Johnny Mack Brown: From
Gridiron Hero to Hollywood Hero
"Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their
names. And years later, they'll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just
to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer. I
believe there's a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength,
makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes
we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our
dreams." ~ Aunt May in Spiderman II
"In Hollywood - in Hollywood, you're as
good as your last picture." ~ Erich Von Stroheim
Fight on, fight on, fight on men!
Remember the Rose Bowl, we'll win then.
Go, roll to victory, Hit your stride,
You're Dixie's football pride,
Before every BAMA game and after every
BAMA score, we hear the tune of YEA, ALABAMA and most of us sing along. The
lyrics, often sung by heart by even toddlers, refer to the day BAMA won its
first national championship: January 1, 1926. Almost 90 years have passed since
the heroics of Alabama's first championship team in the Rose Bowl established
BAMA as a national power so memories of the 1925 squad are slowly fading from
popular culture. As the 2013 BAMA team attempts to make college football
history once more by winning three national championships in a row, it might be
appropriate to remind THE CRIMSON NATION of how "Dixie's Football
Pride" was able to first find it's way into the center of the national spotlight.
BAMA's football fortunes turned on a single
immortal play that Friday afternoon so long ago when the Tide went ahead of
Washington 14-12 on a third quarter Grant Gillis’ touchdown pass that was
caught by Johnny Mack Brown. Up to that point in time, Gillis' 59-yard pass was
the longest in Rose Bowl history and one of the longest in the entire history
of American football- college or pro. In his souvenir book of the 1926 Rose
Bowl, THE WILL TO WIN, Champ Pickens called the Gillis pass "the longest
ever thrown." After the 20-19 BAMA victory, Johnny Mack, who had caught
two touchdown passes and made a game winning tackle on the last play of the
game, was declared the game's Most Valuable Player and the wheels of progress
began to turn for this gridiron hero, rolling him along a path in life that
would see him become a Hollywood hero.
So how does a little barefooted boy who grew up
playing in the dusty streets of Dothan get himself out of the Piney Woods of
the Wiregrass and up on Hollywood's silver screen? It's an amazing story and
without the help of some loyal Crimson Tide fans, it never would have happened.
When Johnny Mack Brown
graduated from Dothan High in 1922, Southeast Alabama football had about as
much status in the Gulf South as CRIMSON TIDE football had on the national
scene. It was completely irrelevant. Southeast Alabama football was just as
irrelevant in our region as BAMA football was irrelevant to the entire nation.
Johnny Mack Brown was one of the first Southeast
Alabama players to ever be named to the All-State team much less get a football
scholarship to BAMA. In these first thirty years of its existence, the
BAMA team had never won a single championship in any league and only one player
in its entire history had made All American: Bully Van de Graaff in 1915.
Johnny Mack Brown would have a tremendous impact upon changing not only
the regional perception of Southeast Alabama football but also the national
perception of BAMA football.
In February of 1926 a reporter for the DOTHAN
EAGLE wrote that Johnny Mack Brown "is credited with doing more to
advertise Dothan than any other individual." The same could be said about
Brown's impact upon the nation's recognition of University of Alabama football.
When the 22-man BAMA squad arrived at its hotel in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl,
the chairman of the selection committee greeted Coach Wade and told him that
until Alabama Governor Brandon sent them a telegram urging them to consider
Alabama they'd "never heard of your team." Johnny Mack explained the
importance of the game years later when he said, "We were the first
Southern team ever invited to participate. We were supposed to be kind of lazy
down South- full of hookworm and all. Nevertheless, we came out here and beat
one of the finest teams in the country, making it a kind of historic event for
Southern football. We didn't play for Alabama, but for the whole South."
After Bama's victory, Ed Danforth of the ATLANTA
CONSTITUTION wrote, "The South will outdo itself in welcoming Mack Brown
home. It should. He has written DIXIE all over California."
A Chinese philosopher once
said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” For Johnny
Mack Brown, it may be said that his personal journey to California began on
Saturday, November 7, 1925, at Rickwood Field in Birmingham when he met actor
George Fawcett who had been allowed to sit on the BAMA bench during the
Kentucky game along with other Hollywood actors who were in town to make a film
called MEN OF STEEL. Fawcett told
Brown, ”You ought to come to Hollywood, son, and have a try at pictures.”
