Cast of Characters

I don’t go in for lists much — I think they’re a bit lazy — but I’m feeling a bit lazy, so I thought I’d list Preston Sturges’ major stock company players and pick my fave role for each one.

William Demarest certainly got his share of major roles. I love him as Sgt. Heffelfinger in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and he has a kind of magnificence as the stubborn Mr. Bildocker in CHRISTMAS IN JULY, the Juror 8 of coffee slogan selection committees, and THE LADY EVE gives him the line he was born to say, “Positively the same dame!” But it’s THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK in which he breaks my heart, as well as his own coccyx (you really shouldn’t try to kick your own daughter, Constable Kockenlocker). “Daughters, phooey!” is nearly as good a signature line for him.

Robert Greig, most butling of all butlers, is staunchly reliable but of course it’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS which gifts him with Sturges’ most serious speech, beautifully intoned and then Eric Blore (the Lorre to his Greenstreet) takes the curse off it.

Al Bridge is a man who doesn’t get enough credit. Sturges clearly loved his saggy sourpuss face and world-weary delivery. Though his terrifying “Mister” in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS is a revelation, to see him doing what he does best, MORGAN’S CREEK (“I practice the law and as such I am not only willing but anxious to sue anybody, anytime, for anything…”) and THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK (“You couldn’t make me an attractive offer, not if you got down on your bended knee and threw in a set o’ dishes…”) are tops. Do I have to choose one? I’m not going to.

With Luis Alberni I’m going to cheat and take a film Sturges wrote but didn’t direct, Mitchell Leisen’s EASY LIVING, because I love Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis and his garbled English (“Gymnasalum!”)

Jimmy Conlin’s biggest role is as Wormy in DIDDLEBOCK, but his most important is as the Trusty in SULLIVAN’S, where he supplies the only tonal connection between the deadly serious scenes he’s in and the broad comedy elsewhere. His warm reminiscences about his friend the Blowtorch Killer are hilarious.

Julius “This is a talking picture” Tannen is funny in MORGAN’S CREEK as a Russian-accented storekeeper inexplicably named Rafferty, but he’s a real human being in THE GREAT MOMENT, Professor Charles T. Jackson, and it’s startling to see the depths of bile in him. Like Conlin, he was a vaudeville actor, in fact a monologist rather than a player of scenes. But Sturges saw the potential.

Torben Meyer, another dialect wiz, as Mr. Klink in THE LADY EVE has a whole character arc in two little scenes. A Dane, he seems able to vary his accent so that odd bits of colloquial American cut through.

Porter Hall: SULLIVAN’S. Little man talking fast thru a cigar.

Robert Warwick, same film, tall man talking fast without cigar. “Why should I suffer alone?” He was a leading man in silents, you know.

I don’t remember much about Franklin Pangborn’s role in DIDDLEBOCK, but his character name is “Formfit Franklin” and that’s good enough for me.

Frank Moran, MORGAN’S CREEK, “Psycholology.”

Rudy Vallee counts, I guess, he’s in three of them, but the first, PALM BEACH, is the best. “A pathetic creature in the final stages of futility,” wrote Manny Farber of John D. Hackensacker III. “It is one of the tragedies of this life that the men most in need of a beating-up are always enormous.”

Raymond Walburn, who has buttons for eyes, is terrific as the slimy mayor in HAIL THe CONQUERING HERO but his Dr. Maxford in CHRISTMAS IN JULY is aces.

Robert Dudley, the Weenie King, is in more Sturges films than I thought — the IMDb has him down as “man” in MORGAN’S, but of course it’s as the sausage tycoon that he’ll be remembered. “Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, destroying slowly but without pity that which yesterday was young. Alone our memories resist this disintegration and grow more lovely with the passing years. Heh! That’s hard to say with false teeth!”

There were a few women who appeared in more than one Sturges film, but Esther Howard (right) was the only one who got showstopping comedy scenes. The randy window Miz Zeffie in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, partnered by the sour Almira Sessions, is her finest achievement.

