“You can say that I, also, am in love with my husband’s brother!”
Renée Houston, 1936
She always admired her brother-in-law Brian Aherne.
He stood for no nonsense, was gloriously funny and loyal to his British friends.
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Brian Aherne – The undergraduate
Brian had many successes on London’s West End stage in the 1920s.
His role in ‘Rope’ – the play Patrick Hamilton produced at the Ambassadors Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue in 1929 put him at the vanguard of London’s theatre world.
The play dealt with a morbid and gruesome theme: two undergraduates decide to commit a ‘perfect murder’ – a crime that shall be motiveless and therefore impossible to detect. Brandon (played by Brian) and Granillo (Anthony Ireland) kill another undergraduate as an expression of their supposed intellectual superiority. In order to savour new sensations of horror, they invite his family and friends to supper, serving food on the chest which contains the body.
The atmosphere of terror achieved by the play was remarkable.
Soon, he would appear on Broadway in ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’ acting alongside the great American actress Katharine Cornell.
Brian Aherne was an ‘actor’s actor’ and a great leader within his profession.
Events were set in motion for a British Actors’ Equity on December 1st 1929 at a special meeting at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London.
In early February 1930 there was a meeting where a draft constitution, modelled on the American Actors’ Equity Association, was drawn up by committee consisting of Dame May Whitty, Godfrey Teale, Brian Aherne, Fisher White, Lewin Mannering, Bromley Davenport and Coulson Gilmour.
Brian Aherne was by then well known for his role in ‘Rope’ at the Ambassador’s Theatre.
A campaign was launched to try to bring about 100% organisation among entertainment workers in the country. On 18 May 1930 there was another meeting at the New Theatre, St Martin’s Lane and another meeting at the Duke of York’s Theatre.
The stalls and circle were full and on stage were Dame May Whitty, Marie Burke, Alfred M Wall (London Trades Council), Godfrey Tearle, Brian Aherne, Fisher White, Lewin Mannering, Coulson Gilmer, Hannen Swaffer and George Hicks.
There was another meeting in July attended by Ethel Barrymore.
Brian was involved in the early Equity meetings until 1933.
In the United States he was one of the few actors from Hollywood’s British Colony who helped new arrivals from his homeland in the difficult job of making a start in the movie business. Alan Napier said that Brian was the kindest person to him, opening doors. Brian remained Napier’s staunchest friend.
Brian helped the British Red Cross in 1940, presenting them with £30K and four ambulances.
BRIAN AHERNE (1902-1986)
Brian Aherne – The Motion Picture Star
Brian had a career in British Cinema starting in the Silent period. His early films still attract a lot of interest. Not enough interest is given to his first Talkie: a brilliant film – The W-Plan.
He made his first Hollywood picture for Paramount Pictures in 1933. As a leading man he was tall, masculine and had a stubbornness and a free spirit – an attitude that appealed to male cinema-goers at the time. He seemed to endow his screen characters with traits that were ‘typically British’.
In American films, he was most frequently cast as a man in authority: impeccably mannered and meticulously groomed. He epitomized the debonair, self-assured British gentleman.
He played opposite some of the most glamorous actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age: Marlene Dietrich, Merle Oberon, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, Carole Lombard, Rita Hayworth, Grace Kelly, Jean Simmons and others . . .
Several of Brian’s leading ladies specifically requested him for their pictures.
The camera loved him . . . he was the perfect motion picture star.
A few highlights from Brian’s film career – from 1925 onwards . . .
Brian’s English Rose, Madeleine Carroll
Brian Aherne conducts the orchestra in this scene from The Constant Nymph (1933). He’s world-famous composer Lewis Dodd. This scene was filmed at The Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, London – original home of ‘The Proms’. Shortly after bowing out – to the notes of Elgar – this building was sadly lost forever in May 1941, after an incendiary bomb caused irreparable damage.
Mr Shalimar: As my friend Eugene O’ Neill used to say:
‘When you get older it’s the things you didn’t do that cause you the most pain.’
