Sternberg had Dietrich, and Godard had Anna Karina—malleable, mysterious subjects whose faces eagerly absorbed the light their directors shone upon them. Preston Sturges had William Demarest. A short-fused powder keg of a character actor, with the pungent, excitable voice an onion might have if it could talk, the beetle-browed Demarest always looked like a man catching a whiff of an off-screen polecat. He specialized in skeptical mugs, surly sergeants, irate constables, and belligerent dads—hair-triggered authority figures whose tolerance for jive is zero but whose big-lug compassion is bottomless.
Changing little from film to film, Demarest’s performances are essentially controlled explosions. The coordinates change, but the blasts come right where needed. His specialty act—the aria of apoplexy—makes him the stout heart of Sturges’s blustery farces. Of the 10 features in the Film Forum’s “Essential Sturges,” running Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day—roughly the time frame encompassed by the wistful Barbara Stanwyck–Fred MacMurray gem Remember the Night—the ex-pug and former vaudevillian shows up in eight, and his combustible presence is so key to their speed, spirit, and tone that they’re unimaginable without him.
Demarest first appears in Mitchell Leisen’s Sturges-scripted Easy Living, a dizzy screwball romp with a falling fur coat as class-leveling deus ex machina. But it’s in Sturges’s directorial debut, 1940’s riotous political satire The Great McGinty, that he takes first chair in the filmmaker’s orchestra of air-raid sirens. As the wily ward heeler who runs machine boss Akim Tamiroff’s vote-early/vote-often racket, the avuncular Demarest changes his tune from flat to sharp, zero to 60, as the second soup-kitchen denizen, Brian Donlevy, demands his quid pro quo. “You gotcha soup, dintcha?” Demarest snarls, a derby clamped on his head at a cartoon-bulldog tilt. “You’ll getcha TWO DOLLAHS!”
Sturges heard that voice as true American music, part of the traffic-jam tumult of jazz and sex and slang and ad copy. In his breakneck comedies, the rich and the poor, the worldly and the naive all careen into each other’s orbits like freed electrons. And the gatekeeper where those orbits intersect is typically Demarest: as mooncalf Henry Fonda’s wiseguy guardian, the inevitably named Muggsy, in The Lady Eve; as a braying benefactor in the boozy Ale & Quail Club in The Palm Beach Story; as the irascible juror brokering a coffee-jingle contest in the wrenching Christmas in July; and as the studio suit tailing Joel McCrea’s significance-seeking auteur in Sullivan’s Travels.
Demarest’s finest hours come in two undimmed masterpieces of slantwise Americana, both hailing proudly from the middle of World War II. A wet raspberry to overbearing patriotism, 1944’s Hail the Conquering Hero punctures wartime support-the-team sanctimony without tilting into self-righteousness, thanks largely to Demarest’s cantankerous charm as a soldier whose pity on 4-F milquetoast Eddie Bracken triggers an avalanche of well-meaning fraud. He even shows flickers of tenderness as the otherwise bellicose dad of Sturges’s hysterical The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, where his loyalty to disgraced daughter Betty Hutton (doomed to iniquity by her name—Trudy Kockenlocker!) is all the more affecting for his abashed humility.
By the time Sturges made his last great film, 1948’s tart, ingenious Unfaithfully Yours, he had traded Demarest’s acid reflux for Edgar Kennedy’s slow burn. But it’s the former’s crotchety decency and fireball temper that best exemplify Sturges’s cockeyed caravan of stock players. Cast perhaps because they embodied some aspect of the director’s polyglot upbringing, persnickety Franklin Pangborn, continental Eric Blore, preppy Rudy Vallee, and homely Robert Dudley (The Palm Beach Story‘s immortal proto-Perot “Texas Wienie King”) crowd into the frame like symphony players in Groucho’s stateroom. In the middle somewhere, you’ll typically find William Demarest, the salty avatar of Preston Sturges’s America—a land where every man is free to elbow his way into the picture.