“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. The both had to get out of the country.”
So begins the directorial debut of Preston Sturges … and so begins a five-year run of unparalleled comedic cinematic brilliance.
By 1940, Sturges had become one of the most celebrated screenwriters in Hollywood. Sturges-scripted films such as 1933’s The Power and the Glory (recognized as a major inspiration for Orson Welles’ and Herman Mankiewicz’s script for Citizen Kane), Easy Living (1937), and Remember the Night (1940) were greatly successful. But Sturges was displeased with the way his scripts were being filmed by other directors, and he remained unhappy with the final on-screen results.
In 1940, Sturges approached Paramount with an intriguing offer: he would sell them the script for a political satire called The Great McGinty for a bargain price–one dollar–if they allowed him to direct the picture himself. In the end, Paramount paid him ten dollars and gave him a small budget of $350,000 and a mere three weeks to shoot the film.
Despite any qualms the studio may have had about their new, untried director, their money was well-spent. McGinty became a smash hit, and Sturges went on to win the first-ever Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The movie was also the first in a string of hit comedies for the writer/director, including such screwball classics as The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942), the controversial comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), and the film that is arguably Sturges’ masterpiece, Sullivan’s Travels (1941).
It’s hard to classify McGinty as a straight comedy; its underlying themes are too dark for that. But Sturges deftly combines those less savory (and slightly uncomfortable) elements with witty dialogue, incisive observation of human foibles, and a dash of slapstick. In the process, the film pokes fun at the theatrical nature of the political machine in this country in a way that seems almost prophetic.
The film begins in a rundown bar in the tropics. Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy), the scruffy, gruff bartender, prevents drunken patron Tommy from shooting himself. Tommy is despondent because, in his previous incarnation as the cashier of a bank, he had been tempted to steal money and had subsequently derailed his plans for the future. After saving Tommy, McGinty sits him down at the bar and flashes back to the story of his own ignominious downfall: after spending much of his life as a bum, he had risen through the ranks to become the governor of a state (implied to be Illinois), before corruption and his conscience got the best of him.
McGinty’s rise to political power begins when he figures out a way to milk the voter fraud system set up by the city’s political machine in support of Mayor Wilfred Tillinghast. At two bucks a pop, he travels across the city, voting at various polling stations under a series of false names. To the utter surprise of the man running the scam (William Demarest, known only as The Politician throughout the film), McGinty votes thirty-seven different times without getting caught. The head of the machine, known only as The Boss (Akim Tamiroff), is impressed by McGinty’s initiative and bravado—despite the fact that McGinty had disrespected him—and offers him a job as an enforcer, of sorts, collecting protection money from businesses around the city. McGinty shows a flair for the task, by turns sweet-talking and rough-housing his way into collecting the funds.
The Boss eventually makes McGinty an alderman. In the meantime, an outcry by the Civic Purity League leads to a shakeup at City Hall. The Boss (who is secretly in cahoots with the leader of the League) proposes that McGinty, a supposed “clean, typical American,” run for mayor against Tillinghast, and tells McGinty to get married right away (because “women got the vote now” and “they don’t like bachelors”). McGinty initially refuses to run under that condition, but after his secretary, Catherine (Muriel Angelus), tells him she’d be willing to enter an “in name only” marriage to further his career, he finally agrees … though Catherine waits until after the wedding to reveal that she has two children from her first marriage.
McGinty wins the election and institutes a series of civic improvements while continuing the same level of graft that had gotten his predecessor into trouble. McGinty and Catherine begin to fall in love, and he takes on a more fatherly role with her children. But when Catherine professes her unease at his business practices, telling him that she hopes that one day he’ll be “strong enough” to stand up to The Boss and “do some good” for his constituents, McGinty begins to think that perhaps he can pull away from the political machine, if only to make Catherine happy. McGinty campaigns for governor and wins and, upon reciting his oath at the inauguration, seems to take the words to heart. But this sudden change in perspective leads to a rather ignominious downfall, and his newfound lofty ideals ultimately become his undoing.
McGinty’s story is the prototypical tale of the bad-man-gone-good-thanks-to-the-love-of-a-good-woman. Still, McGinty is not an altogether “bad” guy to start with, and this is what ultimately makes him an appealing sort of anti-hero. He’s more opportunistic than outright deceitful; his movement up the political ladder comes not from his own ambition, but more from a kind of “go with the flow” attitude. When The Boss asks him if he wants to run for mayor, his response is, “Well, sure, I guess so,” delivered with an implied shrug.
