Catholics in the Movies: George O’Brien (1899-1985)

The son of San Francisco’s police chief, George O’Brien was the grandson of Irish immigrants who settled in that city during the 1870’s. After graduating high school, he served in the Navy during World War I. He served as a stretcher bearer during the war and was later Light Heavyweight Champion of the Pacific Fleet. After the Navy he was pre-med at the Jesuit Santa Clara College (now Santa Clara University). A chance meeting with cowboy star Tom Mix at a rodeo led him to a movie career, which he began behind the scenes carrying props. Virile and athletic, he worked as a stunt man for the likes of Rudolph Valentino. (Later when he became a star in his own right, O’Brien would be known as “the Irish Valentino.”) This led to bit parts, and when director John Ford noticed him, he was given the lead in Ford’s 1924 railroad epic The Iron Horse. In 1927 O’Brien starred in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, which some consider the greatest film of the silent era. With the arrival of sound, however, O’Brien became mainly a B-Western star. When World War II broke out, he rejoined the Navy, serving as a Beach-Master in the Pacific theater. After the war he appeared in a few films for his old friend John Ford, including Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Staying in the Naval Reserve, he retired as a Captain. Going into the ranching business and traveling the world filled his later years. In 1981 he suffered a stroke that incapacitated him until his death in 1985. O’Brien was said to be a devout Catholic who attended daily Mass. His son Darcy wrote a biography of Blessed John Paul II. George O’Brien has a star to honor his pioneering work in Hollywood.

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  • Manny

    How come so many of the Catholics in the movies were of Irish ethnicity? Were German, Polish, and Italian Catholics not as interested? Or is just a coincidence that all four so far on “Catholics In The Movies” series have been Irish? Not that I’m complaining or anything; just trying to understand if there’s a trend.

    • Dale

      Manny, it is an interesting question. And perhaps it prompts an additional question.

      After reading about Nita Naldi, her frequent co-star Rudolph Valentino was on my mind. He was born in Castellaneta, Italy (although his birth name was Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguoll….whew!)

      And another of Valentino’s co-stars, Pola Negri, was born in Poland (although her birth name was Apolonia Chalupec.) Both Negri and Valentino had Catholic parents and are buried in Catholic cemeteries, so I assume they were Catholic.

      The question which occurred to me has to do with the sometimes scandalous nature of cinema. In 1933, the Catholic Legion of Decency was formed to fight against the well-known decadence of movies.Time Magazine had this to say in 1934:

      “For many a year the U. S. churches have deplored what they call the brazen indecency of U. S. cinema. Their annual conferences have passed resolutions. Their clergy have lobbied for censorship bills. Their journals have crusaded. But for all their zeal the churches have accomplished very little. Last week, led by members of the Roman Catholic Church, they were embarked on a new crusade, brandishing a new weapon—the boycott. That they were in earnest impressed even hardboiled Variety, which for once put aside its racy style to tell about the “Legion…”

      So my question, in part prompted by yours, is: how was the movie industry viewed by ordinary Catholics? Were some segments of the Catholic population (as opposed to simply individuals) more tolerant of its edginess? Were other segments more outraged by the brazenness of the movie industry?

      • Manny

        Good question Dale. As to my question, I did think of Rudolf Valentino, but he’s the only non-Irish Catholic that I could think of.