George O'Brien - Local Boy Makes Good

Thomas Meighan, George O'Brien, Conrad Nagel and Daniel O'Brien
at the San Francisco Train Station May 1922
(Courtesy of The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley)

Silent film and western movie star George O’Brien was born in San Francisco, California on April 19, 1899. George was the elder son of Daniel J. and Margaret L. O'Brien. His younger brother Daniel O’Brien, Jr. came 3 years later. Like many others, the O’Brien’s lost their home and livelihood in the great earthquake and fire of 1906. The O’Brien clan lived in one of the many refugee camps set up in the city and over the years in several neighborhoods in San Francisco. They lived on Ocean Avenue, Tehama Street and Octavia Street in the Marina. The Ocean Avenue house enumerated on the 1910 census is still standing and can be seen below.

George O'Brien's boyhood home on Ocean Avenue
(Photo by me)

In 1908 desperate for work, Dan O’Brien, Sr. joined the San Francisco Police Force and by 1919 had become acting Chief of Police. Chief Daniel O’Brien was not only the Chief of Police, he was a city ambassador, much like Mayor James J. Rolph (nicknamed “Sunny Jim”). Many a Hollywood star would be greeted at the train station by both the Mayor and Chief O’Brien. It's easy to see where George got his good looks.

Chief Daniel O'Brien
(Courtesy of The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley)

George and his brother Dan passed happy days growing up in San Francisco. George excelled at athletics and worked hard to emulate his ideal, his Dad. After graduation from high school, George enlisted in the United States Navy to fight in World War I. He served on a Submarine chaser and volunteered to act as a stretcher bearer for wounded Marines. George was decorated for bravery.

After the Great War George moved back in with the family in San Francisco and was at loose ends. Originally intending to attend college, George instead sought some action behind the footlights. San Francisco, then as now, is an attractive city for filmmaking and George soon found stunt work and a small film role in Paramount's 1921 film Moran of the Lady Letty.

Moran of the Lady Letty starred Dorothy Dalton and Rudolph Valentino (fresh from success in The Sheik). George can be seen early on in the film and has a nice little death scene. George was reputed to also do the stunt work on the film. It has been erroneously reported that George took the fall for Valentino at the end of the film. In fact, if George did the stunt fall into the San Francisco Bay, it was for Walter Long, not Valentino.

Dorothy Dalton and George chatting on location in San Francisco
(Courtesy Francis Lacassin)

George appeared in small parts and bits in several films such as Thomas Meighan's The Ne-er Do Well for Paramount (1923) and Milton Sills' The Sea Hawk for First National (1924). It was later in 1924 when George scored his big break with the leading role in the Fox epic The Iron Horse. George also made a lifelong friend in the director, John Ford.

Madge Bellamy and George O'Brien posing with The Iron Horse (1924)
(Courtesy of The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley)

George's notices for The Iron Horse earned him a contract with Fox and, as they say, a star was born. George made several films, including East Side West Side (which garnered rave reviews in 2009 at Cinecon). The great German director F.W. Murnau cast George in Sunrise based on his work in East Side West Side.

It is the 1927 film Sunrise that cements George O'Brien's place in the cinematic pantheon. With 20+ years of his career was left to him, Sunrise remains the best known and most beloved film of his career.

George's portrayal of a young farmer "The Man" who is tempted by a woman from the city (Margaret Livingston) to attempt to murder his wife (Janet Gaynor in a most unfortunate wig) and then, realizing his error, spends the rest of the film wooing her back is a strong, moving and tender performance. Murnau's lyrical and sensitive direction combined with the photography of Charles Rosher and Karl Struss and the simplicity of the story packs an emotional wallop for even the most jaded film-goer. Even today. Janet Gaynor may have been Academy Award nominee and winner for Sunrise and Seventh Heaven, but it was George who really gives the standout performance.

Margaret Livingston and George O'Brien in Sunrise

The "marriage sequence" shown below still moves this viewer to tears every single time.

