My predominant impression of The Great McGinty is unfortunately somewhat overshadowed by the fact that I had a very bad stomach ache when I watched it, though it had nothing to do with the movie. I’ve been trying to watch all of Preston Sturges’ films and when one has a stomach ache it seems like a better idea to watch comedy than drama. Though I will note that laughter does not necessarily ease the pain.
Ironically enough, The Great McGinty is actually a comedic treatment of dramatic material: biting political satire with an ending that is funny, but really quite sad.
Preston Sturges had been writing screenplays throughout the 1930s, his most famous being The Good Fairy (directed by William Wyler), Easy Living and Remember the Night (both directed by Mitchell Leisen), but he always felt that the directors were changing his scripts and that the only way to preserve them was to direct them himself. The first movie he both wrote and directed was the 1940 The Great McGinty, starring Brian Donlevy, Akim Tamiroff, Muriel Angelus and William Demarest.
The film opens with the caption: This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic. One of them never did anything dishonest in his life except for one crazy minute. The other never did anything honest in his life except for one crazy minute. They both had to get out of the country. Though it’s really the story of the man who had only one crazy moment of honesty. His name is Daniel McGinty (Brian Donlevy) and he relates the story of his rise and fall in politics to the other man.
His story begins on election night, when the party faithful are mustering the vote. Soup is being handed out and a party worker (William Demarest) is giving out two dollars to whoever will vote for Mayor Tillinghast…especially several times. As he explains, just because people are too lazy to go out or because they die unexpectedly is no reason for Mayor Tillinghast to be deprived of his voters.
McGinty is a tramp who happens by and votes thirty-seven times and when the party worker (who never does get a name – I think of him as William Demarest) takes McGinty to meet the party boss (Akim Tamiroff…who also never gets a name) the Boss is impressed by McGinty’s pugnacity and unwillingness to be pushed around. He gives him a job, first as an enforcer, but slowly moves him up the political ranks. McGinty goes from tramp to thug in a gaudy suit to polished and well-groomed alderman.
And when the Boss decides that he needs a fresh face in politics he chooses McGinty to run for mayor on the reform ticket (the Boss is the boss of all political parties in the area, reform or otherwise). But first, the Boss tells McGinty, he must get married. Since women have the vote, he says, they don’t vote for bachelors. McGinty’s secretary (Muriel Angelus) talks him into marrying her. She likes him and sees an opportunity to provide for her two children from a previous marriage. It is to be a marriage strictly of convenience…though of course the two fall in love and he comes to care for her two children. It is a very sweet part of the film and once again demonstrates Sturges’ knack for combining satire with genuine sentiment.
The film is not a long film and is built around one great irony. In most movies, a man is rewarded for doing the right thing. In The Great McGinty, it is his undoing. His wife begins to influence him and urge him to break free of the party. She’s like a kind of angelic femme fatale. She has good intentions, but she brings him down just the same.
I am used to seeing Brian Donlevy play villains (Destry Rides Again, Union Pacific, Beau Geste), but as Daniel McGinty, although he’s a dishonest man, he’s not fundamentally a bad man and can be quite sweet. He’s just used to working with the way things are. I love the moment when he comes home from his election celebration drunk and falls all over his new dishes (there are the usual Sturges’ pratfall in this film) and his wife comes in to help him to bed. At this point, they haven’t realized they love each other and she is trying conscientiously to keep the kids from bothering him. When the kids do come in while she’s putting him to bed, she apologizes for their intrusion, but all he can think is how sorry he is that they had to see him drunk.
What’s interesting is that Preston Sturges seems to be pretty cynical about everybody, even those who genuinely want to do good. The reform party is just as corrupt as the previous party. One man’s reform is another man’s graft. Bridges that bring employment deplete treasuries and enrich party bosses. There are the parades, the showmanship, the total lack of real principles being expressed in political speeches. And even McGinty’s wife’s ideas – ideas that seem like good ideas, like child labor reform – are treated somewhat doubtingly. After all, as McGinty tells her, he liked being able to work when he was a child. It was better than being on the street and it helped his mother, too.
William Demarest, as in all of his roles in Sturges’ films, is possibly the funniest person in the film, though Tamiroff more than holds his own. The Boss and McGinty have a habit of getting into tousles whenever they disagree. Demarest usually referees. As a bit of trivia, in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Tamiroff and Donlevy actually make an appearance as the characters they played in The Great McGinty and help to bring about the happy ending in that movie.
By no means Preston Sturges’ best film, The Great McGinty is still a pretty good one. What took me aback is that unlike all his following movies (or like Frank Capra’s movies), there is no convenient occurrence to make everything right at the end. Once McGinty falls, he really has fallen. Sturges plays it for laughs, but it’s actually quite tragic. It doesn’t pay to try to do the right thing.