Walter Brennan — Up From the Bottom (1937) 🇺🇸

February 10, 2022

You can’t tell Walter Brennan how to become a star. He knows all about the work-your-way-up-the-ladder business as he’s one extra who reached the top.

by Robert Joseph

Director Hal Mohr pointed to a rather elderly man wearing eyeglasses and a rather bushy moustache. “See that fellow over there joking with the soda jerk? There’s one guy who hasn’t forgotten how big ten bucks can look.”

I didn’t recognize the man the director was talking about, and he looked like an Iowa dirt farmer on his first trip to the Hollywood studios. We were sitting in the Universal Pictures commissary watching the passing parade of stars and extras, directors and producers.

“That’s Walter Brennan,” the director continued, “the one man who knows Hollywood from every angle — including top and bottom. And believe me, even if the Academy did throw an award at him, he’s still the same unaffected, honest Walt that used to cry like a baby and bray like a jackass.”

And between those two sounds — baby and jackass — lies one of the most human and poignant stories Hollywood has to offer. Every picture star has been written about from the “down-to-earth” angle. All players like to believe they have it; few really have. But Walter Brennan is one Hollywood actor who has retained his earthiness and simplicity above all others. He’s just the same as when in boyhood he swept out the Swampscott, Mass., classrooms for spending money.

Like many another star Walter got his earliest theatrical training in the army during the war. He got the acting bug at barrack amateur shows. A young man by the name of Osgood Perkins, now one of Broadway’s leading luminaries, was his associate in these earliest theatrical enterprises.

After the war Walter found his way to Guatemala in search of work, opened a pineapple farm, prospered, and made money so fast he couldn’t spend it. After raking in enough money to retire for the rest of his life — though a young man in his early thirties — he came to Hollywood.

At the time Los Angeles was enjoying a wave of land speculation and Walter invested his money hoping to ride high on the crest. Unfortunately, he had to sit by and see the backwash of the bubble that burst drain off the fruit of many years’ work.

The money dwindled fast. With a wife and three children to support Walt decided that something had to be done and done fast. Aside from growing pineapples in Central America and soldiering in France the young man had little qualification for any sort of labor. Then he recalled his career as an actor in the trenches. After all, Hollywood was a paradise for actors. So he began an invasion of the studios for extra work and bit parts. A young man by the name of Frank Cooper who was soon destined to fame accompanied him on the daily rounds. His name is now Gary Cooper. After endless “weeks of futile hammering at the portals of Hollywood, a friend of Walter’s, Tenny Wright, now general manager of First National, then an assistant director at Universal, got his friend a job.

Walter Brennan recounts with feeling that first day of screen work. “Tenny got me the work. I earned $10.00. My first moving picture pay check. I was one of a mob at a formal party. An ape broke loose and we, the extras, were to break up and run in all directions. I ran into a water-trough looking over my shoulder according to directions, and got wetter than hell for ten bucks. But I was glad to get the dough.”

That was back in 1925. Ten dollars was money, fifteen a good-sized fortune, and twenty-five spelled heaven.

And this wasn’t rolling in every day either. Walter must have had misgivings over the failure of the studio gods to smile on him. The studios were filled with extras trying their best to eke out a living. Many were called, but few were chosen. Walter was lucky.

“I did a little more bit playing,” the Academy Winner continued, “always hoping to get a break. Pretty soon I met Hoot Gibson, and I started to do character parts and comedy relief in his pictures. I remember the best picture I ever acted in with him was “The Lariat Kid.” I got some swell critics’ notices from that one.

“I earned as much as $150 a week — when I worked. That was in 1928, just before sound came in. Sound brought a revolutionary change to the motion picture business. There was a mad scramble among the old stars to assert themselves in the new field, and for new ones to make known their talents. I believe this period gave me the beginning of what was later to be the break.”

The extra, destined some day to win the coveted Academy award, began the rounds of Hollywood studios and casting offices for work. One day he strolled onto the set of “The Crisco Kid,” a comedy take-off on “The Cisco Kid,” starring George Sidney and Charlie Murray. The director was trying to coax a jackass to bray at the correct moment, but the animal being true to his disposition, refused to budge vocally. Walter stepped forward and volunteered his services.

“I can bray,” he explained to the director. “Just listen this once.” He emitted a terrific jackass bray that might have even outdone the best that the animal had to offer. He got the job and brayed at $10 a bray. For this he was given a bit in the picture for the next day at $25.00.