Lots more actors did a couple of Sturges films, and of course Joel McCrea starred in three, which is a different matter. And he obviously liked Victor Potel and Harry Rosenthal and Jimmie Dundee and Georgia Caine and mild-mannered Harry Hayden, who gets another of his great speeches as Mr. Waterbury in CHRISTMAS IN JULY: “I’m not a failure. I’m a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works. But no system could be right where only half of 1% were successes and all the rest were failures – that wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. And so are you, if you earn your own living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye.”

Sturges wrote, “My bosses could never understand why I kept using practically the same small-salaried players in picture after picture. They said, ‘Why don’t you get some new faces?’ I always replied that these little players who had contributed so much to my first hits had a moral right to work in my subsequent pictures. I guess Paramount was very glad to be rid of me eventually, as no one there understood a word I said.”

13 Responses to “Cast of Characters”

  1. Luis Alberni in Easy Living is something else.

  2. What a delightful piece! I’m glad that you singled out Harry Hayden at the end. He’s the Sturges regular most often overlooked in surveys of this kind. That speech of his in Christmas in July is a perfect piece of writing, and it’s typical of Sturges’s artistic generosity that he gives it to a small-part actor such as Hayden instead of reserving it for a star.

  3. I always say “Mr. Waterbury!” whenever Hayden appears. I love him in The Killers, and love that he rushes to untie his cook before he thinks of his (white) customer.

    Alberni on the rocking horse! And of course “How can such a phenomenons be such a flop?” I stole his random pluralisation for a Channel 4 educational show I co-wrote, and then somebody or other re-stole it for that damned CGI meerkat.

  4. ROGER ALLEN Says:

    “I’m not a failure. I’m a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works. But no system could be right where only half of 1% were successes and all the rest were failures – that wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. And so are you, if you earn your own living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye.”

    I can’t imagine Resident Rump saying – or even understanding – that.
    In fact is Trump a Sturges character who has somehow escaped into the real world?

  5. Sturges seems reluctant to write villains. The banker Mr. Twerky in Morgan’s Creek is one of his more obnoxious figures. He certainly delights in writing phonies and fools: Ernest Truex in Christmas in July: “I didn’t hang onto my father’s money by backing my own judgment. I make mistakes every day, why, I’ve got whole warehouses full of mistakes…”

    So the obscenity and evil of Trump might be beyond Sturges, and he might dismiss the megalomania as too ridiculous to be credible, even in one of his wilder films.

  6. bensondonald Says:

    Trust you’ve seen this:

  7. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Gore Vidal committed Robert Grieg’s speech about the rich and the poor in “Sullivan’s Travels” to memory and would gladly recite it at will. But for my money nothing beat’s the Weenie King’s “Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, destroying slowly but without pity that which yesterday was young. Alone our memories resist this disintegration and grow more lovely with the passing years. “

  8. ehrenstein47 Says:

    As for Sturges’ women. Mary Astor in “The Palm Beach Story’ RULES!

  9. Conlin’s vaudeville act was… strange.

    I love the Princess Centimilia and I’ve never understood why some don’t. I think Astor’s perfect in the part.

    Just finishing off a Sturges project which you’ll hear about soon.

  10. My favorite Sturges film is The Great McGinty. Was Brian Donlevy ever this good again?

  11. Eric Blore shushing Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve is one of my favourite Sturges moments.

  12. bensondonald Says:

    I like to imagine the audience joining in those “Whoa!” cries.

  13. Donlevy and Tamiroff are every bit as good in Morgan’s Creek… it took me years to realize they were a callback to an earlier film as McGinty wasn’t shown in the BBC’s mini-season of Sturges films introduced by Terry Jones…

    Knowing that Jones was a fan allowed me to identify the hiccuping guard in Holy Grail and Jones’s line as Brian’s mum “…or did I dream it?” in Life of Brian as references to Palm Beach Story and Morgan’s Creek, respectively.

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