Saturday, September 20, 2008
In the mid 1930s, no more unlikely leading man emerged from Hollywood than Victor McLaglen. Barrel-chested and already in his forties, he was vaulted to stardom by John Ford in "The Informer," and went on to appear in a number of Ford's best films, along with co-starring with Cary Grant in "Gunga Din."
McLaglen was originally a professional prize fighter, and even fought Jack Johnson at one point. He served in the Middle East in World War I, and after returning to Britain, began work in a lot of silent films before moving to America. After many bit parts as a cantakerous Irishman (but he was actually British!), Ford cast him as the thick-headed ex-boxer turned stool pigeon in the expressionistic "The Informer." He won a deserved Academy Award for the performance, amidst rumors that Ford actually did get him drunk for certain scenes.
But as this blog is titled, we're interested in McLaglen, the character actor, which he became in the 1940s and 50s. The last time he could be considered a leading man was in 1939's "Gunga Din" - afterwards his weight ballooned and he had a hard time getting work other than bit parts. Ford still loved the old semi-Irishman, however, and cast him in many of his best films, including "Wee Willie Winkie," "Fort Apache," and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." In these last two westerns, McLaglen was the Irishman amdist the frontier, and one of Ford's stand-ins for his own rambunctious spirit.
However, I like McLaglen best in "The Quiet Man." Playing Maureen O'Hara's stuck-up, money-grubbing brother, he's never been bigger on screen, both physically and in terms of presence. He seems almost impossibly wide-houldered in the film, although not quite fat, either. A roiling mass of drunken muscle, he is able to pose a credible threat to John Wayne during the entire film, and that's really saying something.
All of "The Quiet Man" toes the line of Oirish stereotype, often falling over right into it. Yet McLaglen and many of the cast (O'Hara and Barry Fitzgerald especially) are working in a very heightened, almost theatrical style that gives the film an element of a fairytale. McLaglen gives what I argue might be the broadest (but still good) performance in the history of cinema (save for maybe some of Toshiro Mifune's work). The final fistfight between McLaglen and Wayne (below) is cinema absurdity at its finest, and one of Ford's most enjoyably ridiculous scenes, especially when the two men stop off at the pub for a few pints amidst the fight. Let's all hoist a glass of stout to Victor McLaglen!
P.S. Seems like I've been talking about a lot of British imports lately! Well, we'll move on to someone different next entry.
-She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
-The Quiet Man