While this In Memoriam starts more like a traditional obit, I continue in my new tradition of enlivened posts, as opposed to Gene Wilder, where I posted clips, here I have entire features where you could build your own film festival if you want. Thanks, public domain!
Bobby Breen passed away on September 19th, 2016, he was born Isadore Borsuk in Montréal, Québec, Canada on November 4th, 1927; he was 88. His parents were Jewish immigrants from modern-day Ukraine (then USSR).
While the case with most child stars was that their parents that pushed them, Breen’s parents did not. His much older sister, a music student, discovered his talent and allowed him to pursue a career shortly after they moved to Toronto.
He was touted as the boy soprano. His voice is undoubtedly incredible but what’s really intriguing is the films are truly built around him and showcasing his singing.
Shortly after his first gig at a nightclub he started entering and winning competitions. In 1934 he was on a bus to Chicago and working in the theatre, with his surname already changed to the more anglophonic Breen.
A year later he was in Hollywood and Sol Lesser, a producer best known for discovering Jackie Coogan and being involved in many Tarzan renditions, signed him to RKO.
After some radio appearances his first film, Let’s Sing Again was released. Most of these videos are links to whole features. Enjoy!
After its success RKO signed him to a three-picture deal.
Rainbow on the River (1936)
How good or bad the films he was in usually hinged on how naturally the opportunities for him to unleash his voice were folded into the plot. On the rare occasion both of these combined perfectly.
Make a Wish (1937)
It may not be the best film he was in, I’d argue the melodrama Make a Wish was, but it may be the best showcase of his singing talent.
Way Down South (1939)
You can get this film on DVD with a great introduction by Lou Lumenick:
Breaking the Ice (1938)
However, like all his films it ends well and enjoyable enough to watch and there is decent spacing and plenty of singing.
Hawaii Calls (1938)
In 1939, following Escape to Paradise, and with two more films still on his contract. He retired from the industry.
Four films Bobby starred in were nominated for Academy Awards in scoring categories so they were fine productions.
Life After Film
In a 1977 article he discussed his decision to leave the industry:
When you’ve been a child star and suddenly find yourself with a husky voice, it’s hard to convince agents that you’re not over the hill. I stopped singing at 16 because of the huskiness and took up the piano. I had the knack for it, but never wanted to be a concert pianist. I just wanted to be back in the world I’d known all my life.
In 1942 he returned to appear in Johnny Doughboy as himself. This film is very hard to find, save for wildly overpriced Amazon resellers.
He served in the army during World War II, and despite not performing at the time, was recruited to entertain the troops along with Mickey Rooney. He did see action on the battlefront though. In 1945 he was hospitalized in France and won a Bronze Star after the war was over.
After retraining his adult voice over time he did return to performing in his new tenor range.
In 1964 he recorded an album with Motown called Better Late Than Never, which was not claimed not to be released. However, that song and some of his other recordings can be found on Spotify. These were his first recordings since 78 rpm releases in the 1930s.
In his later years he was living in Tamarac, Florida and was running Bobby Breen Enterprises which focused on local talent after having managed bookings of what he called the “Condominium Circuit” which meant hiring aging stars of the past.
Breen was also featured on the cover of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
He and his wife Audre died in the same week.
When I heard the news I thought I wouldn’t put down more words than these:
I have found more to say as I wanted to share these under-viewed films and his incomparable singing. The sad truth is that far too often human nature dictates that we don’t look to the past too often unless we hear of a death. However, since I first saw his films I’ve written of them, and saw this as a last chance to alert the uninitiated that there’s more out there than you realize, and you don’t know what you’re missing.
Rest in peace Bobby, may choirs of angels come to greet you.