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William Demarest and Preston Sturges

September 24, 2012

This post is part of the “What a Character!” blogathon, hosted by Aurora at “Once Upon a Screen“, Kellee at “Outspoken & Freckled“, and Paula at “Paula’s Cinema Club“, and it runs from September 22-24.

In his book Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema, critic Richard Corliss wrote, “There were so many (character actors) in the forties that directors had an incredibly rich source to tap, and they (the character actors) were so good that writers worked hard to give them some special lines, because the bit players always gave them a special delivery. Whether the bits seemed so good because of the players, or vice versa, is open to question; but this richness was certainly symptomatic of a healthy industry”. While I would argue this was just as true in the 30’s as it was in the 40’s, I would certainly agree with that assessment. And for me, in that era, no directors were better at using character actors than Frank Capra, John Ford, or Preston Sturges. Each of them had a rather large stock company that appeared in many of their movies, and each of them were unfailingly loyal to those who belonged to it. What makes Sturges more impressive to me in this regard is simply because of two factors. One is, Sturges’ company seemed to be larger than either Ford or Capra (though, in fairness to the other two, they both started out at Poverty Row studios – Republic and Columbia – that didn’t have the money to employ all the extras Paramount did, at least not at first), and two, and most important, while Capra and Ford’s stock company generally tended to play to type, Sturges often used his players against type, and in a variety of ways. Still, of all of the character actors who ever worked for Sturges, in my opinion he used none of them as prominently, or as well, as William Demarest.

Sturges, of course, started out as as a screenwriter, and Demarest appeared in two of the films Sturges wrote in that period; Diamond Jim (1935), a biopic about the title character’s relationship with Lillian Russell, and Easy Living (1937), which is about what happens when a banker (Edward Arnold) throws his wife’s fur coat out his penthouse window and it lands on a secretary (Jean Arthur; she and Arnold also both appeared in Diamond Jim). I’ve only seen a brief clip of the former (without Demarest; he apparently plays a waiter), but though Easy Living is one of the funniest movies of the decade, Demarest isn’t necessarily the reason; he only has a brief scene as a gossip columnist, and while he’s convincing enough, he isn’t asked to do much. During his career up to that point (which started around the time the sound era began; one of Demarest’s first movies was the original version of The Jazz Singer), Demarest had been working steadily, if unspectacularly. Arguably his biggest movies to that point were Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), where he played Shirley Temple’s ne’er-do-well uncle, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), where he played a political lackey of crooked party leader Edward Arnold. Still, for the former, he’s only in the early and later sections of the movie, and in the latter, he only appears in bits of the film as well (to be fair, there was quite an array of acting talent in that movie to compete with, including Capra stock company members like Arnold, Guy Kibbee, H.B. Warner and Beulah Bondi). I haven’t been able to find out what exactly Sturges found in Demarest that made him say, “That’s my guy!” aside from the obvious fact they were both under contract to Paramount at the time. But once Sturges stepped into the director’s chair, audiences soon found out why Demarest would become one the prime members of his stock company.

McGinty (Brian Donlevy) and Skeeters, aka The Politician (William Demarest)

I’m going to write more about The Great McGinty (1940) as we get closer to Election Day, as it’s one of the best political comedies ever made, but it also serves as a good introduction to Demarest and how well he worked with Sturges. In the flashback that takes up the bulk of the movie, we first see his character, Skeeters (also known as The Politician), offering to pay people if they vote for the current mayor. When Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy), who at this point in the story is nothing more than a hobo, asks what he’d get if he voted more than once, Skeeters displays the crabbiness that became Demarest’s trademark expression; “Who said anything about repeatin’? What do you think this is – Hicks Corners?” Of course, McGinty comes back to the victory celebration later to tell a stunned Skeeters he has in fact voted for the honorable Mayor Wilfred T. Tillinghast (Arthur Hoyt) 37 times, and he’s come to collect his $74. After his initial shock, and protesting he doesn’t have that much on him, Skeeters takes McGinty to see The Boss (Akim Tamiroff), the real power of the town.

