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The Great McGinty (1940) – Political Satire by Preston Sturges

greatmcgintyposter2My 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.

Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy - McGinty used the money from his 37 votes to buy the new suit

Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy – McGinty used the money from his 37 votes to buy the new suit

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.

Muriel Angelus and Brian Donlevy

Muriel Angelus and Brian Donlevy

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 AgainUnion PacificBeau 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.

Brian Donlevy and family

Daniel McGinty and family…with dog

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.

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2015 in Comedy

 

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Destry Rides Again

1939 – Starring James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Brian Donlevy, Charles Winninger, Mischa Auer – Directed by George Marshall

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Destry Rides Again is generally viewed as a comic-western, which is true, but it’s also something more than that; it’s difficult to pin down. It’s a tragicomic western – very quirky, full of high energy, good acting, happily spoofing the western trope of a quiet, mysterious lawman coming into town and engaging in one final gunfight to defeat the villains. But there is also a touch of poignancy and a subtle point about law and order versus the wild west.

Kent is a saloon owner (Donlevy) buying up all the cattle land in the wild town of Bottleneck, with the aid of his girlfriend and saloon singer, Frenchy, (Dietrich) and the protection of a corrupt mayor. He even gets away with shooting the sheriff and the mayor appoints the local drunk as the next sheriff as joke.

The local drunk, however, is a former gunman called Wash (Winninger) and he used to ride with the great lawman, Destry. Determined to prove himself, he quits drinking and sends for Destry’s son, who is also a lawman, Tom Destry, Jr. (Stewart).

Destry is a bit of a disappointment when he arrives, though. He’s carrying a parasol and birdcage for a fellow female passenger on the stagecoach and the effect he has is not exactly what Wash was hoping for. It also seems that Destry carries no guns. Kent thinks he’s a sissy and and Wash wants him to go home before he dies.

But Destry is not deterred and sets out to clean up the town (while carving napkin holders) and bring law and order. He disappoints many people by not preventing Kent from engaging in certain ventures because they are legal on the surface, but only because he is determined to pin the murder of the sheriff on him and defeat him that way.

th[8]Frenchy, however, begins to fall for him, despite a raucous first meeting – she got into the mother of all cat fights with another woman (seriously, you’ve never seen anything like it). Destry poured cold water over the two fighting women and Frenchy then chased him all around the saloon throwing bottles, furniture and waving a gun while he shielded himself behind a chair. She is not exactly the hooker with the heart of gold here; she’s more of the femme fatale who is touched by his essential goodness and presence.

And when Destry finally finds a way to pin the murder on Kent, Kent retaliates and the story becomes a little more serious, though never in a heavy-handed fashion.

Destry and Guns – Civilization vs. The Wild West

When Wash asks Destry why he never carries guns, Destry replies that he doesn’t believe in them anymore. His father was a great lawman, but was shot in the back and having a gun couldn’t prevent it.

This aspect about getting shot in the back is a running theme in the film. Three people are shot in the back; one of them is Destry’s father, though we never meet him. Later in the film, Wash is shot in the back by Kent’s men when they break one of their own men out of jail.

thQJSNIRXCBut Destry is so angered by what happened to Wash that he goes to his room and  puts on his guns. The town rallies behind him and they lay siege to Kent and his men inside the saloon.

In one interpretation of the film I’ve read, it is described as the inevitable gunfight at the end of the western, where Destry must lay aside his pacifistic ways and take up arms to defeat the villains. But Destry’s decision has consequences and could have had even more serious consequences.

The women – partially incited by Frenchy, who is afraid Destry will get killed – interfere and manage to prevent excess bloodshed. They take up various instruments and tools and march down the street in between the two fighting sides, effectually stopping the gunfire. Instead, there is a brawl in the saloon, that the women fully participate in.

My sister pointed out that the moment Destry put on his guns, he doomed himself. He went against what he believed in and was now, like his father and Wash, open to being shot in the back. And he should have died. During the brawl, Kent shoots at Destry while his back is turned and the only reason he doesn’t kill him is because Frenchy steps between Kent and Destry and takes his fate on herself.

It’s not that the film endorses pacifism or turning the other cheek. Destry is more than able to fight. He is a crack shot and can land a punch so fast the other guy never knew what hit him. But he’s also wily and he always stays on the side of the law. Nor is the film against guns. It’s more like the gun represents something in the movie. It represents lawlessness and vigilantism. Destry, with his desire to talk things out and not cause further bloodshed by being trigger happy, is bringing civilization to a wild town. And when the women later intervene to prevent a gunfight, it is a further example of the force of civilization taming the west.

It’s a great film, even if you don’t normally like westerns. James Stewart really makes it work with his mild mannered, polite, inoffensive, law enforcing persona. While people are laughing at him and his apparently sissy ways, he keeps smiling like a Cheshire cat, knowing that he is going to get them in the end.

It’s wonderful to watch the cast, too – they all seem to be having a good time. Marlene Dietrich plays the raucous, hard-drinking, gambling, singing, unscrupulous saloon singer like nobody else. And there is also the wonderful Allen Jenkins (often seen in Warner Bro. gangster films) and Mischa Auer as the hen-pecked Russian emigre who just wants to “be a cowboy and wear [his] own pants” (he lost them to Frenchy in a bet and now his wife won’t let him out of the house).

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2014 in Comedy, Westerns

 

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