Another time Walt was called on to cry like a baby. In Hollywood studios must pay the parents of babies used in films $75 a day, and the law specifies that no baby may be kept inside the studio for more than two hours daily, and no infant may be before the camera more than two minutes of that two hours. This is done to protect the baby’s health and to keep its- eyes from glaring lights.

While shooting “Little Accident” in 1930 the director required a good healthy baby’s cry. Walt was drafted for the job, and did the work satisfactorily. As he put it himself, “I got twenty-five smackers a squawk.”

Walter kept going in the months that followed. A bit part here, a few lines there, a long speech, a character part, a mob extra. His family was fed and clothed — regularly and decently. There were many times when it might have been much easier to quit, to do anything else but sound effects. There was to be a big break and something of a turning point in his life when he was recommended to Director Victor Schertzinger for a part in “My Woman.”

Walt appeared before the director. Mr. Schertzinger explained that what he needed was someone for a radio audition sequence.

“Is it supposed to be good?” Walter asked.

“No,” replied Schertzinger.

“I can do it then,” said Brennan.

“I’ve got to have someone,” the director explained, “who can give this radio reading in the worst possible fashion. It’s got to be a lousy audition so that Victor Jory, the program director, can throw you out of the broadcasting studio with provocation. Now, do you think you can do something like that?”

Walter Brennan didn’t know how to say “no” in a situation like that, so he said “yes.” He went home that night, thinking up a way to act so horrible that he’d be good. A rather odd twist of circumstances for a man who was trying to act the best he could. Then an idea came to him. He decided to pose as a stutterer, imitating various animals. He rehearsed several times before his family, much to their amazement, and returned to the studio the next morning ready to d-d-d-do or d-d-d-d-die.

His audition was so bad it was marvelous. When the notices came out in the papers it was discovered that Walt had stolen the picture by his short five minutes sequence.

Several months later he was called upon for a role in “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” in which he played a New England druggist. He did the part well, and was rewarded with splendid notices. But this, observed the bit player to himself, was the first time they had called for him. The name Walter Brennan was beginning to mean something.

One day a Mr. McQuarrie called on Walter Brennan. This happened shortly after the rave reviews on “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”

“I’m an agent,” the caller explained, “and what you need right now is an agent. You’re on the way up.”

Mr. McQuarrie was the first person outside of his wife to see something of the acting ability that everyone is so eager to recognize today.

The union of actor and agent was to become a firm friendship as well as a profitable business affiliation. Hardly had the ink on their agreement dried when Walter got two assignments — one in “The Life of Vergie Winters” and the other in “Cross Country Cruise.” From that time on things began to pick up.

Beginning with “The Wedding Night,” his first for Samuel Goldwyn, Walt was to begin a series of pictures that were to take him ever higher among the ranks of Hollywood celebrities. In Barbary Coast he played the role of a toothless old salt. He had a minor role in “These Three” and then scored significantly in Come and Get It, in the role of Swan Bostrum, the part that gave him the award.

Then in “Banjo on My Knee,” and more recently in “When Love is Young.” He finished his part in the latter picture before the Academy dinner, but even by that time the excellence of his work was well known. The director insisted on writing extra dialogue to give additional scope to Brennan’s acting, as well as giving the public more of him.

“Cappy Ricks,” Walt’s first starring vehicle, is being currently released, and he is now starting a picture at 20th Century-Fox, in which he plays an ex-bandit, the grandpa of Jane Withers.

Many and colorful must have been the memories that raced through Walter Brennan’s mind the night he was presented with an Academy Award for his work in Come and Get It. Perhaps he was thinking of his ranch in San Fernando Valley, replete with horses, corral and citrus trees — the fruit of his better parts. Perhaps he was thinking of that endless round of studios and casting offices day in and day out. Perhaps he was thinking back on the humiliation of scoring for a jackass and a crying baby. Maybe it was about his wife whose faith has never wavered. Perhaps it was of the innumerable indignities he had to bear before attaining success.

There’s a saying around Hollywood that goes something like this: “Walt Brennan is one guy whom none of us begrudge anything.” There are few stars who are not jealous of another’s success. No one has any feeling like that about Walt. And that sort of feeling is something of a tribute that far outstrips anything critics or motion picture societies can say in their most eloquent moments. Walt is the stars’ favorite. He got success because he deserved it.

Walter Brennan, top, as Old Atrocity in “Barbary Coast.”

Center, in Come and Get It, the award winner.

At right, as he looks off screen.

Boris Karloff and wife rarely join in Hollywood’s nite-life. They entertain their friends, mostly British, at home.

Source: Motion Picture Magazine, August 1937