Mr Shalimar: You know Bernard Shaw was right:
“Youth is such a wonderful thing.
What a pity it’s wasted on the young.”
Miss Farrow: Are you still pinching all the girls?
Mr Shalimar: Well, of course I’m still pinching all the girls.
You don’t think I’m interested in their minds, do you?
Have dinner with me tonight?
Miss Farrow: Promise no pinching?
Mr Shalimar: I promise nothing.
And just so that you feel completely at home,
do remember that I’m a married man.
Miss Farrow: Of course you are.
What a darling you are to remind me.
Brian Aherne – The Saint
Best of Friends
Los Angeles first got to see Brian when ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’ came to the Biltmore Theater in 1932.
Brian first met Ronald Colman at an after-show party in this city.
A British actor, Colman was an established star by the early 30s, quite some years before the British Invasion of Hollywood had truly begun. It was Colman who welcomed Brian into his circle, inviting him on boat trips out to Catalina Island, or motor trips taking in the California coastlines, deserts and mountains.
A few years later Colman married Brian’s old friend from the London Theatre – Benita Hume.
As a group they maintained strong ties to the old country – so much so that the term British Colony was no understatement.
It was a friendship that lasted years.
Brian Aherne – Aviator
“Do you have doubts about your ability as a pilot?
Well, don’t let that worry you. Just go ahead and fly anyway.”
Brian Aherne, 1942
MARRIAGE TO JOAN FONTAINE
A TRIP TO THE NOTTINGHAM EMPIRE (May, 1938)
. . . Tonights lineup – The Houston Sisters (or rather Renée in a hurriedly re-arranged act with her sister Shirley)
MC: ‘Renée, I’m going to surprise you.
Renée: ‘Be a sport darling, and do that.’
MC: ‘Now, Ladies and Gentlemen – Just wait for this.’
‘There’s a movie star up in the box.’
MC: ‘In fact we have BOTH Aherne Brothers: Brian and Pat.’
‘We’d like to shine the spotlight on them!’
Renée: ‘I wouldn’t bother doing that, ducks –
or they will get up and walk out.
They’re very retiring, you know.’
STAGE DOOR OF THE NOTTINGHAM EMPIRE
Reporter: ‘Have you come to Nottingham to see Renée Houston?’
Brian: ‘I enjoyed the show immensely. I cannot understand why films haven’t got her!’
Brian: ‘Has everyone here now switched to using the mikes?’
Pat: ‘Yes and yet the Music Hall was once the stronghold of the human voice.’
Reporter: ‘What is it like to be back in the old country, Mr Aherne?
Brian: ‘Very convivial! I’m having a splendid holiday and excited to be visiting your city.’
Reporter: ‘Will you be staying here long?’
Brian: ‘I’m going to visit a lot of theatres in London and Paris.’
Brian: ‘I’m finding many things are new. Your streets here are curiously different.’
Reporter: ‘Hollywood must be a fine place.’
Brian: ‘You would be surprised. In Hollywood they are sacking hundreds of stenographers and other people in behind the scenes roles.’
Brian: ‘I hope conditions are better now in Nottingham. How many are unemployed?’
MARRIAGE TO ELEANOR
Eleanor Aherne with her brother ‘Delly’ (Alfred de Liagre) – legendary Broadway producer and director.
BRIAN AHERNE BETTER HOMES
Pevensey – where siblings: Pat, Brian and Elana, spend family holidays.
Sun and sand and houses bordering the sea.
In the 1930s Brian buys this Santa Monica beach house from Cary Grant and Barbara Hutton.
Today, a stylish residence, with many memories.
It’s a home from home for some of Brian’s best buddies.
That pool attracts many a Hollywood recluse.
Above: Dedicated to Mrs Eleanor Aherne.
The beach too – always ideal for a photo shoot.
Brian in Brum
The only way is Birmingham (England)
A HOLLYWOOD STAR RETURNS HOME (October, 1949)
The suburbs of Birmingham, England.
