In the late 1930s/early 1940s, Hollywood had few finer actors than Brian Donlevy. Indeed, within the rigid parameters of his “Tough Guy” persona, he provided a trio of terrific, strikingly different performances.
In 1939’s Beau Geste, Donlevy created one of the Movie’s greatest all-time sadists - scarfaced Sgt. Markoff - winning a Best Supporting Actor nomination. In 1940’s The Great McGinty, the racy political satire directed and written by Preston Sturges, Donlevy was dynamite in the title role – heroic, romantic, and delivering wickedly comic timing. And in 1942’s Wake Island, Donlevy was inspiring as the Major who refuses to surrender to the Japanese with the gallant words, “Tell them to come and get us.” After this film, Hedda Hopper hailed Donlevy as “the hottest thing in Hollywood.”
For a very brief time, he was.
Oddly, my first awareness of Brian Donlevy was not in these films. It was in 1966, when I was 15 and Donlevy was 65. I was doing homework while my parents watched an episode of TV’s Perry Mason, in which Donlevy was the guest star. His tired, slurred voice kept distracting me, actually making me uncomfortable. Eventually my Dad (who knew the Movies and the actors in them) said to my Mom: “You know, I never noticed it before...but Brian Donlevy is a very poor actor, isn’t he?”
Brian Donlevy, the Good Bad Guy
By that time, sad to say, he was. There seemed there must have been a saga as to how Brian Donlevy, the powerhouse player I soon came to admire on the Late Show, became the ruins of Brian Donlevy on Perry Mason – as well as such late 1960s drek as the U.S. filmed scenes in Japan’s Gamera the Invincible.
I’ve written about Brian on various occasions. As such, I was very interested to learn that Derek Sculthorpe has written the first full-length biography of Donlevy – Brian Donlevy, the Good Bad Guy, A Bio-Filmography, publlshed by McFarland. The book is not The Demons of Brian Donlevy – why should it be? Rather, it’s a fine, workmanlike, comprehensive coverage of Donlevy, both the man and the often excellent but remarkably uneven actor.
In his research, Sculthorpe uncovers much fresh information about Donlevy’s family, early life, and the truth about his Hollywood-fabricated military service (no, he was not a pilot with the Lafayette Escadrille). He also reports the true reason Donlevy left the U.S. Naval Academy in 1922. Donlevy later claimed he’d resigned because he wanted to be an actor. Years ago, however, I received Donlevy’s record from the Academy and discovered he’d left his first year there after failing a physical. The illness: Syphilis. I wondered if anyone else would ever learn this fact, and if so, ever report it – and it’s a tribute to Sculthorpe’s depth of research and candor about his subject that he did. The author writes that “Donlevy must have been devastated, not to mention scared, because there was then no treatment or cure for syphilis.” He doesn’t take it, however, to the next step: how this must have haunted Donlevy, who, while playing heroic roles such as the Major in Wake Island, was keeping it secret that his own miliary career had capsized due to venereal disease. Another thing Sculthorpe might have noted: In his early years in Hollywood, Donlevy casually dressed in a white sailor suit and cap, and, after achieving major stardom, often wore a blue blazer and captain’s hat. Clearly the man’s feelings about his scuttled, scandalous Navy career were complex.
The book nicely examines Donlevy’s 12-year career as a Broadway actor; in fact, very few of Brian’s Hollywood contemporaries had so impressive a record on New York’s legitimate stage. (Brian even clowned, sang and danced with Ray Bolger and Bert Lahr in 1934’s Life Begins at 8:40.) Sculthorpe also reports that, during the precarious Broadway years, Donlevy worked as a securities salesman, and listed this job as his actual profession on his legal papers of the time.
Donlevy had a fascinating Hollywood fame in the late 1930s, both as a romantic hero in “B” films (e.g., Half Angel, Midnight Taxi), and a detestable villain in “A” attractions (e.g., Jesse James, Destry Rides Again). The Great McGinty made him a bona-fide star, and a very popular one (eight film releases in 1942 alone). Sculthorpe smoothly writes about the actor’s appeal to audiences as villain and hero, capturing Donlevy’s s screen essence very nicely. He covers everything - the later films, TV/Radio/Stage work, all with appendices. It’s overall a very worthy work devoted to a very worthy actor.
Still...one wonders and wants more details as to how a star who made more money than Clark Gable did in 1947 ended his career in films such as How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. It might have been noted that, from his early years in Hollywood, Donlevy suffered jokes at his expense about his toupee, girdle, lifts, etc. Artifice was essential to augment many a star’s appeal, but for Brian, such gossip became rather an Achilles heel. He was never good at handling the press (Sculthorpe notes his “fierce diffidence”). And his drinking, which Sculthorpe directly addresses at various points in the book, was perhaps more catastrophic than the author allows, and undoubtedly had much to do with the downfall of the heavy, slurred-voiced, “very poor actor” on Perry Mason.
Again, however, this book is basically a tribute, and a very good one. Sculthorpe regards his subject with admiration and sensitivity, examines his career with excellent insight, and warmly captures a flawed but basically fine, sensitive, generous man who, during a 50-year career, was at times a truly superb performer.
A note: In 2011, I met Marjorie Lane Donlevy, Brian’s wife from 1936 to 1947. Their tempestuous divorce was one of the most sensational in 1940s Hollywood, and the animosity on each side had been extreme. However, at our meeting, Marjorie, about to turn 99-years-old, had only nice things to say about Brian – “He was very good to me” – and appeared to regard her marriage to him as a true distinction in her life. Derek Sculthorpe’s book takes the same upbeat approach to the life rise, fall and film legacy of Brian Donlevy.
This long-time Donlevy fan and researcher definitely recommends it.