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Tag Archives: William Demarest

Pardon My Sarong (1942)

11001879653_9d277517af_bOne of the things I always liked as a kid about Bud Abbot and Lou Costello movies was the ebullient mish-mash of comedy, music and even occasionally the dancing, all for less than 90 minutes. And the first twenty-five minutes of Pardon My Sarong has it all. It is my favorite twenty-five minutes in all their movies.

Abbott and Costello are bus drivers, Algy Shaw (Abbott) and Wellington Pflug (Costello), who have been hired by a rich playboy (Robert Paige) to drive him and his multitude of giggling female companions to his club, where he is going to enter a yacht race. Unfortunately, Algy and Wellington do not have the permission of the bus company to take their bus and the irate owners send out a detective to arrest them (if you look carefully, the meeting full of bus executives contains ubiquitous bit actors like Charles Lane and Chester Clute).

The songs at the club are provided by the Ink Spots, a quartet that was extremely popular in the 1940s. They sing “Do I Worry” and “Shout Brother, Shout.” The latter song is sung while Tip, Tap, & Toe – a tap dancing trio – perform a dance on a table, slipping and sliding and tapping on the well polished tabletop. I’ve always been a sucker for a tap dancing interlude in a movie and I particularly liked this one as a kid (I loved tap dancing so much I even took lessons for seven years – though I hardly recall a step now). If a tap dance were to break out in the middle of a film noir or horror movie I would probably still enjoy it.

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William Demarest shows off his warrant for their arrest, while Abbott and Costello have a look

During the singing, the spoiled playboy discovers that his agent stole the crew of a rival yachtsman, whose sister is now extremely angry with him (played by Virginia Bruce). Algy and Wellington run into the private detective (played by one of my favorite character actors, the always cantankerous William Demarest), who chases them into the backstage of a theater, where Marco the Magician is performing (Sig Arno, a Preston Sturges regular). Algy and Wellington pretend to be magicians and the three men have a field day among Marco’s various props, such as the inevitable trunk with the trap door. Costello even makes an omelette in Demarest’s hat.

That is the first twenty-five minutes, but the rest of the film is even more ridiculous. Virginia Bruce manages to accidentally get herself aboard Robert Paige’s yacht, along with Algy and Wellington, and they run into a storm and get lost at sea until they happen upon an island in the south seas, where they run into the villainous Lionel Atwill out to steal the native’s jewels while the natives think Wellington is a great hero.

The movie is politically incorrect, ridiculously plotted (Lionel Atwill’s plan is rather strange) with seriously Hollywoodized and naive natives (though the villains seem pretty dense, themselves) who sing and dance and turn their song in praise of their god into a jive song (and they wonder why the local volcano god is angry).

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The man with the headdress that looks like a white cake with candles on it is Leif Erickson. The chief’s feather headdress is also pretty wild

Another amusing visual gag in the second half is when Algy and Wellington are running away from Atwill’s henchmen and pose as statues while the henchmen mill about in perplexity. Every time the henchmen turn around, they are in a different pose. Abbott’s imitation of the blank and straight-faced look that many statues have is particularly good.

Lionel Atwill, that scion of classic horror movies, does hardly anything, but his very reputation as a horror actor lends suitable villainy to the proceedings. Leif Erickson has a role as a jealous warrior whose fiance is interested in Costello and gets to wear the most extraordinary hat you have ever seen. All the costumes are a riot, the music is lively (there was a craze for south seas music during the early forties), it’s fun to recognize all the different character actors and Abbott and Costello are in top form. Wacky, but I think one of their most entertaining films.

 

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2015 in Comedy

 

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The Great McGinty (1940) – Political Satire by Preston Sturges

greatmcgintyposter2My predominant impression of The Great McGinty is unfortunately somewhat overshadowed by the fact that I had a very bad stomach ache when I watched it, though it had nothing to do with the movie. I’ve been trying to watch all of Preston Sturges’ films and when one has a stomach ache it seems like a better idea to watch comedy than drama. Though I will note that laughter does not necessarily ease the pain.

Ironically enough, The Great McGinty is actually a comedic treatment of dramatic material: biting political satire with an ending that is funny, but really quite sad.

Preston Sturges had been writing screenplays throughout the 1930s, his most famous being The Good Fairy (directed by William Wyler), Easy Living and Remember the Night (both directed by Mitchell Leisen), but he always felt that the directors were changing his scripts and that the only way to preserve them was to direct them himself. The first movie he both wrote and directed was the 1940 The Great McGinty, starring Brian Donlevy, Akim Tamiroff, Muriel Angelus and William Demarest.