George also loved and was proud of his work in Sunrise. While I was not in attendance (before this old timer's time), another old timer posted some recollections of favorite Cinecon festivals past with this small remembrance:

And my all-time favorite Cinecon moment...
1979: New York City
George O'Brien gets a standing ovation at the end of SUNRISE and starts wiping tears from his eyes. Unforgettable.

A Window Card for the film (1927)

George posed for some pretty hunky and spectacular nude art shots for the film Fig Leaves. No need to post them here, you can find them all over the internet, hubba hubba, quite a hunk of man.

George's career continued on with a loan out to Warner Brothers/First National for the epic Michael Curtiz film Noah's Ark. Grueling is not the word. Poor George and his leading lady Dolores Costello took a real beating in this film. By the end of the 1920's George's career had moved firmly into the genre of westerns. George was an active and favorite B-Western star for the remainder of his film career.

George married Marguerite Churchill in 1933 and by all accounts the union was a happy one. George's great happiness with marriage in 1933 was tempered by the passing of his beloved father later that year. Their first child Brian died at 10 days, an unspeakable tragedy. The daughter Orin was born in 1935 and in 1939, son Darcy. George continued to make westerns and raise his family.

He rejoined the Navy and served in the Pacific in World War II. Like many veterans, George came back from battle a changed man. Marguerite took the children and filed for divorce. George never remarried.

As his career in film waned, George became a pioneer in another medium, television. Apparently nothing is extant from the early shows. Sadly, nothing at the Paley Center. His final screen appearances were with John Ford.

George O'Brien lived a full life, a generally happy life and left a legacy of wonderful films. George strove throughout his life to emulate his father, strong and honorable. He was handsome, a good actor and a decent man by all accounts. He served his country with honor and valour in the two world wars. I'm a day late with the birthday feliciations, but they are no less heartfelt today than yesterday.

George's 1937 film Windjammer can be seen on youtube in several parts. Grade B, but still fun and George is charming and hunky.

Happily, George O'Brien has a fan website. It's quite nice with loads of info and plenty of eye candy, too. Aptly named Gorgeous George O'Brien, he certainly was.


Thanks for all the info on a star I didn't much about. Loved the wedding clip. Thanks for posting.
Tinky said…
This is charming. Like Robin, I didn't know much about O'Brien (although I also find Sunrise moving). I looked at the fan website. Not only does he look handsome, but he looks happy.
alexa757 said…
Thanks for the lovely tribute to my favorite actor! And thank you for posting some shots I had never seen before like the boyhood home and the picture with Dorothy Dalton!
Valentino Wept said…
What a great post! George O'Brien is SO worthy of this kind of salute. At Cinecon dealers room last year I picked up a DVD of "The Blue Eagle" that paired O'Brien and Gaynor prior to Sunrise. A good little film. I also got to see "The Iron Horse" in a beautiful print at the Silent Movie Theater a couple years ago, with Bob Mitchell providing a magnificent score. Gotta give a shout out to his many entertaining westerns too. I havent ever seen George O'Brien in a film where he didnt make it better by having been in the cast. Bravo Donna for this Birthday salute.
rudyfan1926 said…
Thanks everyone, it's so nice to see delicious George still has so many fans, old and new. I'm making it a point to seek out more films with him.
Randolph Man said…
Donna, it's all great but you forgot to mention that George O'Brien's son Darcy was a long time Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma and published a wonderful autobiographical novel called, I think, "A Way of Life, Like Any Other" in which his Dad figures. Seek it out.
rudyfan1926 said…
Randolph, thanks! I will have to check Darcy's book out. I was unaware of it.
I only just discovered George O'Brien and am smitten...
Hey guys what a nice blog about this nice actor, i like your blog so much,O'Brien came to Hollywood in his early twenties hoping to become a cameraman and did work as an assistant cameraman for a while, for both Tom Mix and Buck Jones.
Thanks for this nice sharing.

Rob Byrne said…
This is wonderful info, thank you so much.

Your article led to the successful identification of Daniel O'Brien who plays himself "SF Police Chief O'Brien" in THE LAST EDITION (1925). The film is currently being restored and will premiere at the 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. A website documenting the restoration is also under development, and can be found at

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