It’s Big of Me, Too

I’d never heard of the 1945 film Don Juan Quilligan and I bet you haven’t either. It seems to be one of those slipped-into-the-crack flicks, affixed within by fast-drying glue, and only pried out when TCM needs to fill a 3am Tuesday night time slot on its schedule. About the most you’ll find on the movie is a plot synopsis at TCM and a bit of background data at the AFI site. Loving the Classics informs us that the film is on DVD and wants to know if you’d like to write a review. Which is kind of them to ask, but not helpful for anyone who hasn’t managed to pry the movie out of that proverbial crack to watch it in the first place.

Well, I am here to fill that necessary gap, with glue or without, in your cinematic knowledge. I’ve no doubt, after doing so, that some wiseacre commenter will inform me that not only has said wiseacre’s film club seen the film a dozen times at weekly get-togethers of popcorn, chocolate, and beer, but that it’s the number one hit at the International Communal Moving Image Lovers Festival in Bigger Upper, Nebraska (pop. 3,142), winning first prize in the Absolute Audience Favorite category and knocking ‘em out of their seats for the past four years in a row, so there. Nothing obscure about it, after all.

Look, I’m not here to quibble. I just want to say that Don Juan Quilligan, if not better known, oughta be. It’s a small, charming B-gem, produced by 20th-Century Fox in a good mood, and it really does warrant an audience, at least beyond the windy plains of Bigger Upper. It also stars a great, meat-and-potatoes cast, including William Bendix, Joan Blondell, and that talented character actress Mary Treen, who herself should have been better known. Usually a bit performer, but one who could range from tart and no-nonsense to sweet and sympathetic (she’s best known as the wisecracking cashier in It’s A Wonderful Life), Treen could more than hold her own; no matter how small the part, she stood out. As her IMDB bio notes, “In the long run…she deserved better.”

Treen gets something better in Don Juan Quilligan, in which she not only more than holds her own, she has you rooting for her. As the title suggests, the story is concerned with love and the ladies; its subtitle might be The Accidental Bigamist. Our bi-married hero, played by William Bendix, who looks like the least Don-Juanish guy on the planet (and who plays it that way), is first seen in a florist shop buying a wreath for Mom’s grave. Mom’s been gone for ten years now, but loyal son Patrick Michael Quilligan doesn’t forget his filial obligations, no sir. Dear Departed Mom deserves the best, and she gets it, in a wreath big and vulgar enough for a gangster’s funeral.

Though when you get a gander at the Dear Departed herself, you might agree Quill’s floral tribute an apt choice, after all…

What that opening scene also gives us, with much-missed B-movie economy, is the essence of Patrick Michael’s psychology. The love animating his bosom is not for lots of ladies but for one Lady alone—she being the one who produced Patrick Michael in the first place. Even Patrick’s barge, on which he hauls freight between Brooklyn and Utica, is named after her. (When a man names his boat after Mother, you know it’s serious.) And Mom still guides him from afar. Dining at a waterfront café, Patrick sees, and hears, Margie the waitress (Blondell), who’s got a laugh just like Mom used to make. Dazzled by her chortling, he invites the lovely hash-slinger onto his mother-monikered craft. “If you wouldn’t mind waiting 20 minutes till I’m free,” says Margie. “I wouldn’t mind waiting a whole half-hour,” gushes Quill, with a time-flouting gallantry not seen since probably the chivalric days of Don Juan himself.

As minutes matter not when Love strikes, it’s not long before Patrick and Margie are discussing honeymoons and furniture on the installment plan, with Patrick promising to get his bride a rock that’s “the biggest they got in the best jewelry store in Utica.” Ah, but perils await in Utica; who knew it was the Temptation Capital of the Mohawk Valley? While rock-shopping Utica-ways Patrick encounters Lucy (Treen), who, it turns out, can whip up an apple pie just the way Mom could. Once again, Love strikes; under the spell of Lucy’s flaky crust Patrick—here going by his middle name Michael—proposes plighting their troth after a mere four days. “Seems more like three,” he sighs as he digs up a succulent forkful. Thus Mom-cooking Lucy in Utica ends up with the rock meant for Mom-laughing Margie in Brooklyn; and things, as they say, get complicated.

