The movie career of Evelyn Brent spanned 36 years (from 1914 to 1950), a good stretch for any actress, but particularly for a trouper who adjusted to every industry change long after many of her contemporaries had fled the business. One of her best films was 1927’s “Underworld” directed by Josef Von Sternberg. Evelyn Brent was “Feathers”, torn between George Bancroft as Bull Weed and Clive Brook as Rolls Royce. Outwardly tough as nails, but inwardly filled with passion and conflict, Evelyn Brent was made for film noir before it even had a name. With such a triumph, she could and should have gone on to roles with ever more greater depth and complexity. That she did not is the old, sad story of Hollywood.
For the rest of her career Brent made movies of steadily diminishing prestige and importance. For every gem like “The Last Command”, there were poverty row quickies like “Mr. Wong, Detective” or “The Payoff” or “The Golden Eye”. B-Movie buffs treasure unpretentious titles like these, but for the actors who make them, there’s seldom a return trip to top flight stardom. Still, Evelyn Brent persevered. She was very good in 1941’s “Wide Open Town” as Belle Langtry, owner of the Paradise Saloon. Brent is tiny but tough as a woman resigned to a prison term at film’s end. She has a soft spot for Hopalong Cassidy of course, and also for the rambunctious teenager played by Cara Williams in her first film. Another enjoyable project from 1941 was the serial “Holt of the Secret Service.” Jack Holt and Evelyn Brent spent many of the episodes yelling and bickering at each other. If you watch a lot of serials, it’s a welcome departure, because most gals in the serial world do exactly as they’re told, with a minimum of dialogue. (“Yes sir, no sir” and that’s about it.) Evelyn Brent even played a one-armed devil worshipper in Val Lewton’s “The 7th Victim”. She’s so dressed to the nines in this spooky classic that it took several viewings for me to realize she was missing a limb in the movie, since I already knew she wasn’t in real life. If I could think of one word to describe Brent’s overall effect on screen, it is “bracing.” She slapped life into movies and gave them energy and sparkle. Lynn Kear and James King have done a thorough, much needed assessment in “Evelyn Brent: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s Lady Crook.” For information go to mcfarlandpub.com.
Movie Magazine International