Tag Archives: William Demarest

The Great McGinty (1940, Preston Sturges)

The Great McGinty has a gentle surprise ending. Not a twist. More a reveal, which then recasts the previous ninety minutes and change in a slightly different light. Because McGinty has a very deliberate bookending—there’s even a title card to explain the setting. An unnamed banana republic, two American ex-pats on the run from bad decisions, though one is a wrong guy who made a right choice and the other is a right guy who made the wrong choice. Louis Jean Heydt is, presumably, the right guy. He’s drinking himself to death and getting sympathy from good girl bar dancer Steffi Duna, who’s really just looking out for him in one of the film’s many nice humanity observations. Eventually they end up at the bar, where bartender Brian Donlevy (sporting an amazing blond dye-job) tells them if they want to hear a sad story, just listen up.

Donlevy doesn’t narrate the flashbacks; there are occasional mid-shelf bookends where the film checks back in on Donlevy, Duna, and Heydt, but they don’t have any presence during the flashbacks. They’re passively present, which is kind of important for Donlevy’s character arc and the final reveal. Sturges has a gentle touch with the narrative; he never gives too much the impression of guiding the narrative, just as comfortable with slowing down the present action as speeding it up and skipping ahead in time. Donlevy’s story starts on an election night; he’s in a soup line, one of the forgotten men of the Great Depression. If he goes to vote for the mayor, he can make a couple bucks. All he’s got to do is vote. Though not under his own name. William Demarest explains the whole scheme to Donlevy (and the audience), establishing that gentle touch of Sturges’s what will be the film’s many information dumps. Donlevy ends up Great because he’s a success in a city’s political Machine. Sturges has to explain a lot about that Machine’s procedures. And he’s got to make them palatable. So he gives them to Demarest, who’s cranky and hilarious about the whole thing, and to Akim Tamiroff, who’s explosive and hilarious about the whole thing. Tamiroff’s the big boss. Donlevy goes from paid voter to protection collector to alderman to whatever he wants in record time. He makes it because Tamiroff likes Donlevy’s initiative and lack of fear.

Even though there’s constant danger, Sturges makes it feel entirely immaterial to the plot (even though the audience knows Donlevy at least doesn’t die thanks to the bookend). But Sturges doesn’t leverage having those bookends to keep Donlevy safe, he puts it into the script, gets it out of Donlevy’s performance—Tamiroff walks away with every scene he’s in, he’s awesome; Demarest doesn’t walk away with his scenes (except when they’re just his scenes) but he definitely distracts from the action; female lead Muriel Angelus does walk off with the scene, but usually without having to move. More on her soon. But Donlevy doesn’t get to be flashy, he doesn’t get to be outrageous. He gets to show excitement, he gets to show outrage, he gets to show love. But all at very human levels. Angelus’s human, but the way Sturges composes her shots, she’s angelically functional. It’s like Sturges sketches a caricature in the script and, with his actors’ performances, together they make it into a full character. But Donlevy doesn’t get that synthesis, not the same way. There’s no compensating for his performance. Donlevy’s always got to be the straight man, which makes for an interesting character arc. He never gets a dramatic character move. His character development has to lead the narrative, but it also doesn’t get to be directly addressed.

One result of that approach is the ending reveal working so well. Sturges sets up the narrative distance in the opening bookend and never changes it too much. There’s always a definite distance between the film and Donlevy’s protagonist and narrator, making enough room for Tamiroff to live large in the first half, then Angelus in the second. But when Tamiroff’s big, it’s still Donlevy’s movie. When Angelus’s big, it’s kind of more her movie. Because she’s getting to see behind Donlevy’s scrappy, functional exterior. And sometimes the interior is just as scrappy and functional, which then leads to more context for Donlevy’s character and more potential for Donlevy and Angelus’s relationship. She’s the single mom, Machine secretary who sees his potential for greatness, even before she realizes she sees it. She and Donlevy have this quiet relationship in the middle of all this noise and Sturges focuses more on Angelus in those scenes, leading to some awesome little moments in both her performance and the film. Sturges’s direction of the cast on the film is spectacular.

There’s a lot of nice echoing in Sturges’s script. Gentle but deliberate, like everything else. He’s also able to get a lot of laughs out of not necessarily humorous situations. It’s a great script.

The whole thing’s great. So great I wish I’d been making Great puns right from the start. And don’t let the last paragraph of them dissuade you on The Great McGinty—Sturges, Donlevy, Angelus, and Tamiroff do some… exceptional work on it.

The Great McGinty. It’s terrific.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by Hugh Bennett; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Paul Jones; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Brian Donlevy (Dan McGinty), Muriel Angelus (Catherine), Akim Tamiroff (The Boss), William Demarest (Skeeters), Libby Taylor (Bessy), Donnie Kerr (Donnie), Mary Thomas (Mary), Allyn Joslyn (George), Louis Jean Heydt (Tommy Thompson), and Steffi Duna (The Dancing Girl).