Talk about your rock and a hard place. Sailing between the blonde in Brooklyn and the brunette in Utica, Patrick Michael is dimly aware how dicey his situation is—”There’s something just ain’t proper about being engaged to two girls at oncet,” he solemnly notes—but when it comes to choosing between Lucy’s cooking and Margie’s giggle, poor Quill, like Hamlet, just can’t make up his mind. It’s the old story of the guy who likes to have his cake (or pie) and eat it, too:  he wants the good-time-loving cookie, but he also wants the gal who can bake ‘em. Can Patrick Michael help it if these desires are divvyed up between Brooklyn and Utica? Can he further help it if they combine the best of Mom? As it is, Patrick Michael doesn’t have long to dwell on the impropriety of dual engagements, as he soon finds himself twice tying the knot between barge stops. Double weddings might be fine, but not when there’s only one groom to shoulder the burden; and, short of a Solomonic solution, Patrick Michael finds he has too many fingers in too many pies indeed.

I know you’re panting to know more, but I shan’t divulge; the film’s too much fun to dish all beforehand. Suffice it to note that Patrick Michael’s attempts to do right by both ladies range from pretending to be twins (right down to the faked photos) to First Mate’s Phil Silvers’ suggestion that one twin try suicide (“Now you’re talking!” enthuses Quill) to Patrick and Michael enlisting in separate branches of the armed forces, which might have worked had the Military a sense of humor (alas, it doesn’t).  The movie spins along merrily; it’s funny and endearing and, though skipping around Mom complexes and polygamous unions, about as salacious as ice cream. Qulligan may live dangerously, but his innocence is that of a fresh-bloomed daisy; he barely presses the lips of his competing paramours (no doubt due to Breen office watchdogs), and his desires remain unconsummated. Who of us wouldn’t secretly sympathize with Quill’s barely articulate yearnings for maternal comforts spiced with sex appeal? And how many wives already know this?

If Patrick Michael never forfeits our sympathy, we also have Bendix to thank. His performance anchors the film; described by one character as a “big newfoundland dog,” that doggy adorableness of his floats the plot, so that it never descends into vulgarity on one side nor prudery on the other (it would have been a different story had, say, co-star Phil Silvers been cast in the title role). It ain’t just Bendix, though. The film’s stuffed like a plum pie with splendid studio-era character actors: along with Blondell and Treen, there are Tom Dugan, Byron Foulger, Hobart Cavanaugh, Jimmy Conlin, Veda Ann Borg, Anne Revere, George Macready, Thurston Hall, Eddie Acuff—most of them on and off for just a few moments, but they’re all on, unforgettable, a sheer delight to watch. It’s the essence of golden-age Hollywood, an abundance of talent, spirit and a puttin’-on-the-show gumption at all levels; and like Quilligan, we yearn for more.

Writing that prior paragraph affects me with a barely articulate longing myself. DJQ may be just an economic B flick, but look how much its slight story and budget supports. Not only do we get a gaggle of great actors and a crackling script (Quill brings one gal a present of earrings, “one for each ear”), we have a whole, teeming working-class world invoked, of waterfront diners and barge captains, of rocks for diamonds and stiffs for bodies, and a bustle of home-cooked meals and home-grown weddings. Yet in and out and swirling round the fringes of this proletarian milieu are allusions to such deep-seated archetypes as Oedipus and Don Juan, with Mozart’s “La ci darem la mano” from his masterpiece Don Giovanni weaved into the soundtrack. Can run-of-the-mill movies ‘do’ such classical allusions anymore, without resorting to art-house sobriety? That this small film can support such big cultural references says something about what popular movies once meant to us—and who the ‘us’ of us were who went to see, and enjoy them.

Ah, but don’t let the all the Art stuff stymie ya. There’s nothing high-minded about DJQ; watching it is as easy as pie, and a lot less fattening; it’s a movie worth digging out of that crack and knowing about. I just loved it. Loved the dialogue, loved Bendix, loved the film. Bigger Upper, here I come.

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4 Comments

  1. Bendix, Blondell, and ‘Bilko’ alone make it worth seeking out. Your review just helped it make my “must-see” list!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much! Silvers is very funny as Bendix’s fast-talking sidekick (his advice always gets Bendix deeper into the soup). The film is on DVD, and it may be floating somewhere around Youtube — it’s definitely worth checking out.

      Reply
  2. I gotta see this! In fact, your description of the opening sounded vaguely familiar … but … nothing else rang any bells.

    I enjoyed every word of this corking review. Your longing for the days when movies entertained and didn’t slight the audience’s intelligence is echoed in these parts.

    Internet and cheap DVDs, here I come!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much! It’s definitely worth catching, especially if you’re a Bendix fan; I chuckled through the whole movie watching him. Amazing how even low-budget movies of the past could embed references to even arcane subjects. A lost era!

      Reply

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