Thursday, September 25, 2008

Brian Donlevy: Perennial Rough Diamond

“You’re a tough guy, McGinty … not a wrong guy.” ~A line from Preston Sturges’ script for The Great McGinty (1940)>

Actors and their publicity agents need vivid imaginations. Yet, having come across more unverifiable stories about Brian Donlevy over the years than there are Starbucks cafes in Seattle, I’m always leery of most tales attached to the actor. One myth has it that the stocky, tight-lipped actor was born Waldo Bruce (some accounts say Brian) Donlevy on February 9, 1901 in Portadown, County Armagh, Ireland (now Portadown, Craigavon District, Northern Ireland) the son of a whiskey distiller.” Well, think again. He was christened Waldo (poor kid--no wonder he had a reputation for truculence). He was actually born in Ohio, and grew up in the same small town as Fred MacMurray, in tiny Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, (was there something in the water?).

Other possibly true stories have him enlisting at 14 in the U.S. Army to chase Pancho Villa into Mexico with General John J. Pershing, (big, if not tall for his age, he lied about his birthdate), attending Annapolis for two years, and eventually flying with the Lafayette Escadrille in The Great War. Oddly enough, some of this was undoubtedly fact, and the military bearing that he had all his life gave him a presence that helped him break into modeling and the theater in New York in the ’20s. That spit and polish air also led to his playing more than his share of military types, including a role that won him a nomination for Supporting Actor in 1939 when he played the sadistic “Sgt. Markoff” in William Wellman‘s version of Beau Geste (1939) tormenting Gary Cooper, Robert Preston and Ray Milland in the desert. In training his charges, Markoff (Donlevy) barked out comments such as the following with relish:

“I am Sergeant Markoff. I make soldiers out of scum like you, and I don’t do it gently. You’re the sloppiest looking lot I’ve ever seen. It’s up to me to prevent you from becoming a disgrace to the Regiment. And I will prevent that if I have to kill half of you with work. But the half that lives will be soldiers. I promise you.”

According to director Wellman’s memoirs, Donlevy took his role to heart and managed to alienate his cast mates and the crew with his autocratic behavior on their isolated Arizona set in the desert. As with most of his previous and many of his future roles, he usually died at the end of the movie (In Old Chicago, Destry Rides Again and Brigham Young, among others). And his dastardly characters usually deserved it. Though he was persistently typed as a bad guy, the actor managed to make his malefactors interesting enough to be understandable, if not always sympathetic...More on the TCM Movie Morlocks


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