Although Skeeters is mostly a plot device to get McGinty and The Boss together, and although the film concentrates on the two of them (as well as Catherine (Muriel Angelus), McGinty’s secretary and eventual wife), Demarest still gets a few places to shine. He gets, for me, the funniest line of the movie, when he’s sitting in McGinty’s waiting room (McGinty by this point having worked his way up to alderman) with Catherine (it’s her first scene in the movie; she’s just a secretary here), and reading the paper aloud. The story he reads, about Tillinghast being indicted for graft, which sets off the following conversation:

Skeeters: They’re always talking about graft, but they forget; if it wasn’t for graft, you’d get a very low type of people in politics! Men without ambition! Jellyfish!

Catherine: Especially since you can’t rob the people anyway.

Skeeters: Sure. (double take) How was that?

Catherine: What you rob, you spend, and what you spend goes back to the people, so, where’s the robbery? I read that in one of my of my father’s books.

Skeeters: (reverently) That book should be in every home.

I’ve seen The Great McGinty several times, and I always laugh at that last line, no matter what. The line itself (as well as the set-up) is great, but Demarest’s delivery is also key, as it’s completely serious and not going for the laugh (or condescension) at all. He doesn’t appear much in the film after this, but it is amusing to note, considering his persona, he’s the one who has to play peacemaker between McGinty and The Boss when they get into one of their “branigans” (McGinty’s euphemism for fight); in the limo following McGinty and Catherine’s wedding, tempers flare once again between the two, and it’s Skeeters who has to plead, “Not on the wedding day” (later, during another fight, Skeeters sighs, “Here we go again!”). Later, when McGinty is running for governor, we see Skeeters as a campaign speaker, extolling McGinty’s virtues (all the jobs he’s created due to the graft) while his opponent hammers on the corruption. And finally, when McGinty and The Boss land in jail, it’s Skeeters who gets them out, and Demarest is able to pull off the “you’re all dirty rats who deserve this! (whisper) here’s the keys, boss” gambit with aplomb.

Bildocker (Demarest) explaining to Dr. Maxford (Raymond Walburn) why the slogan he likes stinks.

Sturges’ follow-up, Christmas in July (also 1940), saw Demarest once again in the role of plot device. The plot here (which Sturges freely adapted from his own play A Cup of Coffee) involves a radio contest run by Maxford House Coffee and its chairman, Dr. Maxford (Raymond Walburn, another Sturges regular; he also was a Capra regular), which will give $25,000 to the person who comes up with the next slogan for the company. Everyone in the company who’s deciding the winner likes the slogan, “Maxford – Magnificent and Mellow” – everyone, that is, except for Bildocker (Demarest), from the shipping department, who thinks the slogan is “putrid”, and when he’s asked why, replies, “Because it stinks!” And so it goes into the wee hours, way past the deadline of when the contest winner was to be announced (and Maxford grumbles about how unnecessary “these stupid contests” are). It’s Bildocker’s intractability, however, that allows two co-workers of Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell), a lowly clerk at a rival coffee company, to send Jimmy a fake telegram telling him he’s won the contest. Demarest again doesn’t appear much, nor does he have much variety in his performance, except at the end, when he excitedly tells Maxford the slogan he thinks deserves to win the contest (a nice gag I won’t spoil).

Charles (Henry Fonda) looks dejected after Mugsy (Demarest) and Burrows (Robert Grieg) have lost the tug-of-war with the chicken dinner.

