Carl Rollyson's "A Real American Character: The Life of Walter Brennan"

In an undergraduate film class I audited in the 1980s, the name of character actor Walter Brennan was mentioned by a student, and clearly with admiration and the expectation of some approval from the professor teaching the course. Instead, the professor rolled his eyes and quipped that Brennan had won three Oscars and given one performance. The professor then broke into a poor but recognizable imitation of Brennan, one clearly inspired by his performance on the television hit The Real McCoys.

Many people fell into this snobbery about Brennan, and his success has variously been attributed to his support among the screen extras, one of whom he was for a very long time, and his longevity and productivity to the fact that he was amenable and demanded nothing and only cared if his false teeth were in or out.

I admit that I, too, came to believe many of these accusations against Brennan, but the scales, so to speak, have fallen from my eyes, and this is attributable to Carl Rollyson's A Real American Character: The Life of Walter Brennan (University Press of Mississippi), and to the extended film retrospective it led me to conduct after reading its summation of the life of a fascinating actor who strode through the greatest years of the motion-picture industry.

It would require a great deal more than a pleasant personality for Brennan to have satisfied such directors as John Ford, Henry Hathaway, Howard Hawks, William Wyler, Sam Wood, Frank Capra, and Jean Renoir (and some of them multiple times), and not one of those directors ever cared much for actors with low standards. Brennan also held his own or stole scenes from such performers as Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Bob Hope, Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, and Julie Harris. When he stole scenes (which was often), it was not through hamming but simply a commitment to whatever character he happened to be playing. It is not enough to say that Brennan has been underrated as to say that he has been misunderstood.

Rollyson, who has written about subjects as varied as Marilyn Monroe, Susan Sontag, Dana Andrews, Herman Melville, and Norman Mailer, is an elegant, balanced writer with no agenda at hand, merely an encyclopedic knowledge of film and the ways they are made, and an appreciation that is fair and razor-sharp about Brennan's work. Having read many biographies of film personnel that seek to prove an ideological or aesthetic point or prejudice,  it is a pleasure and an education to read A Real American Character as it leads  through a fascinating time in motion pictures that begins in the silent era and concludes with work in television in the 1970s, with a detour into recording, where Brennan recited "Old Rivers," a very successful record that was played on AM radio when I was a child, and which made him very popular with conservative listeners, among whom were my parents and various relatives.

Walter Brennan collecting one of his three Oscars.

We can add as one more admirable trait of Rollyson's biography the fact that he writes of Brennan's political conservatism, his support of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, his often intemperate comments made on sets or television programs, and yet I was never repulsed by the man, nor was my attention taken away from the study of his work and the times in which he led. This is a beautifully structured, wonderfully written, inordinately fair and accurate record of an actor who led a life that is like something out of fiction.

A Yankee by birth, Brennan managed to convince most of us that he was a rugged Western individual, and he epitomized the type of performers who were a part of the early film industry: talented day-workers who did a job, did it well, had no particular method to their playing, and then moved along to the next project. It is what Bette Davis told me was what professionals used to be like, and Davis begrudgingly admitted her admiration for film stars like Susan Hayward, who were led to films by beauty or natural skill and learned, through will and grit, to become effective. I think she would have placed Brennan in this category, and it is where a film professor or film lover should place him.

One is rewarded by reading Rollyson's book, but one is doubly rewarded if it leads you, as it did me, to watch or re-watch the films in which Brennan appeared. There are, of course, his Oscar-winning performances, in Come and Get it (1936), Kentucky (1938), and The Westerner (1940). You can watch these films and still understand how Brennan claimed the gold, and whatever is hoary about his performance is equally true of the films and his co-stars, but his work  in William Wyler's The Westerner is something of a master class in economy and precision. Brennan's work in Red River (1948), minimal at best, bears repeated viewings. Brennan was often cast in mediocre films, but his work was never anything but committed: His energy, focus, and humor are often the only things that have aged well.

You learn a great deal about Walter Brennan in A Real American Character, but you also learn a great deal about the American film industry, the habits of some of its finest directors, and, if you are of a certain age and grew up with Walter Brennan as a part of your life, you learn a lot about yourself, your own time, your own convictions.

This is another estimable contribution to film study by the University Press of Mississippi, which has been publishing some wonderful books, but the triumph is Carl Rollyson's, who has written a book that will satisfy both those who  want a masterly summation of a beloved film actor as well as those who want to dig into its various layers and learn a great deal more.


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