Friday, November 9, 2012

Friday Favorites - Brian Donlevy

Brian Donlevy was a character actor, most famous for playing heavies, villains and secondary characters... but he had a certain kind of class that made him especially good in these roles.  He was nominated for an Oscar when he played the villain in Beau Geste in 1939, but imho, it's his sense of humor, and tragedy, that made him shine.

And two films he made right around the same time are both in my list of about 70 flicks on my top ten list.  Destry Rides Again, 1939, and The Great McGinty, 1940.

Destry Rides Again, is a comic western, made in 1939 by Universal.  It stars Jimmy Stewart as the son of a famous sheriff who is called to clean up a really wild town... and he shows up without guns.  He just kind of drawls his way through the job, but there's steel behind the smile.  I could say that Destry probably is (somewhere back in the mists of my past) an influence on my creation of Mick McKee.

Perfect as Jimmy Stewart is in the lead role, he has a LOT of competition.  Marlene Dietrich staged a come back in the brawling, sassy role of the bad girl who falls for Tom Destry. The flick is elbow deep in other character actors, from Jack Carson to Mischa Auer to Una Merkel.  But, imho, it's Brian Donlevy who really makes the balance work.

He's the villain, and he plays it with no redeeming qualities, except a surprisingly genuine laugh.  He enjoys his job as town boss, but not in a sadistic way.  Sure, he's plenty mean. It's just that the joy doesn't come from the mean part.  The joy comes from being the boss, being clever and winning. There is something of the selfish child in his town boss.

The Great McGinty was the very next film he made, in 1940.  I was going to make this the subject of today's post all by itself, but I think we've had enough politics.  (Also, it meshes badly with modern politics, at least right now.  Some who had to fight to vote this election cycle might find themselves wincing at the voter fraud stuff at the beginning, for instance.)

However, like a lot of Preston Sturgis comedies, this story isn't really about politics.  The political corruption here is generic and the fodder for character jokes.  It does have a message about the human spirit and overcoming adversity with good humor, but also never quite overcoming your own limitations.  This theme is personified first and last and in the middle by Donlevy's performance.

He plays McGinty, a bum who finds out that he can make money voting for the crooked mayor, so he votes 37 times, thereby gaining the attention of the mobster political boss, played by Akim Tamiroff.  But what really gets Tamiroff's attention is McGinty's streetwise innocence. He may be cautious, but he's also fearless.  He's a cagey grifter and earnestly loyal all at once.  He's a wrong guy with a heart of gold.

And one of the people he's not afraid of is Tamiroff.  But since he has no ambitions of his own, that just makes him the perfect minion.

The story is full of clever dialog and great timing and fun, and clever shifts, sometimes misleading shifts. I am very fond of the framing device in which the story of McGinty's rise and fall is told in a small bar in a banana republic, implying it might be true or it might not.

One thing about Donlevy that comes out in both roles -- McGinty, and the town boss in Destry -- is his ability to play a guy a little beyond his own limits.  He has power, and wits, and just enough class to rise higher than he ever ought to, but the brawling street kid is always present, and you can see in his eyes that he's always aware that the joke may be on him, that he always has to be wary, that others may be smarter and more sophisticated than he is.

That quality, his awareness of the chinks in his own armor, give a tragic quality to even his most evil villains, and even in McGinty, his most likeable antihero.

Few lead actors do this well. They always seem to be acting, but some manage to just get it across with the eyes like Donlevy did: Bogie mastered it, Steve McQueen did it well, and so does Daniel Craig....

Which leads me to next week.  With the third of Craig's Bond pictures coming out this weekend, I will talk about James Bond in next week's Friday Favorites - Daniel Craig and Judi Dench.

See you in the funny papers.

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