Sturges’ following movie, The Lady Eve (1941), was where both he and Demarest finally came into their own. Demarest plays Mugsy Murgatroyd, who works for Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), an ophiologist and heir to the family fortune (his father (Eugene Pallette) runs the company that sells Pike Ale, “The Ale that won for Yale!”). Charles, or as Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) calls him, “Hopsie”, describes Mugsy as someone whom his father took off the street, who saved Charles’ life once, and whom Charles describes as a combination of “bodyguard, governess and a bad valet.” He’s therefore preternaturally suspicious of anyone trying to seduce Charles, although in this case he has reason to be; Jean and her father “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn) are out to scam Charles of his money through playing poker with him. Problem is, Jean ends up falling in love with Charles. Problem is Mugsy, after getting bilked by Gerald (Melville Cooper), the Colonel’s valet, starts checking up on Jean and her father, and finds out through the ship’s purser (Torben Meyer, another Sturges favorite) what Jean and her father really are. Devastated, Charles confronts Jean, and then lies by saying he knew what she was all along and he was conning her. This leads Jean to seek revenge; with the help of her father’s friend Pearlie (Eric Blore, another Sturges regular) – “Sir Alfred at the moment” – she pretends to be her own (black sheep) sister, the Lady Eve Sidwich, so she can get Charles again. Mugsy, of course, thinks she’s “positively the same dame”, but Charles isn’t so sure; after all, if she was really trying to disguise herself, wouldn’t she make more of an effort (she puts her hair up and adopts an English accent, and that’s all)?

Demarest gets to display much of his trademark crabbiness, particularly when dealing with the personnel on the ship, and even the people he works with at the Pike home, particularly Burrows (Robert Grieg, yet another Sturges regular), the head butler. And he also has a couple of memorable pratfalls (though, admittedly, not as memorable or funny as the ones Fonda has), one of them involving a roasted chicken. Yet there’s more to his character than that. At the beginning of the film, we see Charles and Mugsy as they’re about to leave South America to go back to civilization, and we see him saying goodbye to a woman he obviously had a relationship with (she hangs a flower wreath over his neck, and he doesn’t take it off). And while, as I said before, he generally is crabby towards most of the people he comes in contact with, he’s generally even-tempered with Charles; he doesn’t really smile, but he seems to anticipate what Charles wants, he has no problems with feeding Charles’ snakes or anything involving the snakes, and even when he’s trying to warn Charles about Jean (and later, Eve), he’s mostly more patient and less choleric with him, suggesting despite all the ways Charles denigrates or disagrees with him, they do have a comfortable relationship. And once again, as with Christmas in July, he gets the closing gag, which is one of the funniest lines in the movie.

LeBrand (Robert Warwick), Jones (Demarest), Casalsis (Franklin Pangborn) and Hadrian (Porter Hall) try to talk Sullivan (Joel McCrea) out of his “Great Experiment”.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941) continued Sturges’ hot streak, but admittedly, Demarest doesn’t get much to do in it. He plays Jones, a publicist at the studio where director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) works, and when Sullivan, who wants to make a movie about the hard times Americans are living through, decides to go out on the road to find out what hard times are, Jones is one of many people sent by studio heads LeBrand (Robert Warwick) and Hadrian (Porter Hall) to follow Sullivan and make sure nothing bad happens to him. We do get to see him at work, in a sense; when the “experiment” is done (or so everyone thinks), we see Jones on the phone with LeBrand and Hadrian, and his descriptions of what Sullivan has done sound very much like studio copy. And once again, Demarest is in a memorable slapstick gag; Jones and the rest of the entourage (including a doctor, a caterer, and a few other studio people) are in a car with a trailer attached following Sullivan early in the movie as he’s walking down the street when Sullivan decides to hitch a ride with a young boxcar driver who likes to ride fast, and all hell breaks loose as the studio driver (Frank Moran) tries in vain to keep up and everything in the trailer becomes a mess. Still, while Sullivan’s Travels is a classic, you could easily imagine someone else in Demarest’s role.

Publicity shot of Preston Sturges and Claudette Colbert (seated, middle of the first row) with the actors who play members of the “Ale and Quail Club”; Demarest is seated at the far right of the first row.

