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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,510

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This is the grave of Walter Brennan.

Born in 1894 in Lynn, Massachusetts, Brennan grew up the son of Irish immigrants, but successful ones. His father was an engineer. Brennan studied a touch of engineering as a young man too, but mostly was working as a bank clerk when World War I broke out. He was excited for some adventure and shooting Jerry. He was in the 101st Field Artillery. While he was there, he breathed in some mustard gas. His voice never fully recovered. It changed. He started to talk like Walter Brennan.

Brennan did not come back to Massachusetts to go into the movies or anything like that. He was ambitious and like so many young men of the 1920s (not to speak of the 2020s), he was all in with the super sketchy financial investments of that decade. He made a fortune in real estate in the early 20s and then lost of it all plus basically everything else he had in a big real estate dip in 1925. He needed money and so he started picking up little acting gigs here and there. He headed out to LA to try and start over anyway, so Paramount was there and needing extras. That’s basically what Brennan was at first. He was a ton of silents, most of which are utterly forgettable. Since he couldn’t use his distinctive voice yet, I’m not sure quite what he brought to the screen. I never thought much of Brennan as an actor and have always found him a ridiculous character and so I think, having not seen any of these early films, I am just projecting back. He must have brought something to game. In any case, he had decent success and his roles slowly grew. Until 1935, Brennan was in dozens of movies, but almost all in very small roles. Some were speaking after the rise of the talkies. Somehow he was the weird voiced guy who managed that transition. But really he was such a minor figure for the whole first decade he was in the pictures that no one would have remembered him.

In 1935, Brennan got another small part. This was in The Wedding Night, which was a Gary Cooper movie directed by King Vidor. The part was supposed to be tiny, but Vidor and Sam Goldwyn came to like what Brennan brought to the table. So they wrote a bigger part for him. It still was a minor role in the film, but it was at least a real role. More importantly, Goldwyn offered Brennan a contract. No more extra roles for Walter Brennan. Then Howard Hawks cast him in Barbary Coast in a still small but important role. Brennan later considered that his big break.

The next year, Hawks cast him in the major supporting role in Come and Get It. The filming was kind of a disaster. Goldwyn fired Hawks in the middle of it and brought in William Wyler to finish it. But the film turned out to be pretty good and Brennan not only got attention, he won the first ever Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Then he won a second one for Kentucky in 1938. I guess I need to go back and watch some of these movies since people did think highly enough of Brennan’s work in the late 30s and presumably he deserved the honors. He got the occasional lead role at this point, but mostly was a top supporting actor, which given his advancing age and weird voice, probably made sense for all involved. He also seemed older than he was. He went bald early and in 1932, was in an accident and lost a bunch of teeth. So we aren’t talking a looker here!

Brennan won a 3rd Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1940’s The Westerner, where he played Judge Roy Bean. Hmmm…..He was the lead in Jean Renoir’s first American film, 1941’s Swamp Water. He was nominated for another Best Supporting Actor award for 1941’s Sergeant York, though this time he didn’t win. He did a bunch of war films during the war as well, common for those not fighting and Brennan was old enough by this time to legitimately not fight, unlike that coward John Wayne.

In this postwar period, Brennan focused on westerns, often playing the crusty old pioneer or the somewhat comical but earnest sidekick in many westerns. That John Ford and Howard Hawks were big fans certainly did not hurt. Ford cast Brennan alongside Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine in 1946. Hawks cast him in Red River with Wayne in 1948 and that’s certainly a classic with Brennan bringing his best. He worked pretty consistently in the movies for about another decade, mostly in westerns. Among his better films in this period were The Far Country and Bad Day at Black Rock. Most of these films were pretty forgettable though. Then of course there was his unforgettable role as Stumpy in Rio Bravo, where he really leans into the ridiculousness of being the crusty old loyal deputy to John Wayne.

But by the mid 50s, the market was drying up for these old guys in the pictures. However, television had arrived and for a man like Brennan, this meant steady work for as long as he wanted. So he was in all sorts of things. He was an actor who really liked working all the time, so he appreciated television for that. He was on all sorts of things in these years and really until he died.

Brennan, like a lot of these western actors, began to think he was one of these 19th century men defending civilization from savagery. In short, Brennan was so far right that it’s fair to call him fascist. Among the actors in these movies, how I’d say it is this: John Wayne was a right-wing crank, Walter Brennan was a fascist, and Ward Bond wanted to shoot the communists himself. But I want to be clear here–Brennan was a really terrible person. He was fiercely anti-communist, sure. But he also stated that everyone who supported John F, Kennedy was a communist, even though Brennan was also a Catholic. He was a huge Goldwater and then Reagan supporter. But OK. It gets better! When Martin Luther King was murdered, Brennan celebrated on the set of the film he was on at that time. He also celebrated when RFK was murdered. Brennan was a big funder of organization pushing mandatory prayer in schools. He was angry with the Johnson administration and the cops for not just machine gunning everyone participating in the Watts riots. It goes on. So yeah, fuck this guy.

Brennan continued to work until pretty much the end, including his starring role on The Real McCoys. He also recorded some albums and actually reached #5 on the Billboard chart in 1962 for “Old Rivers,” which is a terrible song.

Brennan died in 1974. He was 80 years old.

Walter Brennan is buried in San Fernando Mission Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.

If you would like this series to visit other Best Supporting Actor winners, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Joseph Schildkraut, who won in 1937 for The Life of Emile Zola, is in Hollywood. Thomas Mitchell, who won in 1939 for Stagecoach, is in Los Angeles. In short, you all need to send me back to LA for more movie graves. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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