Johnny Mack and the
Alabama team got a step closer to California the next Friday night at the
Exchange Hotel in Montgomery. It was the evening before Saturday’s game with
Florida in Cramton Bowl. Coach Wallace Wade was in his hotel room when Champ
Pickens came in for a visit. Champ had no official title but in 1925 this
sports agent, promoter and advertising man acted as the Tide’s one-man athletic
director, recruiting coordinator and sports information officer. Champ said,
“Wallace, let’s go to the Rose Bowl.”
Wade’s reply was two
words: “Let’s do.”
Champ described what
happened next in his 1956 autobiography, A REBEL IN SPORTS:
“I knew he thought I was
joking, but I grabbed ahold of the old phone hanging on the wall, and put in a
call to Governor Brandon, an old friend. (ed. Note: Champ had been elected
Alabama State Representative from Sumter County in 1922 after promising
Budweiser’s August Busch that he would get elected so he could change Alabama’s
Prohibition laws so Bud could sell their “near-beer” Bevo. Champ failed to get
the law changed.)
‘Bill,’ I said, when I
finally reached him, ‘I want to send a wire and sign your name to it.’
Without even asking for an
explanation, he said, ‘Go right ahead, Champ.’
‘Don’t you want to know
what it’s all about?’ I asked.
The governor only
‘Forget the details,’ he
said, ‘and lots of luck.’
I phoned Western Union
that night and dictated the following message: ‘Speaking unofficially and
without knowledge of the University of Alabama authorities, I want to call your
attention to the Crimson Tide’s great football record this year. Alabama plays
Florida tomorrow for the championship. Please watch for score. If you are
interested in a real opponent for your West Coast team, then give Alabama
It was signed W.W.
Brandon, Governor of Alabama, and addressed to the chairman of the Tournament
of Roses Committee, Pasadena, California.
Champ could not have had
better timing. November of 1925 was the turning point for college football as
well as for professional football in America. Suddenly, with Red Grange playing
his last college game at Illinois and going pro, the word football was being
spelled with the letters M-O-N-E-Y. College presidents and editors across the
country were spilling all the ink they could get writing opinion pieces about
how the commercialization of the sport threatened “Mom, Apple Pie and The
American Way.” The cultural phenomena of “Red Grange” had made an invitation to
the Rose Bowl “politically incorrect” but there was a big crowd of Crimson Tide
supporters around Tuscaloosa ready to take advantage of this new opportunity
brought on by the self- righteous academic attacks on college football coming
from the Ivy League campuses.
BAMA had drawn a winning
hand and all they had to do was take care of Florida and Georgia. Florida fell
34-0 in Cramton Bowl on November 14 and Thanksgiving Day saw Georgia collapse
27-0 in Rickwood Field. As the train returning the team to Tuscaloosa pulled
out of Birmingham Terminal Station that evening, everything was coming up ROSES
for the Crimson Tide but when the professional football contracts promising
thousands emerged on the ride back to T-town, the celebration by the new Southern
League champs with hopes of a Rose Bowl bid was replaced by the somber tones of
a serious business discussion inside Coach Wade’s rail car.
Years later, in 1929, an
enterprising sports writer intent upon helping Johnny Mack’s movie career wrote
a wire service article using the headline, GRIDDER, LOYAL TO ALMA MATER, GETS
MOVIE JOB. The article, which also ran with the headline GRID STAR TURNED DOWN
$5000 BUT PICKED UP JOB IN MOVIES, went on to describe how Johnny Mack Brown’s
loyalty to BAMA caused him to refuse to sign a pro contract on the train coming
back from Birmingham that night after BAMA’s 1925 Thankgiving victory over
Georgia. In the story, Johnny Mack turned down a contract to play five games
for $5000 for a team of barn-stormers selected to play against a Red Grange led
professional team. The story has a Hollywood ending with Johnny Mack
sacrificing the money in order to play in the Rose Bowl and returns home to
spend the summer selling insurance, not knowing that soon his name would be up
in lights and he’d have a successful career on the screen. This story is
probably apocryphal, however, there’s no doubt that big money was being
promised on the train that night from non other than Champagne-Urbana,
Illinois, theater owner C.C. “Cash and Carry” Pyle, owner of Red Grange’s
A far more accurate
picture comes from Champ Pickens’ autobiography:
“No matter where I was or
what I was doing, I kept an eagle eye on the football fortunes at Tuscaloosa.