Demarest doesn’t have much screen time in The Palm Beach Story (1942), but he makes the most of it. He plays a member of the Ale and Quail Club (in a nod to Christmas in July, his name is Bildocker) that boards a train from Penn Station to Palm Beach, Florida. This is also the train Gerry (Claudette Colbert) is hoping to get on, as she’s running away from her husband Tom (McCrea) to get a divorce (though she loves him and is turned on by him, she thinks she’s holding him back career-wise, and anytime she tries to help by buttering up a wealthy man, he gets jealous). Problem is, she has no money, so she keeps dropping hints about someone bringing her ticket but running late. Sure enough, the other Ale and Quail members take pity on her and pay for her ticket – “You can be our mascot!” enthuses Asweld (Jimmy Conlin, another Sturges regular) – and she gratefully joins them. However, she soon comes to wish she hadn’t.

The Ale and Quail Club, to put it mildly, find a way to live up to their name. When the conductor (Al Bridge, yet another Sturges regular) asks an already drunk Bildocker how many are in their party, he insists on counting other conductors on the train as members, and while he starts out as a genial drunk, they soon get into a heated argument. While the club members generously donate a pair of pajamas to Gerry (specifically, Hinch (Robert Warwick again) donates them), they also dance roughly with Gerry, to her annoyance, and also insist on serenading her to sleep. Well, most of the club do so; Bildocker and Hitchcock (Jack Norton), who are sitting in the dining car, don’t join in, and Bildocker complains about how the other members seem to forget they’re a gun club, not a singing club. Bildocker and Hitchcock soon get into an argument about who’s a better shot, and while Bildocker pretends to shoot crackers that the dining car’s bartender (Fred Toones) throws up in the air (when he yells out, “Bang bang!”, Demarest sounds remarkably like Elmer Fudd), Hitchcock uses real bullets. When the other Ale and Quail members hear this, they enthusiastically go back to the dining car, grab their rifles, and start shooting up the train. This, of course, prompts the conductor to arrange to leave the dining car behind while the rest of the train leaves, and for Gerry to flee the car, and she ends up meeting John Hackensacker (Rudy Vallee), a millionaire who happens to be on the train, and the rest of the plot kicks in. This whole sequence might seem out of place in a “normal” romantic comedy, but since Sturges is basically stretching the form to its breaking point (this is the type of movie where Gerry asks a cab driver to take her to Penn Station even though she has no money, and the driver says, “Sure, hop in”), it fits right in. And even though, for once in a Sturges film, his stock company is treated as a group rather than a bunch of individuals (since many of them play members of the Ale and Quail Club), Demarest manages to stand out.

Dr. W.T. Morton (McCrea, right) with his patient and later assistant/friend Eben Frost (Demarest)

The Great Moment (filmed in 1942, but not released until 1944) is the odd duck among Sturges’ Paramount films that he directed. For one thing, it’s his only period piece, being a biopic of Dr. William Thomas Morton (McCrea, in his third and final film for Sturges), a dentist from Boston in the 19th century who battled the medical establishment to get ether used as an anesthetic for operations, and also battled other dentists and doctors when he tried to patent the product. For another, while Sturges had written dramas before he became a director (including the original version of Imitation of Life (1934) and the Christmas drama Remember the Night (1940)), and Sullivan’s Travels was a comedy with dramatic overtones, this was essentially a drama with comic overtones (as Sturges had been an inventor before turning to writing, this subject seemed close to his heart). Finally, Paramount at the time was run by Buddy De Sylva, who did not get along with Sturges, and after a disastrous preview of Sturges’ cut of the movie, De Sylva ended up cutting it. You can see the movie Sturges wanted to make, but it ends up feeling disjointed. Demarest plays Eben Frost, who was the first patient Morton tested ether on (though at first, he tests the wrong chemical on him, which leads to predictable results), and later became Morton’s friend and assistant. Though we see Frost at the beginning of the movie comforting Morton’s widow Elizabeth (Betty Field) in a gruff but compassionate manner, mostly, Frost serves as the comic relief of the film, and it’s here the film is most awkward. Unlike Sturges’ comedies, the slapstick here seems shoehorned in and unnecessary (Frost is generally clumsy). However, there’s a running gag that does work; every time Frost tries to tell people about how Morton fixed his teeth (“It was the night of September 30th; I was in excruciating pain!”), he’s always interrupted and never gets to finish his story. Demarest seems a bit out of place in period clothes, but he’s otherwise fine as Frost. Still, his next two (and final two) roles for Sturges were the best showcase for his talents.