The film opens with the caption: This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic. One of them never did anything dishonest in his life except for one crazy minute. The other never did anything honest in his life except for one crazy minute. They both had to get out of the country. Though it’s really the story of the man who had only one crazy moment of honesty. His name is Daniel McGinty (Brian Donlevy) and he relates the story of his rise and fall in politics to the other man.

Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy - McGinty used the money from his 37 votes to buy the new suit

Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy – McGinty used the money from his 37 votes to buy the new suit

His story begins on election night, when the party faithful are mustering the vote. Soup is being handed out and a party worker (William Demarest) is giving out two dollars to whoever will vote for Mayor Tillinghast…especially several times. As he explains, just because people are too lazy to go out or because they die unexpectedly is no reason for Mayor Tillinghast to be deprived of his voters.

McGinty is a tramp who happens by and votes thirty-seven times and when the party worker (who never does get a name – I think of him as William Demarest) takes McGinty to meet the party boss (Akim Tamiroff…who also never gets a name) the Boss is impressed by McGinty’s pugnacity and unwillingness to be pushed around. He gives him a job, first as an enforcer, but slowly moves him up the political ranks. McGinty goes from tramp to thug in a gaudy suit to polished and well-groomed alderman.

And when the Boss decides that he needs a fresh face in politics he chooses McGinty to run for mayor on the reform ticket (the Boss is the boss of all political parties in the area, reform or otherwise). But first, the Boss tells McGinty, he must get married. Since women have the vote, he says, they don’t vote for bachelors. McGinty’s secretary (Muriel Angelus) talks him into marrying her. She likes him and sees an opportunity to provide for her two children from a previous marriage. It is to be a marriage strictly of convenience…though of course the two fall in love and he comes to care for her two children. It is a very sweet part of the film and once again demonstrates Sturges’ knack for combining satire with genuine sentiment.

Muriel Angelus and Brian Donlevy

Muriel Angelus and Brian Donlevy

The film is not a long film and is built around one great irony. In most movies, a man is rewarded for doing the right thing. In The Great McGinty, it is his undoing. His wife begins to influence him and urge him to break free of the party. She’s like a kind of angelic femme fatale. She has good intentions, but she brings him down just the same.

I am used to seeing Brian Donlevy play villains (Destry Rides AgainUnion PacificBeau Geste), but as Daniel McGinty, although he’s a dishonest man, he’s not fundamentally a bad man and can be quite sweet. He’s just used to working with the way things are. I love the moment when he comes home from his election celebration drunk and falls all over his new dishes (there are the usual Sturges’ pratfall in this film) and his wife comes in to help him to bed. At this point, they haven’t realized they love each other and she is trying conscientiously to keep the kids from bothering him. When the kids do come in while she’s putting him to bed, she apologizes for their intrusion, but all he can think is how sorry he is that they had to see him drunk.

What’s interesting is that Preston Sturges seems to be pretty cynical about everybody, even those who genuinely want to do good. The reform party is just as corrupt as the previous party. One man’s reform is another man’s graft. Bridges that bring employment deplete treasuries and enrich party bosses. There are the parades, the showmanship, the total lack of real principles being expressed in political speeches. And even McGinty’s wife’s ideas – ideas that seem like good ideas, like child labor reform – are treated somewhat doubtingly. After all, as McGinty tells her, he liked being able to work when he was a child. It was better than being on the street and it helped his mother, too.

Brian Donlevy and family

Daniel McGinty and family…with dog

William Demarest, as in all of his roles in Sturges’ films, is possibly the funniest person in the film, though Tamiroff more than holds his own. The Boss and McGinty have a habit of getting into tousles whenever they disagree. Demarest usually referees. As a bit of trivia, in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Tamiroff and Donlevy actually make an appearance as the characters they played in The Great McGinty and help to bring about the happy ending in that movie.

By no means Preston Sturges’ best film, The Great McGinty is still a pretty good one. What took me aback is that unlike all his following movies (or like Frank Capra’s movies), there is no convenient occurrence to make everything right at the end. Once McGinty falls, he really has fallen. Sturges plays it for laughs, but it’s actually quite tragic. It doesn’t pay to try to do the right thing.

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2015 in Comedy

 

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The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) – Preston Sturges

260px-Miracle_morgan_creekI love Preston Sturges movies. They’re bit zany, a bit risque, a bit sweet without being sentimental, a bit idiosyncratic, irreverent, slapstick, tender. They always leave me with a slight “huh? what was that?”feeling, but in a good way, in between guffaws.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was released in 1944 and was directed and written and produced by Preston Sturges. He did everything but act in it…though his method of writing the script was to dictate, all the while acting out the different parts. He supposedly wrote The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek to tweak the censors and in watching the film, it seems they must have been tweaked pretty good.

