There is a kind of film that I like to categorize as “The Bad Old Days”. Some show people in the same compromising situations we’re all familiar with like unwanted pregnancies, moral quandaries, or realistically evil villains. Then there are others, like The Great McGinty (1940) from Preston Sturges, that point out social illnesses that have either waned or been banished from our lives and exist in the exile of hinterlands or now-smokeless back rooms. The Great McGinty is one of the earliest in my experience to so forcefully and honestly look at American graft and the political machine. Some, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) or State of the Union (1948) acknowledge its existence without wading into the details. The Great McGinty is so brave as to make the lead, sympathetic character a brutish grafter. It’d be film noir if it weren’t a hilarious comedy.
Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is walking the breadline when the political machine is running their get out the vote effort. Go vote for Tillinghest and you get $2 when you show your receipt. Just say “Hey Bill” and the guy will give you a name. Well McGinty runs around town and votes 37 times. This, along with his fearless temper, impresses the Boss (Akim Tamiroff) and gets him a job as a low-level enforcer. Later he becomes the alderman, then, after a big sweep that puts Tillinghest in jail, the Boss wants McGinty to be mayor. But to do that, he needs to get married. Why? “Women got the vote now, suppose you heard about it.” He ain’t so chuffed with that idea, but his secretary Catherine (Muriel Angelus) is willing to do it, no strings attached, so McGinty gets to be mayor. But an otherwise dishonest guy always likes to please his lady, and McGinty’s new lady starts pushing to, you know, do some good.
The Great McGinty begins with a short premise:
This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic. One of them was honest all his life except one crazy minute. The other was dishonest all his life except one crazy minute. They both had to get out of the country.
I’ll let you guess which one of them is McGinty. Like Sullivan’s Travels (1941) (review), Preston Sturges uses ready wit and a fair number of physical pieces, but also uses his sharp political eye more consistently and more pointedly. The story is that Sturges sold the script for $1 in order to be allowed to direct it himself. Our conception of the years before the Vietnam War is that the studios wouldn’t risk the slightest controversy and even if they did the people wouldn’t show up anyway. This is probably a bit of revisionism in light of HUAC and the saccharin quality of the best-remembered films, but it probably has an element of truth to it (as the resolution of Sullivan’s Travels argues).
The Great McGinty might have come at a sweet spot in history to give it maximum lee way and minimal headwind. It’s 1940 and the war is raging in Europe, but America hasn’t joined in officially. The Depression is ongoing, with unemployment around 15%. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) (review) came out the same year and was only slightly less raw in its assessment of the state of the Union. Sturges could take on the bosses because the public appetite for blame was probably as high as it would ever be. It as also a comedy. What makes The Great McGinty so exceptional is that Sturges gives the other side an argument. The Grapes of Wrath paints the situation–as it must have felt to many–as a calamity with the world against the protagonists with nameless evil Californians inflicting unanswerable pain. The Great McGinty has a montage near the middle of the film–very much like the one in M (1931)–where, in parallel, a candidate decries McGinty’s graft and corruption while one of the Boss’s men rouses another crowd with talk of the jobs created. Having been through an uncomfortable recession, and mostly convinced of Keynesian wisdom, we might all give McGinty a re-think on such a compelling counterweight.
This is required viewing for fans of film or hobbyists in history. The only thing I was disappointed by was the lack of special features on the DVD. Some films, like you’ll see on Warner’s Archives or elsewhere, are unaccountably cheap and accessible. How do they survive while quality films do not? The vicissitudes of the market and the popular aversion to monochrome. Get over it, will ya?
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