Like his cronies, McGinty initially shows little remorse for his actions, nonchalantly explaining at one point, “You gotta crawl before you creep, don’t ya?” But later in the film, he begins to feel the pangs of conscience. In one notable scene, Catherine’s children stand in the doorway to his bedroom on election night and watch their mother put their drunken stepfather to bed. While Catherine apologizes for the children bothering him, McGinty’s only concern is that “they had to see me like this.” And for all of his aggressive worldliness, there is an endearing sort of innocence to the man, embodied in the scene in which McGinty reads a bedtime story to the children and, even though they have fallen asleep, insists on finishing so he can find out the ending of the tale.
The film takes an ultimately cynical and yet hilarious stance on the issue of political corruption. The idea of buying votes from down-on-their-luck bums doesn’t even cause a momentary pang of conscience on the part of The Boss: it’s just good business. Note the scene in which The Politician explains the voting scam to McGinty:
“Some people is too lazy to vote, that’s all. They don’t like this kind of weather. Some of them is sick in bed and can’t vote. Maybe a couple of ‘em croaked recently. That ain’t no reason why Mayor Tillinghast should get cheated out of their support! All we’re doing is getting out the vote!”
McGinty and The Boss are a match made in corruption heaven. They work well together because they understand one another. Both are physical beings, willing to duke it out in the heat of the moment, as they do several times throughout the film. Neither really has an overt conscience or any qualms about the illegal things they are doing. It’s only when McGinty begins to assert honesty that the partnership is broken. And even when The Boss goes into a rage and tries to shoot him, McGinty is unwilling to press charges, because he understands his former partner in crime so well, explaining to Catherine, “He ain’t a bad guy, honey, according to his way of looking at things. You got to remember, he took me off a breadline.” He knows how The Boss feels after everything they’ve been through together: “Why shouldn’t he [try to kill me]? Don’t you think I’d take a pop at a guy that slipped me the triple-cross?”
The movie presents an interesting twist on the Horatio Alger-esque idea of the “American dream,” wherein traditionally a boy makes good through hard work and virtuous honesty. When The Boss explains to McGinty the joys of living in America, the irony of his lauding of the “land of the free” is apparent:
“Yesterday you was a hobo on the breadline. Today you got a thousand berries and a new suit. I wonder where you’ll be tomorrow. This is a land of great opportunity!”
Of course, the only way McGinty is able to secure his garish new plaid suit and a thousand dollars in cash is through underhanded means. But neither The Boss nor McGinty see the (somewhat disturbing) humor in their particular situation.
There are scenes of slapstick and visual humor amidst the darker backdrop of the tale: McGinty and The Boss wrestling in the backseat of The Boss’ armored car, tumbling out onto the street when a valet pulls open the door; McGinty checking out Catherine’s legs before he’ll agree to marry her (“What’s that got to do with it?” she asks indignantly as he takes a peek); McGinty meandering drunkenly through his own election-night victory party and stumbling clumsily through his pitch-dark apartment afterwards, shattering glass and knocking over furniture. These moments serve to lighten the tone of the film, but also underscore the idea that politicians are little more than thugs, driven by the same impulses that drive most human beings. The story of McGinty is a twisted Pygmalion-like tale in which the final, shiny product remains unchanged underneath: in other words, once a bum, always a bum.
One specific scene in the film seems to sum up Sturges’ point of view in one pointed, definitive stroke. It is a particularly brilliant montage of two political rallies, one headed by The Politician in support of McGinty, and the other for his opponent, in which the two different perspectives of McGinty’s political career are relayed in a nutshell. For supporters, his spending of the city’s treasury money means more jobs, more money in circulation, and more prosperity for the majority of the citizens; for opponents, that same action means the construction of useless buildings and the proliferation of graft.
In the end, the election comes down to a single question of performance. Who presents the most appealing case? The Politician, a firebrand shouting rallying cries, or his opponent, who attempts to offer reason and facts in a more subdued display? It’s ultimately not surprising that McGinty wins the election. Watching such scenes some seventy-odd years after the film’s release (and in an election year, no less), it only goes to show that the more things change, the more things stay the same. Look at the theatrical nature of the recent proliferation of Republican debates. Listen to the rhetoric of the President’s annual State of the Union address. The entire electoral process is a matter of histrionics. Who speaks loudest? Whose message can be presented in the most appealing light? Facts? What are those?
Politics, as Sturges has basically foretold in The Great McGinty, is an animal that will likely never change. The cynicism behind Sturges’ portrait of the American political system is just as prevalent today. It’s enough to make one want to move to his own banana republic and escape the whole thing.
But at least we can derive some laughs from the process.
No matter how uncomfortable they may be.
This post is our contribution to the CMBA Comedy Classics Blogathon. Check out the CMBA website for the full schedule of participants.