 1950 was a good Western year. They weren’t all great pictures, by any means, but he did do five oaters!
There were two Westerns in 1951, Along the Great Divide at Warners and Best of the Badmen at RKO. In the first – a picture we have reviewed but it seems to have got lost in the transfer to the new blog hoster so I’ll redo that one later – he was directed by Raoul Walsh. It was Kirk Douglas’s first Western and Kirk seemed rather uncertain of himself, which allowed Brennan, as amiable rogue, to emerge as almost lead. US Marshal Douglas saves Brennan from a lynch mob determined to hang him for the murder of a big rancher’s son and then takes him across the desert for trial, pursued by said big rancher and crew. Best of the Badmen was one of those films that crammed as many outlaws as they could into one picture (they did the same in other films with horror characters) and this time Brennan provided the comic relief, as old ex-Confederate outlaw Doc Butcher (he had some of the best lines).
There were a couple of semi-Westerns in ’52, Lure of the Wilderness and Return of the Texan, both at Fox. Walter was an oldie in both. The next ‘proper’ Westerns came in 1954, when he was old Simon Bhumer, the pop of lusted-after tomboy Lolly (Colleen Miller) in Four Guns to the Border, who is very protective of his girl, what with all those handsome badmen such as Rory Calhoun around. “She ain’t gonna marry no gunslinger,” he warns them, though Colleen sharply retorts that her mother did.
More importantly, though, was Brennan’s role in Anthony Mann’s The Far Country, in which he was, yup, a crusty old sidekick, this time to James Stewart. Where Millard Mitchell as Stewart’s sidekick in Winchester ‘73 had been quiet and competent, here Brennan is gabby and foolish. This gives a lighter tone to this Western than the others.
1955 was the year of Bad Day at Black Rock, an outstanding contemporary Western at MGM directed by John Sturges, with Brennan one of the sinister characters in the forlorn town that Spencer Tracy comes to. He is the doc, who is also the mortician. He is “consumed by apathy” even if he tries, Rio Bravo-like, to redeem the fallen, drinking sheriff (Dean Jagger). It was a fine performance. Also in ’55, Brennan was in a Fred MacMurray Western, under Alfred Werker again, At Gunpoint, at Allied Artists, and he was, again, a cranky old doc.
In 1956 Brennan was Marshal Robert Ryan’s old-timer deputy in The Proud Ones, and he was definitely practicing for Rio Bravo at the end of the decade.
That year he also did his first TV Western when he appeared in an episode of Zane Grey Theatre, co-starring Ben Cooper. Brennan wore his Groot/Stumpy hat. Brennan is the crusty old (naturally) but more decent member of an outlaw gang attacked by Comanches. He’d return to the show the following year in Ride a Lonely Trail, in which he was a sheriff the townsfolk reckoned too old for the job but who sets to prove he ain’t. Brennan would return to the TV Western, but not till the late 60s.
1959 was the year Walter Brennan was reunited with Howard Hawks and John Wayne when they made Rio Bravo, with Brennan as the grouchy old limping deputy Stumpy to Wayne’s Sheriff John Chance. It was a classic Brennan role, maybe, with Red River, ‘the’ Brennan role, and he certainly made the most of it. Many Westernistas will think first of this film when Brennan’s name come up. “If any trouble starts around this jail, before anybody can get to you, you’re gonna get accidentally shot.” Stumpy (wielding shotgun): “I can practical’ guarantee that!”
In 1962 Brennan was one of the very many Western actors who got a role, little more than a cameo really (they all were) in MGM’s overblown and plodding How the West Was Won. He was the villainous river pirate (up against James Stewart this time) Colonel Jeb Hawkins.
Most of the rest of the decade would now pass without a big-screen Western for Brennan. In 1960, when feature Westerns were in decline and TV seemed to be taking over, Brennan and his son Andy, with their company Brennan Productions, put together a pilot, Shoot Out at Big Sag, which they hoped would be taken up by a network. The pilot was eventually screened in 1962 but the series never happened. It isn’t all that surprising. When you watch it you wonder what any network would have seen in it. None of the characters was sympathetic. Brennan himself did his usual vicious-old-hen act but the show had little else to recommend it really. But Brennan didn’t give up on a Western TV show.
After the cancelation of his series The Tycoon, he got into a Western one, created by Richard Carr and Aaron Spelling. The Guns of Will Sonnett ran for two seasons and a total of 50 episodes, aired between September 1967 and September ’69 on ABC. In it, Will Sonnett (Brennan) and his grandson Jeff (Dack Rambo) ride the West searching for Will’s son/Jeff’s dad, James (Jason Evers).
Will is good with firearms and in the first episode, he mentions that his son is an expert with guns, and his grandson is better, “and I’m better than both of ’em – no brag, just fact.” This last phrase was uttered frequently on the show, and became a catch phrase among the show’s fans. The series, which had some excellent guest stars, was based on a stand-alone episode of Four Star Playhouse, with Dick Powell as Will Sonnett.
It was on the set of Will Sonnett that Brennan reportedly danced a jig to celebrate the news of the death of Martin Luther King, shocking the cast and crew, and he was not known as a liberal – far from it. He later endorsed Governor Wallace, believing Richard Nixon too left-wing.
In 1969 Brennan was entertaining – once again referencing his Old Man Clanton/Pop Brimstone roles – as old bad guy Pa Danby in Support Your Local Sheriff, with James Garner.
The same year Brennan got together with Spelling again for the ABC TV movie The Over-the-Hill Gang, directed by frequent Will Sonnett helmsperson Jean Yarborough. It was quite fun, reuniting some anno domini Western actors such as Edgar Buchanan, Andy Devine, Jack Elam and Chill Wills, among many others. It was enough of a hit to warrant a sequel the year after, inevitably titled The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again. This one included the slightly less Western Fred Astaire.
Between the two Over-the-Hills, Brennan did another TV film, The Young Country, one of the few movies (only two, I think) directed by writer Roy Huggins, who should have directed more because he was pretty good. It was made at Universal Television and it went for a semi-comic vibe, much influenced by the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in theaters the year before. You put two handsome young charming-rogues together with a flip script, and hope for electricity. It was a kind of trial run for Alias Smith and Jones. By 1970, Brennan was genuinely old, 76, though paradoxically he plays it ‘young’ in The Young Country. Brennan did three episodes of Alias Smith and Jones, in 1971 The Day They Hanged Kid Curry and in ’72, 21 Days to Tenstrike and Don’t Get Mad, Get Even.
Some of these late roles showed that he had quite a talent for the comedy Western.
Walter Brennan’s last Western – more of a drama/romance really – was Smoke in the Wind in 1975, directed by his son Andy and Joe Kane. It’s pretty crummy, to be brutally frank, though W. Brennan is the best thing about it. Walter was announced for a late Western, One Day in Eden, but it was never made.
In all, Brennan appeared in more than 230 film and television roles during a career that spanned nearly five decades. Over a hundred of these were big- or small-screen Westerns. In 1970, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, where his photograph hangs prominently. He died of emphysema at the age of 80 in 1974.