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That Brennan Girl

Director Alfred Santell's final film was That Brennan Girl (1946), a melodrama of young motherhood made for Republic Pictures. It holds up well as vivid, stylish and consistently compelling, but it was not a happy experience for the veteran director and actually drove him way from the industry for good.

The film stars Mona Freeman as the daughter of a neglectful single mother (June Duprez) who grows into a cynical woman against the backdrop of San Francisco. Eventually she too becomes a single mother, but she is determined not to let history repeat itself. James Dunn, fresh off his Oscar-winning performance in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), is on hand as an Irish racketeer who takes an interest in Freeman and her child.

The underrated Santell had directed for many major studios dating back to 1917. In an unpublished 1972 interview with William Dorward, held in the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, Santell explained how he came to direct his final two features for Republic, which at the time was seen as practically a Poverty Row studio. An old friend of his, James Granger, had lost his job as an executive at Fox and been hired by Republic, where he wanted to "change the whole tenor" of the studio by bringing in top directors like John Ford, Irving Cummings and Santell to make prestige pictures. "Because of my great friendship for Jimmy Granger, I fell for this thing," recalled Santell. He struck a deal with Republic chief Herbert J. Yates that allowed him autonomy as producer and director, and then he called on his old friend Adela Rogers St. John to write an original story for what was meant to be his first Republic feature: That Brennan Girl. St. John was a top writer who had previously worked with Santell on the hit World War I themed drama The Patent Leather Kid (1927).

Meanwhile, Yates called Santell in for a meeting and asked if he was "a company man." Yates had just struck a deal with someone he called "the hottest property I think there is to be in pictures": a Mexican singing star named Tito Guizar. Santell later described Guizar as "the Mexican Elvis Presley"--he didn't mean it as a compliment--and the next thing he knew, he found himself roped into directing a movie starring this singer, Mexicana (1945), which Santell said "nearly did me in" because of all the interference from Yates.

Only after Mexicana did Santell finally start work on That Brennan Girl, and Yates interfered again. In a key early scene, for instance, a girl holding some flowers she has picked for her mother climbs three flights of steps in a tenement; she opens the door, finds her mother with another man, and drops the flowers, with the camera capturing their fall all the way to the ground. Yates argued that one flight was enough and that building a set with three flights would be too costly and unnecessary. It was an utterly typical criticism from the penny-pinching Yates, but it drove Santell crazy; he said it was simply one of many similar squabbles he had to endure throughout production. After the film, Santell quit his contract, left Republic, and never made another film, mainly because "Yates personified the executive that was going to take over the industry. You have him today at every large studio, and you can see the results of the lack of showmanship, the lack of knowledge of story value." Yates tried hard to lure Santell back in order to make a picture starring Yates's wife, Vera Ralston, but Santell declined.

Despite the drama behind the scenes, That Brennan Girl was well received upon its release on December 23, 1946. "[Santell] gets high quality production out of limited materials and his direction works script and actors for full value," said Variety. "Femmes looking for a chance to enjoy a binge of good, wholesome, tear-compelling sentiment can't go wrong with That Brennan Girl. The film has three distinct types of mothers, a cute baby, a wayward son who reforms, a girl who starts bad but makes good."

Many critics had high marks for Freeman, with the Los Angeles Times praising her "quiet skill and sincerity" and The Hollywood Reporter predicting the film "should establish young Mona Freeman."

The film was re-issued in 1951 under the title Tough Girl. In 2018, it was re-released in a fine restoration thanks to Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation and the work of Paramount preservationists led by Andrea Kalas.

By Jeremy Arnold



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