Brian Donlevy: Heavy

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February 9 is the birthday of the great Hollywood heavy Brian Donlevy (1901-1972). Born in Ireland, Donlevy moved with his family to Wisconsin as a child, as I’m sure will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard that pronounced Midwestern accent. As a teenager he served in the military, seeing action in the Pancho Villa Expedition in 1916 and the First World War.

This experience prepared him well for his first Broadway assignment in the original production  of Maxwell Anderson’s WWI play What Price Glory? Donlevy was to appear in over a dozen other Broadway productions subsequent to this, including The Milky Way (1934, later turned in to a movie vehicle for Harold Lloyd) and the revue Life Begins at 8:40 (1934-1935) starring Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger.

While he’d had some small parts in silent pictures, his big break came in the 1935 talkie Barbary Coast, a very interesting film for those interested in saloon life in 19th century San Francisco. It wasn’t a coincidence that he played a similar role in the very similar In Old Chicago two years later. One of the oiliest looking dudes who ever came down the pike, Donlevy simply radiated an energy that let you know right off the bat this was a fellow of objectionable character. The shine on his shoes was a little TOO good. You just knew that he smelled like cheap cologne. He possessed a charmless sort of charm that was kind of plastered on. It was the smile and the laugh of the salesman and the pimp. He didn’t mean anything by it, he just wanted what was in your wallet, that’s all.

He played the heavy in endless gangster pictures and westerns (I’ll be writing about many of the latter no doubt in a few months). But heavies are also more than useful in comedies, so you can also see Donlevy opposite Eddie Cantor in Strike Me Pink (1936), with the whole ensemble in Destry Rides Again (1939), and in two Preston Sturges classics The Great McGinty (1940, where he’s actually sympathetic) and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). In his last years he did a couple of teenage beach comedies, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965) and one of my favorite movies, The Fat Spy (1966, more on that anomaly here).

He also starred in the 1955 British sci fi horror film The Quatermass Xperiment:

For more on  film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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