A while back, Anchor Bay released a box set of films themed around the always-stormy, always-dazzling collaboration between director Werner Herzog and his “best fiend,” actor Klaus Kinski. One wonders if Universal Home Video gave any thought to a similar approach for its Preston Sturges collection, which brings together seven films written and directed by Sturges and all starring, in a supporting role, lovably gruff character actor William Demarest. Sturges regularly employed a stable of memorable sidemen to populate his slapstick parades of loony Americana with philosophical bartenders, witty doormen or savvy waitresses. But Demarest was always his best crank, holding the middle ground in Sturges’ satires of American culture high and low. In The Lady Eve (1941), he plays a streetwise mother hen to Henry Fonda’s naive son of privilege, comically struggling to defend the line between swell society and the hoi polloi — as love, in the form of Barbara Stanwyck’s con artist, slips past his guard. In Sturges’ political satire, The Great McGinty (1940), Demarest works for a city machine, spilling platitudes about democracy while buying votes, $2 a pop. It is in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), however, that Demarest and Sturges achieve the perfect synchronicity of concept and execution. Eddie Bracken stars in the film as a 4-F sometime-Marine mistaken for a war hero by his hometown. Demarest plays the real veteran of Guadalcanal who, along with his platoon on leave, helps perpetrate the deception for the sake of Bracken’s mother. Along the way, Demarest’s cynicism cuts to the quick of American worship of manufactured heroes with a bite that more recent efforts — such as Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers — could only dream of. Also included in the collection are Christmas in July, The Great Moment, Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story.
Also released this week: DVD: Air Raid Wardens/Nothing But Trouble; Alias: The Complete Fifth Season; Bizzy Bone: Live in Concert; Blackalicious: 4/20 Live in Seattle; Claude Chabrol’s Tales of Deceit Box Set; Dark Shadows Bloopers and Treasures; Destroy All Rational Thought; Experimental Audio Research — Live and Unearthed; Extreme Chickfights; Family Affair Season 2; Heaven: Where Is It? How Do We Get There?; An Inconvenient Truth; Lost in a Harem/Abbott and Costello in Hollywood; Mafia Empire; Meat Beat Manifesto — Travelogue Live ’05; Meet the Baron/Gold Raiders; NRBQ: Derbytown: Live 1982; Palace; A Path to Happiness: A Guide to Living a Balanced Life; Rich All My Life; Scoop; Seinfeld: Season 7; Tim Barry & La Par Force — Live; Wah-Wah; Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics: 10 Years of Revolutionary Rock & Roll; You, Me and Dupree.