One season, right in the midst of a successful campaign, a big-time sports
promoter, Charlie Pyle, hit the Alabama campus with a bundle of greenbacks and
tried to lure Pooley Hubert away to join Red Grange’s All Stars. When I heard
of this attempted piracy, I got ahold of Pyle and promised him a compromise. We
arranged a meeting in a New York hotel room.
‘Charlie,’ I said, ‘I’ll
see that Pooley (ed. Note: quarterback of the ’25 BAMA squad) signs with you
for a post-season coast-to-coast tour if you will wait until the college season
‘All right,’ said Charlie,
‘But when BAMA finishes its season you agree to see that he comes with the
negotiated a contract that promised Pooley Hubert $5000 for ten games and
Hubert went on to play the next year with the All-Stars.
One of the reasons Johnny
Mack did not pursue a professional contract was due to the fact that he was
getting married and he really did have dreams of making it in Hollywood. There
are many unsubstantiated stories that Johnny Mack made a screen test during
Bama’s 1926 Rose Bowl trip. There probably was no screen test made in Hollywood
but what literally amounted to a screen test was the film of Johnny Mack and
the teams’ return to campus in which it was very obvious that the motion
picture camera was very kind to a 21 year old Johnny Mack Brown.
Again, we find the
evidence for this is in Champ Pickens’ A REBEL IN SPORTS:
“Movies of the Rose Bowl
Game were taken, and, as a means of recruiting new students, we showed them in
hamlets, towns and cities throughout the state. We always closed by saying,
‘Come to the University of Alabama.’
Johnny Mack Brown, a
regular big buster of a guy, with the profile of a matinee idol, stood out in
the film. He photographed particularly well. One night, at a showing I thought
particularly well. One night, at a showing, I thought to myself, ‘That big, handsome lug ought to be in
Johnny was earning outside
money for school by selling insurance. I went to him and told him about my plan
to get him in the movies. I’d be his agent. He agreed and we got on a train and
headed for Southern California. (ed. Note: This was BAMA’s 1927 Rose Bowl trip
where the team fought Stanford to a 7-7 tie and Johnny Mack served as backfield
Johnny’s screen test was a
smash hit. They offered us a five-year contract, with options. I told him to
sign. They put him in Westerns and he’s been making pictures since. How he
could remember his lines I will never know. His memory was terrible. They
called him ‘Dumb Dumb’ at Tuscaloosa because he had a hard time remembering
football signals. Coach Wallace Wade, in fact, had to install the huddle system
for Johnny’s benefit.
Once he got his signals
straight, however, it was a case of Mr. Brown doing it up brown.
He needed no script to
Now, thanks to Champ Pickens, we all know “the
rest of the story.”
From the Corolla
From the Corolla
From the Gargoyle. That's his youngest brother, David, walking next to him
Leslie Howard, Will Rogers, Carol Lombard, Spencer Tracy and JMB
All four men are holding their trophies for winning the game.
Miss Pelham is on the left. On the steps of the present-day Dothan High School.
The Brown Store in Downtown Dothan. I need this address.
JMB on the bench after a game was "on ice." He is surrounded by the Hollywood actors who were in B'ham making MEN OF STEEL.
publicity shot from the Twenties
From the Corolla
During his career in silent pictures, he was billed as both "John Mack Brown" and "Johnny Mack Brown".
Dell Comic Book
back cover of Dell Comic
wire service story printed in papers coast to coast at the beginning of the 1925 football season
First silent picture where Johnny Mack got star billing
wire service story printed in papers coast to coast during the summer of 1926
example of the way image quality varied from different newspapers
The Dothan Antelope in the 1926 Corolla
Johnny Mack changed the name of his horse from RENO to REBEL
Johnny Mack wasn't the first athlete to try out acting in Hollywood but he was the first one to be successful.
Johnny Mack wrote a great article comparing Mae West to Greta Garbo in a movie magazine.
Joan Crawford may have had a major role in ruining Johnny Mack's career as a leading man when talkies came in.
This was Mary Pickford's first talkie and she won the Academy Award. She
also introduced Johnny Mack and Connie to CHRISTIAN SCIENCE.
I'm pretty sure only 22 players went to the Rose Bowl from Tuscaloosa
and there were only two substitutions during the entire game.
Champ Pickens, Johnny Mack Brown's first agent
Headline from 1928/29 article
1926 Rose Bowl
Johnny Mack Brown's first starring role
still from THE FAIR CO-ED
Cornelia and Johnny Mack in the yard of their house, NINE GABLES, in Beverly Hills.