Constable Kockenlocker (Demarest) with his daughters Trudy (Betty Hutton) and Emmy (Diana Lynn)

I’ve already written about The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), and why it’s my favorite Sturges film, but I want to spotlight Demarest’s performance. He plays Constable Kockenlocker, a widower and father of boy-crazy Trudy (Betty Hutton) and the precocious Emmy (Diana Lynn). The plot, of course, involves Trudy sneaking out to a dance involving soldiers going off to war, getting “drunk”, marrying one of them (though she can’t remember his name), becoming pregnant from that night, and at Emmy’s insistence, trying to get Norval (Eddie Bracken), who’s been in love with Trudy since they were kids, to marry her. Most of all, Trudy and Emmy are trying to do this while trying to keep their father in the dark. The constable may be the embodiment of a person whose bark is worse than their bite, but his bark is pretty ferocious. He is overly protective of his daughters and innately suspicious of what Trudy and Norval are up to, plus he’s forever threatening to kick Emmy in her rear end (though he always misses). Yet he gets a speech where he points out kids never realize “if their old man could get by for 50 years and feed ’em and clothe ’em – he maybe had something up here to get by with”. And when he finally finds out the truth about Trudy, Demarest is able to play his character’s sadness without overdoing it. This also comes into play when he’s trying to convince Norval to escape from jail. Demarest also gets to do a lot of slapstick here, mostly involving when his daughters are trying to stop him from chasing Norval, but his best scene in this regard is near the end, when he finds out Trudy has had “Six! All Boys!”

Sgt. Heppelfinger (Demarest) and the rest of his platoon drink the beers bought for them by Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken).

Sturges’ last film for Paramount, Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), was also his last film with Demarest, and fittingly, it has Demarest’s best performance, I think. He plays Sgt. Heppelfinger, a Marine just back from combat who, along with his platoon, goes into a bar/restaurant and tries to buy drinks with war tokens, but the owner is not amused. However, Woodrow Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), who happens to be at the bar, takes pity on them and buys them all drinks and sandwiches, and to show their appreciation, Heppelfinger and the others join him. Turns out Woodrow comes from a family of Marines (Heppelfinger actually fought with Woodrow’s father in WWI), but was kicked out because of chronic hay fever, and, feeling ashamed, has sent letters home pretending he’s overseas (sent from overseas) and telling his mother (Georgia Caine) he’s in combat. He’s also written Libby (Ella Raines), his girlfriend, telling her he’s met someone else, so that she’ll be free to find someone else. All the Marines feel sorry for Woodrow, but one of them, Bugsy (Freddie Steele) is upset Woodrow lied to his mother, so he calls her up telling her Woodrow’s wounded and is coming home (Heppelfinger later changes the story to having a fever). Woodrow is reluctant to lie to his mother like this, but Heppelfinger and the others assure him it’ll all blow over. Of course, it doesn’t; the townspeople have a ceremony honoring Woodrow, give him the key to the city, pay off his mother’s mortgage, and want him to run for mayor. Not only that, but Libby, though she’s engaged to Forrest (Bill Edwards), son of the current mayor (Raymond Walburn again), still has feelings for Woodrow. And finally, the Marines get into the spirit of the whole thing and embellish Woodrow’s exploits, especially Heppelfinger and Bugsy (who will do anything to make sure Woodrow doesn’t disappoint his mother).

