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

Friday 22 May 2009 00:00
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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.

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