Like other actors featured on this blog, Brian Aherne started his career in English film in the 1920s, before moving to Hollywood in the 1930s. Unlike some of his contemporaries, however, he was able to establish a long and successful career in the US, which lasted until the 1960s. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico in the 1939 US production Juarez. The seeds of this career were sown in interwar London.
Aherne’s full name was William Brian de Lacy Aherne, which hints at his upper middle-class background. His father was an architect, his mother an actress; Aherne trained in his father’s profession before deciding to follow into his mother’s footsteps instead and pursue acting. He started out on the stage and landed his first film role in 1924, in a supporting role in the no longer extant film The Eleventh Commandments (dir. George A Cooper).
Aherne quickly moved into leading man parts and working with established directors; he was directed by Sinclair Hill in The Squire of Long Hadley and by veteran director Henry Edwards in King of the Castle, both released in 1925. He returned to work with Hill two years later in A Woman Redeemed. However, modern audiences are most likely to have seen Aherne in one of the two silent films he made with Anthony Asquith: Shooting Stars (1928) and Underground (1928). Both have been restored and re-released by the BFI in the last ten years so are readily available to us.
In both films, Aherne plays a good, kind and dependable man who has to endure adversity in his romantic relationships. His even features and a slightly dreamy look in his eyes made him a suitable romantic hero. In Shooting Stars, he plays Julian Gordon, an actor married to actress Mae Feather. Julian and Mae often act together in genre flicks in which he is the hero to her damsel in distress. Off set, however, their relationship is far from happy, and Mae enters into an affair with another actor, the comedian Andy Wilkes.
Mae worries that she will suffer professionally if she were to divorce Julian, so instead she hatches a plan. The couple are recording a western film, and are due to record a scene in which a stooge has to shoot at Julian with a shotgun. Mae secretly puts a live bullet in the gun, hoping that Julian will die and she can pass it off as a freak accident. Of course, the plan goes wrong; the bullet instead hits Andy, who is filming on an adjacent sound stage. Julian realises what Mae was planning and leaves her; her career is destroyed as a result, whilst Julian becomes a successful director.
Much of the joy from viewing Shooting Stars is derived from its tongue-in-cheek knowingness about the film industry, which is perfectly encapsulated by its double-entendre title. Julian’s graduation from actor to director reflects (not very subtly) his journey from a naïve young man to someone who literally calls the shots. Shooting Stars includes a telling scene in which Julian, as yet unaware of Mae’s infidelity, goes to the cinema to watch one of their own films, a typical action flick. He sits among the young boys in the audience and becomes completely engrossed in the fantasy-world in which he is Mae’s hero, saving her from danger. Although Mae is certainly positioned as a cold-hearted, manipulating woman, Aherne’s performance also initially shows Julian as gullible and a bit foolish. By the end of the film, director Julian is hardened and unmoved by Mae’s distress.
Aherne followed Shooting Stars immediately with a lead role in Underground, in which he played London Underground employee Bill. Underground portrays the romantic entanglements between four individuals, and uses the space of a London Underground station to link them together. Bill works as an attendant in the station, helping travellers to find the right trains, making sure they do not fall of the escalator, and answering any queries they may have. He meets Nell when she drops her glove whilst travelling up the escalator. It is love at first sight, but Nell is already being pursued by Bert, a worker at Lott’s power station. Bert in turn has an admirer in the seamstress Kate, who lives in the same boarding house as him.
As soon as Bert realises that Bill is his rival for Nell’s interests, he sends Kate to the underground station; she does as Bert says in the vain hope she will win his affection. Kate manages to lure Bill to an emergency staircase off the main Tube platform, under false pretences. She then waits for the platform to fill up before running out of the staircase and accusing Bill of assaulting her. As planned by Bert, Nell witnesses the incident and she (temporarily) withdraws from Bill as a result. To resolve the misunderstanding and win back Nell, Bill must fight Bert, in this case physically. He succeeds, and the film ends with Nell and Bill united in matrimonial bliss. Like Julian in Shooting Stars, Brian Aherne’s character in Underground starts out as an innocent, but matures through adversity and by tapping in to more traditionally ‘masculine’ behaviours.
After the transition to sound film, Aherne’s last notable British film appearance was his role as Lewis Dodd in the 1933 version of The Constant Nymph (directed by Basil Dean). The 1928 silent film based on the same source material, in which Ivor Novello played Dodd, is the one that is best remembered today. By the time the version with Aherne was released in cinemas, he was already across the Atlantic and appeared opposite Marlene Dietrich in Song of Songs (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933). By the time of his death, Aherne was generally remembered as a Hollywood actor first; but as his appearance in two of the best-known British films of the late silent period testifies, he was also a part of the cultural scene in interwar London.