Jane Bryan: Actress and staunch Republican who became Bette Davis's protégé but gave up her career to marry

Jane Bryan was a fresh-faced contract player at Warner Bros. in the late 1930s and became the protégé of the studio's top female star, Bette Davis. She made 18 films during her four years at the studio, notable among them those she made with Davis. But in 1939 she gave up her career to marry a ruggedly handsome Walgreen executive, Justin Dart, a former All-American football player on his way to becoming a millionaire. She and Davis were to remain friends, and in 1940 Davis wed her second husband, Arthur Farnsworth, at the Darts' ranch in Arizona.

While at Warners, Bryan befriended contract player Ronald Reagan, and the Darts (staunch Republicans) were to become close friends, influencing his switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party and encouraging him to run for Governor of California and later President. When Margaret Thatcher made her first prime-ministerial visit to the US, Bryan hosted a party for her and the American President.

The daughter of a lawyer, Bryan was born Jane O'Brien in 1918, and in her early teens joined the Hollywood Theatre Workshop. She was spotted by a Warners talent scout and offered a film contract, changing her name to Jane Bryan. She made her screen debut in a Perry Mason mystery, The Case of the Black Cat (1936), starring Ricardo Cortez as Mason, and the following year she was in two films with Davis. Marked Woman (1937) was based on the case of "Lucky" Luciano, who had been convicted on the evidence of five prostitutes who worked for him. It starred Davis as a night-club hostess whose innocent younger sister, played by Bryan, is seduced by the superficially glamorous night-club life and is killed by underworld gangsters.

Bryan next played sister to Edward G. Robinson's boxing promoter in Michael Curtiz's Kid Galahad (1937), and during his death scene Bryan and Bette Davis (as his mistress) were so emotional that Robinson turned to Curtiz and complained, "Don't you think the girls are crying too much?" In Joe May's ripe melodrama, Confession (1937), she was a naïve beauty who is nearly seduced by cad Basil Rathbone. She was top-billed just once, in Girls on Probation (1938), a "B" movie in which she was a wrongly imprisoned innocent whose defence attorney (Ronald Reagan) falls in love with her. She was the stalwart fiancée of wrongly convicted James Cagney in Each Dawn I Die, and her bright performance as Edward G. Robinson's daughter in A Slight Case of Murder (1938) led Variety to report: "It's Jane Bryan who steals the picture".

Anatole Litvak's The Sisters (1938) followed the romantic tribulations of Davis, Anita Louise and Bryan in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. However, Edmund Goulding's superlative transcription of Zoe Atkins's play based on Edith Wharton's novella, The Old Maid (1939), is the film for which Bryan is probably best remembered, and the finest of the films she made with Davis. As the pampered adopted daughter of wealthy Philadelphian Miriam Hopkins, Bryan grows up resenting the strict discipline exercised by her "old maid" aunt Charlotte (Davis), not knowing that Charlotte is in fact her true mother.

On Bryan's wedding day, Hopkins tells her that Charlotte made a great sacrifice to help raise her, and that she should make a point of giving her aunt a final kiss before departing for her honeymoon (that the film did not receive a batch of Oscar nominations is generally attributed to the fact that 1939 was an exceptional year for movies). Davis joked of Bryan's impressive performance, "I had to hide her face in a pillow to stop her stealing my scenes."

Bryan's biggest role was in Goulding's We Are Not Alone (1939), in which she played an Austrian governess accused of having an affair with her employer, a married doctor (Paul Muni). Her sensitive and moving performance won her the National Board of Review acting award, and after seeing the film, Noël Coward was reported to have called her "the best young movie actress working today."

She rounded out her contract with Brother Rat and a Baby (1939), the sequel to Brother Rat (1938), in which she had also been featured. Both films co-starred Ronald Reagan, then married to Jane Wyman, and Bryan became good friends of the couple.

"Jane Bryan, in her short career, gave many fine performances," Bette Davis commented in 1974. "When she confided that she was in love and was going to give up her career, as the man she loved did not want her to continue if she married him, I was sorry, as I thought she had a great future in films. She has, however, never regretted her decision in all these many years."

Dart, who made millions after converting the waning Rexall drug chain into Dart-Kraft Industries, was a key fundraiser for the Republican Party, gaining support from huge business interests, and Bryan served on a federal arts commission in Washington. They maintained their friendship with Reagan through his divorce from Wyman and marriage to Nancy Davis, and a photograph of Reagan and Davis was on prominent display at their house in Bel Air. They also had a house in London and a flat in Manhattan.

Bryan and her husband were both licensed pilots, and they were widely travelled; Dart on business and Bryan on archaeological expeditions – she was for many years governor of the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. She described her life as "one of adventure", though she disliked public speaking. "I am very shy. I think the shyness is caused by my being inarticulate. And I'm plagued by a lack of self-confidence." Though her husband died in 1984, Bryan continued to be a philanthropist and patron of the arts, but refused to give interviews, especially about her "long ago" film career.

Tom Vallance

Jane O'Brien (Jane Bryan), actress: born Los Angeles 11 June 1918; married 1939 Justin Dart (two sons, one daughter; died 1984); died Pebble Beach, California 8 April 2009.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star