The Great McGinty
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In a seedy banana republic barroom a bartender recounts the chain of events that led to his end-of-the-road downfall in Preston Sturges' consistently shrewd combination of comedy and social drama, The Great McGinty (1940). Told in flashback, Dan McGinty's (Brian Donlevy) tale is a cynical American success story narrated by a bad-guy-made-good.
An enterprising bum who knows how to work the angles, McGinty is a soup kitchen hobo paid a measly fee of two dollars by a corrupt political boss to vote for his shyster mayoral candidate. When McGinty votes not once, but 37 times, he catches the eye of The Boss (Akim Tamiroff), who is impressed by McGinty's flinty, hard-edged can-do attitude. McGinty quickly rises through the ranks of New York's politically corrupt, from bill collector to alderman to mayor to governor. Encouraged to boost the women's vote and present an image of all-American family man to his constituents, McGinty even marries his secretary, Catherine (Muriel Angelus), a divorcee with two children, and takes up residence with his ready-made faux-family in a luxurious apartment. But the sham family begins to tug at McGinty's heartstrings and soon Catherine has the one-time hood speaking out against social injustice, graft and child labor, thus alienating his would-be puppetmaster. McGinty's political downfall soon follows in Preston Sturges' wry satire of political graft full of crackling tough-guy dialogue. The transformation of the gruff, working-class palooka McGinty into a beloved, sharp-dressed politico is in itself a stinging indictment of the show-biz aspects of politics.
By the late thirties, Sturges had already distinguished himself in Hollywood as a writer of remarkable wit and sophistication. By the time he penned The Great McGinty, Sturges was the highest-paid scribe in Hollywood, renowned for his sparkling dialogue and elegantly crafted stories. But the adaptations of his scripts for films like Easy Living (1937) and Diamond Jim (1935) to the screen were displeasing to Sturges, far from the tone he aimed for in his writing.
Sturges longed to direct one of his own scripts, and finally convinced reluctant Paramount executives to let him direct by selling the studio the McGinty screenplay for a mere $10 on the condition that he serve as director. Despite Paramount's initial anxiety about the marketability of a political satire, The Great McGinty turned out to be a surprisingly deft first effort that challenges some of the feel-good political Americana of Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). And despite some significant stumbling blocks, like a three-week shooting schedule and a relatively meager $350,000 budget, McGinty turned out to be an acrobatic, lively surprise hit at the box office and with critics. And because writer-directors were contrary to the departmentalized operations of the classical Hollywood studio system, Sturges' success in wearing two hats proved highly influential for other talented writers anxious to make their first foray into direction, like John Huston and Billy Wilder, who followed in Sturges' footsteps.
Sturges' ability to transform himself from a highly successful writer into an equally renowned director of such cinematic favorites as Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) was just another demonstration of his many creative metamorphoses. A child of wealth who was educated in France, Germany and Switzerland, Sturges first worked in his mother's cosmetics firm, later invented a kissproof lipstick, tried his hand as an inventor, then as a playwright, but found his ultimate creative expression as a remarkably successful screenwriter and director.
Producer: Paul Jones
Director: Preston Sturges
Screenplay: Preston Sturges
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Production Design: Hans Dreier, A. Earl Hedrick
Music: Frederick Hollander
Cast: Brian Donlevy (Daniel "Dan" McGinty), Muriel Angelus (Catherine McGinty), Akim Tamiroff (The Boss), William Demarest (The Politician), Allyn Joslyn (George).
by Felicia Feaster