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Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Preston Sturges)

Sullivan’s Travels is almost impossibly well-constructed. Director Sturges, editor Stuart Gilmore and photographer John F. Seitz go through various, entirely different narrative devices and do them all perfectly. Whether it’s a high speed chase, Veronica Lake having a screwball comedy sequence on the studio backlot, Lake and lead Joel McCrea having soul-searching conversations, McCrea and Lake in a lengthy sequence without dialogue, nighttime suspense sequences, over and over, Sturges, Gilmore and Seitz create these masterful scenes. Every time it seems like Sturges’s direction can’t get better, it does, like Gilmore’s cuts can get better, they do, Seitz’s photography always one ups itself. Sullivan’s Travels is a very serious film about learning why laughing is so important. It’s amazing, start to finish.

McCrea and Lake are both essential to the picture’s success. There are some great supporting performances, but it’s all about Lake and McCrea. He starts the film without her (and goes into the third act minus her as well); once she arrives though, Sturges is able to move the story–and McCrea’s character–along their trajectory. Even though before Lake, Travels is excellent (that fantastic chase sequence is pre-Lake), once she shows up it becomes clear Sturges is going to go all over with the film. He’s already got a phenomenal pace set up and then he just keeps going with it. There’s a delineated structure to the film–McCrea’s always telling people the plan and how the film’s going to progress (at least geographically)–and Sturges sticks to it just long enough to get to the next reveal, the next approach. Only McCrea and Lake, who have a lot of searching conversations (he’s the Hollywood success story, she’s the Hollywood failure story and Travels is very much a film about Hollywood), get some repetition. And some of the supporting cast gets similar scenes. But once things are well enough underway, Sturges has nothing but surprises for Lake and McCrea (and the audience).

Sturges gives McCrea and Lake this awesome dialogue and then directs them in a way as to lean on their performances. For an auteur, Sturges knows he needs his stars. Lake’s a little more impressive because she doesn’t get the protagonist part and she does have to immediately challenge McCrea. She stakes out her part in the film and never lets it go, which Sturges utilizes to get effect out of Lake’s presence, whether she gets lines in a scene or not. It’s a comedy trick applied to drama, but he also uses it for comedy in Sullivan’s Travels. There’s so many different styles, especially since large portions of the film are shot outside. When Lake gets her screwball race through the backlot, it’s another commentary on the reality of Hollywood.

Excellent score from Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken.

It’s mind-boggling how many great things going on and how those things interact with each other. Sturges bites off a lot, chews it, bites off even more–writing about the film is frustrating. There’s always something else to be said about it, always something else deserving of mention or exploration–Lake as “The Tramp” and how that disguise comments on Hollywood’s portrayal of poverty. Sullivan’s Travels is a masterpiece.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Stuart Gilmore; music by Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joel McCrea (John L. Sullivan), Veronica Lake (The Girl), Robert Warwick (Mr. LeBrand), Porter Hall (Mr. Hadrian), Robert Greig (Sullivan’s Butler), Eric Blore (Sullivan’s Valet) and William Demarest (Mr. Jones).


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Love on the Run (1936, W.S. Van Dyke)

Joan Crawford is top-billed in Love on the Run. Unfortunately, she has absolutely nothing to do in the entire film. Maybe if Clark Gable had something to do besides deceiving everyone (and then rescuing Crawford) the movie might make it through better, but he doesn’t. Love on the Run is eighty somewhat charming minutes of Gable being a lovable cad and Crawford mooning over him. And Franchot Tone. Can’t forget him–the film asks him to play the most thankless third wheel comic relief and he does it. He tries hard and gets no reward, just dumber as the plot requires more and more stupidity from him.

Love on the Run has an inexplicably big scale idea–Gable and Crawford trying to escape saboteurs and newspapermen throughout the French countryside–and small-scale execution. Director Van Dyke rushes through the exterior shots (it’s backlot) with a bunch of “good enough” touches to imply France. He’s trying to get through these shots, not enjoy them. A Continental adventure requires some enthusiasm in the Continent. Crawford does get one great moment where she calls to a dog. You have to see the movie. Unfortunately Van Dyke rushes through the shot–everything is in medium long shot. There’s some nice work from Van Dyke in a train station, but it’s a set; he’s far more comfortable with the interiors, but most of them lack interesting layouts. Van Dyke is competent, but too resigned to the idea of Love on the Run as a quick amusement.