Ebullient Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is a patriotic girl who feels it is her duty to dance with all the servicemen before they ship out to Europe. Meanwhile, her childhood friend, dweeby Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) can’t get any branch of the military to take him. He always gets nervous and sees spots and is consistently refused on medical grounds. But he’s devoted to Trudy, though worried she won’t like him because he’s not in a uniform. But Trudy’s father, Constable Kockenlocker (William Demarest), reads in the paper about the dangers of weddings made in haste due to the war and forbids Trudy from going to the dance given for the troops. Norval comes to the rescue, however, and agrees to help her get to the dance by pretending to take her to a movie.

Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton

Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton

Trudy dances the night away with dozens of men, drinks Victory Lemonade (which is spiked), accidentally gets her head knocked against the chandelier when she is lifted up in a dance, and comes home after eight in the morning. And discovers that she’s married! Or is she? She can’t remember anything after the chandelier. All she recalls is that someone kept talking about how everyone should get married. And there’s a curtain ring on her finger. She confides in dismay to her sister, Emmy (Diana Lynn), that she has some vague idea the man might have been called Ratzkiwatzki…or possibly Zizskiwizski. She thought it had a z in it.

But worse is to come when she discovers that she’s pregnant. She’s afraid to tell her father, but can’t find out if she’s really married, because she also has a vague idea that when she got married she didn’t use her right name. And the troops have all gone to Europe. The only person she can turn to is Norval, who’s always loved her and will do anything for her. At first she tries to trick him into marrying her without telling him (her sister’s pragmatic idea, though Trudy’s concerned about committing bigamy), but when he’s so sweet she realizes that she can’t do that to him and tells him the truth.

The rest of the movie is Norval’s super heroic attempts to help Trudy, which go seriously awry, so that the entire town gets sucked into Trudy’s affairs, which become so complicated that only a miracle can resolve everything.

Diana Lynn, William Demarest, Betty Hutton

Diana Lynn, William Demarest, Betty Hutton

The town Sturges creates is a charmingly realized small American town, where everyone knows everyone…except the troops who are temporarily stationed there. Norval and Trudy were in school together (he even took cooking and sewing class to be near her), Constable Kockenlocker knows everyone as he’s directing traffic in the middle of the street. It’s a fairly diverse small town, with a range of accents portrayed by the wonderful stock character actors that Sturges used in all his films, including William Demarest, Robert Dudley, Chester Conklin, Julius Tannen, and Porter Hall.

Although  filled with pratfalls (mostly by Demarest and Bracken) and clever dialogue, it’s a very sweet and tender film in it’s own way (Sturges has the remarkable ability to combine genuine feeling with comedy). Trudy’s wiser-than-her-years sister, Emmy, stands devotedly by her side from the beginning. Their father (played brilliantly and cantankerously by William Demarest) comes across as rather hapless in the first half, frequently complaining about “daughters” and trying to deal with Trudy’s flightiness and Emmy’s wisecracking comebacks, as well as the family’s many tousles, both physical and verbal. But truly, when he finds out the secret, he is as steadfast and loving as Emmy and a very good father. That’s what I loved about the film. They may be a screwball family, but they are a loving one.

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Trudy is trying to protect Norval from her father, while sister Emmy looks on

And Eddie Bracken as Norval is also incredibly sweet and loyal, as brave as any soldier in his own way. He’s nervous and meek and dreadfully afraid of Trudy’s father (who rather pointedly cleans his guns in front of Norval after he thinks that Norval and Trudy were out all night together and tells him to marry Trudy), but is a hero…without ever really losing the core of his personality. Betty Hutton is also excellent, a touch less hyper than usual (which still leaves her pretty ebullient), with the added sweetness of her genuine love for Norval as he reveals what a great guy he is.

The film builds to an incredible pitch of farce at the end. Even Mussolini and Hitler make an appearance in the film. It’s definitely a war film. There are the gas cards (Norval has one and offers it to Trudy, as well as his car), wool and cotton shortages, big band, swing dancing, hasty marriages, all the young men are in uniform (except Norval). In fact, Norval is the only young man in the film apart from the troops who temporarily in Morgan’s Creek.

When reading about Preston Sturges, I usually heard about The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, and The Palm Beach Story, but The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is just as good. There’s cynicism regarding institutions like marriage and politics and small town America and patriotism, but also affection for the characters. I never feel like Sturges despises them, whatever their difficulties or weaknesses.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2015 in Movies, Screwball Comedy

 

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