Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"The Great McGinty" (1940) Dir- Preston Sturges

What I remember:

Oh, Preston Sturges. Where are you now when we really need you? Well, I guess we’ll have to depend on John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and SNL.

It does seem that the great satirists are all on TV nowadays. At least film-land still has Joel and Ethan! I do wish the Coens would turn their harsh key light on the current administration, the way they did with Tammany in “Miller’s Crossing” and the DC Intelligence community in “Burn After Reading”. 

Sturges’ first directorial effort was this gem of political satire, this ‘Frank Capra in hell’ piece about voter fraud and crooked administrations. Wait, did someone say voter fraud? Hmmm. I think a great idea for a movie would be about a guy who WON the election, yet insists that there was voter fraud. 

Right. Who am I kidding. Why, that’s just too damn preposterous. No one would believe it. 

As a writer, Preston Sturges had already been knocking around Hollywood, writing scripts and contributing to some of the bigger films of the 30’s like “Twentieth Century” and “Imitation of Life”. His script for “The Great McGinty” sold to Paramount pictures, and they agreed to let him direct as long as they could procure it for one dollar. Sturges agreed, and “McGinty” became a breakout hit which he followed up with some of the greatest comedies of the era, including “Sullivan’s Travels”, “The Lady Eve”, “Hail the Conquering Hero” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”.

I saw this one on late night TV, and thought it was marvelous. I had already seen his other great films at this point, and was surprised at this one having been somewhat forgotten. I’ll bet most of you fellow movie buffs have seen at least 3 of his other classics, but how many of you have caught this one?


"Then she says ‘you and who else?’ And I says ‘oh yeah?’ And she says ‘yeah is right.’ So I says ‘you and me both.’ She says ‘that goes double for me’. I says ‘oh yeah?’ Then the operator says ‘deposit another 25 cents for three minutes.’ So I hang up on her. You let her get an angle on you, you're a goner." —The Boss' Driver

Plot Summary

A depression era hobo named Dan McGinty (Brian Dunlevey) finds that he can earn two dollars by casting an illegal vote for a crooked mayor. When he figures out how to do this at 37 different precincts, he tries to collect $74, but there isn't enough to pay him. He meets with the town boss (Akim Tamiroff) to collect, and quickly shows the boss that he's a tough guy. The boss, who needs some toughness in his crew, hires him, and he succeeds first as a collector, then as a crooked Alderman. When the boss asks him to run for mayor, he also suggests that McGinty take a wife to help secure the women's vote. He marries his secretary (Muriel Angelus),  but this marriage of convenience turns into real love. When she convinces McGinty that he can go straight, his political career takes a turn.


In a nutshell, no good deed goes unpunished. 

In a depression, societies often turn to graft and other nefarious means to make do. Wait- who am I kidding? In every possible time and economic situation there is graft. We call it lobbying, right? So much of what we have turned government into is about money: raising money to campaign, paying money to influence votes, allocating money to satisfy special interests. 

Of course the depression and prohibition raised a particularly ugly form of corruption, and Sturges' typewriter captures that cynical atmosphere beautifully. The funny thing is, you identify with both McGinty and The Boss, despite their horrible behavior. The anti-hero nature of this comedy is a precursor to that "men behaving badly" trend of recent years. It's also kind of a buddy movie in the same style of "Midnight Run", wherein the buddies don't really get along.  The device that gets a laugh out of two guys trying to kick each other's butts repeatedly doesn't really translate to the present, fortunately.  For me, it was always puerile, and brought out the part about being "a man" that I've always found repugnant. Being a man should be about being there for your family and friends when they are in need, and standing up to bullies and liars. It shouldn't be about how much pain you can inflict and/or stand.

What I'm saying is that you identify with the Boss and McGinty, but only to a point. Their just desserts are exactly that, justified. You don't feel robbed when there is no redemption for them at the end. Of course, they should both be in jail, but running a shithole in some backwater "banana republic" is a pretty nasty hell for two guys who once were running a state. 


For a first feature, Sturges shows a sure hand with his cast and crew. Having the studio (Paramount) behind him didn't hurt; everyone involved probably already had dozens of films to their credit. Sturges' strength was always in his scripts, his direction was never flashy or artful.

This script has some great moments too, and not just in those Runyon-esque exchanges like the one quoted above. Some of my favorite parts are when Dan is trying to extort for protection money. The logic he uses on these patsies is beautifully twisted, but he delivers it in such a way that you can't even argue.

 The brilliance in Sturges' writing is how he can get his point across without being preachy at all. McGinty is a hard guy alright, but love for his wife and her kids softens him enough to realize the harm he has been doing as Mayor. There's just a few moments when Katherine tells Dan that he is now strong and able to take on the Boss, able to do the right thing. Child labor is hinted at, and that's the extent of preaching that we get. It's enough!

The film is told entirely in flashback, so that the punchline can be a mild twist. Nothing else really sticks out as remarkable: other than script and plot the movie feels like a typical studio product, made by studio craftsmen and on studio soundstages. There is one pretty unfunny slapstick scene when McGinty comes home drunk from his victory party, and proceeds to destroy everything in his dining room. Much of the wreckage takes place in the dark, so you don't even get to see it. This type of scene has been done much better by great physical comics and filmmakers. 


There are three leads, Dunlevey, Angelus and Tamiroff. Of the three, the least interesting is Dunlevey, who turns in a very flat performance. Even when he's supposed to soften up, it's not too convincing. When he realizes that he's jealous of his wife's companion, he begins to show a little passion that's not of the violent kind. But it's just too little. It's not subtle, just not convincing. He can do "tough" pretty well, though.

Angelus is better, but only slightly. I would have liked to see this film with Powell and Loy, or maybe Cagney and Lombard—seasoned comic actors who would really get to the funny stuff. 

Tamiroff is the standout. I was always a fan of his work, and seeing this early performance that compliments his work in "The General Died at Dawn", helped solidify that feeling. When I see Jon Polito in contemporary films, I always feel like he's Tamiroff without the accent. His role in "Miller's Crossing" feels like a direct descendent of Tamiroff's Boss. Akim goes from blustering to cajoling to supportive to bellicose seamlessly. 
The meager supporting cast is headed by William Demarest, who we all remember as the tough Nanny from "My Three Sons". His stump speech for McGinty is just classic bullshit, something we should all be very familiar with by now. As always, these studio players are all just as good as their dialogue, so they are all excellent.


I have to admit that despite its story and brilliant comic script, "The Great McGinty" doesn't really hold up next to Sturges' other masterpieces, "The Lady Eve" and "Sullivan's Travels". It does, however, have a timeless message, that in 2017 rings so damned true.  

Crime pays.

On First Look: ✭✭✭ 1/2     On Second Look: ✭✭