As audacious as Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was, this movie is in a way even more audacious, as it’s questioning the nature of how we choose our heroes during WWII. You get a sense of this in a speech Heppelfinger gives to Woodrow: “I been a hero, you could call it that, for twenty-five years, and does anybody ask me what I done?” Demarest really sells that speech because he doesn’t overdo any bitterness (part of the reason being he wants to believe in an ideal as much as everyone else in the movie). And Demarest makes Heppelfinger into such a grounded, believable presence (like all of the other Marines, except for Bugsy) that you want to root for him even though he’s telling such lies about Woodrow that you know are going to come back to haunt him. Unlike the crabby persona of earlier Sturges roles, Demarest makes Heppelfinger a gruff but essentially decent man, especially in the ways he acts with the other townspeople and with Woodrow’s mother (who even gets a joke off at his expense; when Heppelfinger asks for more syrup for his pancakes, Mrs. Truesmith demurs, pointing out, “There is a war on, you know”). Demarest isn’t playing the driving character of the movie – oddly enough, it’s Bugsy – but he’s the foundation of it, because how ambiguous the movie is about heroism.

As I mentioned before, Sturges parted company with Paramount after that film; he and Demarest also apparently had a falling out, though I haven’t been able to find out why. Demarest hadn’t only been acting in Sturges’ movies during this time, of course; he also played a detective in The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) and Humphrey Bogart’s sidekick in the underrated comedy All Through the Night. After he parted company with Sturges, Demarest appeared in such films as Along Came Jones (as Gary Cooper’s partner), The Jolson Story and its sequel Jolson Sings Again (in both, he played Jolson’s manager; for the former, he received his only Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor, losing to Harold Russell for The Best Years of our Lives), The Perils of Pauline (as the director who worked with silent film serial star Pearl White), and It’s a Mad, Mad Mad World (as the police chief). But his best known role came on television, where he played the gruff but kindhearted Uncle Charley on Father Knows Best. Still, if you want to see the best measure of Demarest’s talent, you should check out the Sturges films, not only because they’re great films in of themselves (except The Great Moment, but that does have its good parts), but because Demarest was so good in them.

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13 Comments
  1. Great write-up, Sean! I adore William Demarest! Loved that gruff exterior, that distinctly gravelly voice and yet somehow always lovable character. I know many people think of him in MY THREE SONS because that show was so popular. While I enjoyed him in that, I really took a shine to him in all his early work. To me, he made the perfect tough cop with a humorous, likable edge. And as a BIG fan of IT’S A MAD MAD MAD WORLD, I was happy to see him included in that ensemble cast of mega-talents.

  2. For sure William had a great partnership with Preston Sturges. Yet he can be replaced in Sullivan’s Travels, the publicists added a lot of fun to the story and Demarest did a good job.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Greetings!

  3. Sean, I’d only seen William Demarest on TV as MY THREE SONS’ Uncle Charlie; it was ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT where I really discovered him and enjoyed the heck out of his contankerous self! Talk about a long-running career in different media! I thoroughly enjoyed your wonderfully detailed and fascinating review!

    • Thanks, Dorian! I never watched “My Three Sons”, so I first encountered him in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, but first took notice of him in ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT and the Preston Sturges films (you have seen them, right? Cause if not, they’re right up your alley!).

  4. An impressive and enjoyable post linking Demarest and Sturges. Perfection was achieved in that collaboration.

  5. A wonderful, detailed post. This blogathon has been great for shining the spotlight on these character actors who, like Demarest, seem like old friends if only because we recongize them in everything.

  6. Beautiful summary of Demarest’s work for Sturges. My favorite Sturges film is THE PALM BEACH STORY, but you certainly make a great case for MORGAN’S CREEK. Well done!

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