Parking a hired black Ford 8 outside the gate of a house, Brian Aherne steps out, leaving his wife Eleanor inside the car.
He’s a local boy – returning after forty years. He was only seven when he left.
‘Can I come in and take a look? I’m Brian Aherne. I was born here.’
‘Back then, the house was surrounded by fields, everywhere you looked.’
‘This is something. I’m moved.’
‘Pat told me not to come back but I had to. And Eleanor wanted to see the place while we were here on holiday.’
Above: An old home: Monyhull Cottage, Monyhull Hall road, King’s Norton, England.
‘Hallfield! By gad! Are we all becoming Catholics!’
‘In my day, this was where they sent the sons of gentlemen. How the world is changing!’
Above: Building that housed the original Hallfield Prep School (1908-1933) where Brian was a day pupil for a while. Located near Egbaston Old Church, for some years the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus (set up by Cornelia Connelly) moved its girls’ school here at the invitation of Birmingham’s Catholic Archbishop, to train ‘better class Catholics’ – for whom, in 1933, there was ‘no provision in the city. (my thanks to J.M.C. Hill and C. Stinton)
Above: The old Market Hall, Birmingham, England.
‘Oh my giddy aunt! The old Market Hall.’
‘How can it have come to this. Now a bombed-out shell.’
Will I ever forget Pet’s Corner and the meat and fish stalls?
So many memories. The quaint old English ways were the best!’
‘Well, enough sad thoughts.’
‘Eleanor, the time has now come for you to taste your first cockle.’
‘Blessed heavens – Corporation Street. Exactly the same!’
‘Ah! Here we are – corner of Fore Street. Pattison’s. Home of the farthing bun. You had to get here early, mind. They used to sell these in the early mornings.’
‘Eleanor, my sweet. One iced bun for you.’
BRIAN’S EARLY LOVE
Brian and Clare Eames in ‘The Silver Cord.’
On September 13th, 1927 a new production (by Daniel Mayer and Alec Rea) began its run at St Martin’s Theatre. The play was based on a story Sidney Howard had written.
Sidney Howard – notable for the part he had played in American theatre’s fight against censorship, began casting ’The Silver Cord’ with his wife Clare Eames. The couple, who had arrived in London that August, immediately hired the 25 year-old actor whom they likened to ‘the Hermes of Praxiteles’.
The play is about mother-love or rather egotism: a woman fighting against a son’s natural affection for his wife.
’The Silver Cord’ had recently been performed by the New York Theatre Guild. The critics considered the last act of the London production ‘magnificent drama’. Clare Eames was praised by the London critics for her tense emotional feeling.
David Phelps, studying architecture, has met Christina – a young biologist, abroad and married her. They return home to life in New York but Mrs Phelps has made other plans for her son to keep him in a small provincial town. There begins a tussle between mother and buoyant young wife. News of a coming child is received coldly. Young Robert Phelps is engaged to Hester. Mrs Phelps hates her too!
Mrs Phelps – Lilian Brathwaite
Christina – Clare Eames
David – Brian Aherne
Robert – Denys Blakelock
Hester – Marjorie Mars
Maid – Jane Millican
Eight years older than the young actor, Clare was like a teacher to Brian. She gave him a copy of Anna Karenina. Like someone with a sort of ‘divine spark’, she once said to him:
“Be true to the God within you . . . Listen to your own secret heart and you can do no wrong.”
And so began a close friendship that lasted until Clare’s untimely death at the age of 36. She died at Trumpeter’s House, Old Palace Yard, Richmond, Surrey – a beautiful Queen Anne house that was home to close friends of the Aherne family.
Her loss deeply affected Brian.
Clare had been one of the players in the The Swan (1925) – a silent film produced by Famous Players-Lasky distributed by Paramount Pictures. When an MGM remake was made in 1956 Brian Aherne acted the part of a man who has left the halls of privilege to become a monk.