Gable and Crawford, even with a lame script, have a lot of charm. Crawford’s able to fake chemistry when Gable’s just doing a comedy routine at her. When they get sincere, they’re great. But since Gable’s character is such a heel–and Crawford has so little character–there’s no bonding during their courtship. They’re mostly performing, not acting.

And Tone. Poor Tone. He’s the butt of Gable’s jokes and gags (Love on the Run could’ve been slapstick), but Tone works it. He tries really hard not to embarrass himself, really hard to impress. It’s a standout performance in a film not meant to leave much impression.

The supporting cast could be a lot better. Reginald Owen and Mona Barrie are boring as the villains. Maybe if John Lee Mahin, Manuel Seff and Gladys Hurlbut’s screenplay didn’t forget about them for a half hour. But there are a lot of maybes with the screenplay.

Donald Meek has a fantastic bit part as the caretaker of the Palace of Fontainebleau. The Palace of Fontainebleau has no place in Love on the Run because it’s a rush job, but Meek’s outstanding. Sadly, he’s the last significantly joyful moment in Love on the Run and he shows up long before the last act. Love on the Run is a screwball comedy without a good finish. Worse, Crawford is off screen for most of that finish. Gable is checked out for it. Tone is hustling though, his character dumber than ever.

Maybe Love needed a fourth screenwriter.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by John Lee Mahin, Manuel Seff and Gladys Hurlbut, based on a story by Alan Green and Julian Brodie; director of photography, Oliver T. Marsh; edited by Frank Sullivan; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Joan Crawford (Sally Parker), Clark Gable (Michael Anthony), Franchot Tone (Barnabus Pells), Reginald Owen (Baron Otto), Mona Barrie (Baroness Hilda), Ivan Lebedeff (Igor), Charles Judels (Lieutenant of Police), William Demarest (Lees Berger) and Donald Meek (Caretaker).


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE JOAN CRAWFORD BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Along Came Jones (1945, Stuart Heisler)

Along Came Jones gets by on its gimmick and its charm–it’s got a lot of charm, both from the cast and Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay, which is good as director Heisler doesn’t bring any. Jones is a lower budget Western, lots of rear screen projection, lots of boring setups from Heisler. He prefers medium long shots, avoiding close-ups for most of the supporting cast. He also doesn’t have much of a feel for the material.

Gary Cooper plays the titular Jones. He stumbles his way into a mistaken identity story–everyone thinks he’s gunfighter Dan Duryea but he’s actually just a bit of a doofus. Cooper has fun with the role. It’s thinner than it should be since Heisler isn’t doing much directing of the cast. Johnson’s script has something approximating an arc for Cooper but it doesn’t really come off. As the film resolves itself, it gets its pass not for a creative conclusion but for everything leading up to it. Maybe if the film weren’t so breezily paced, the soft ending might hurt it more. But Jones moves along–the middle section is a lot of lengthy action sequences and they’re solid. Johnson knows how to pace the dialogue and the action. Heisler handles that section best, though just as indistinctly as the rest of the picture.

There’s also a love triangle–Cooper gets himself into the mess over Duryea’s girlfriend, played by Loretta Young. It’s mildly successful. Duryea’s got no personality in Jones; he’s okay, but unenthusiastic. Young’s enthusiastic. She and Cooper have enough chemistry they keep bumping against Heisler’s plodding direction. Especially since doofus Cooper is magic with the ladies. It ought to be a lot funnier, but it isn’t. When he’s not pressed for time, Heisler misses the script’s beats.

William Demarest plays Cooper’s suffering sidekick. It’s William Demarest, he does fine. It’s not a particularly good part though. Johnson’s script is more concerned with the pace than the characters. It’s not a bad script, it’s just overly pragmatic, overly confident in its actors to give it more heft than it might deserve. It’s a mildly successful move from Johnson and Cooper (who also produced). Overall though, Jones just seems like a missed opportunity. It’s got a great cast, it could’ve been more than a diverting comedy Western.

Along Came Jones moves well, it’s got a solid supporting cast (especially Don Costello), it’s got Cooper and Young. It’s just a shame it’s not a better made film–Heisler’s mediocre direction, Milton R. Krasner’s strangely boring photography (he doesn’t do anything with the sets) and Thomas Neff’s awkward editing. Heisler doesn’t know how to direct a gun fight. Even if Jones is a comedy, it’s a Western. You need a competent gun fight.

Anyway, it’s cute. It’s cute enough.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Heisler; screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on a novel by Alan Le May; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Thomas Neff; music by Arthur Lange; produced by Gary Cooper; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Gary Cooper (Melody Jones), Loretta Young (Cherry de Longpre), William Demarest (George Fury), Dan Duryea (Monte Jarrad), Frank Sully (Avery de Longpre), Don Costello (Leo Gledhill), Russell Simpson (Pop de Longpre) and Willard Robertson (Luke Packard).


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