The Great McGinty (1940, Preston Sturges)

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Preston Sturges’ directorial debut would seem, almost by default, a magical moment. There are certain respects in which it lives up to his later standards: the dialogue crackles and pops as ever, the characters — major and minor — are truly unforgettable, and the economy is ruthless. The title character ping-pongs from rags to riches to rags again in the space of just eighty minutes, without stretching credibility.

And yet the film seems surprisingly ordinary; Paramount was stunned by its success, having made it just to humor Sturges (the top screenwriter in town in those days) and done so with as little real commitment as possible — a tiny budget, a short schedule, no bankable stars. Sturges could easily have conquered all that if his script had been stronger; unfortunately, although he believed in it deeply, fighting tooth and nail both to have it made and to direct it himself, its shades of brilliance can’t hide its absence of real payoff, or its labored plottiness.

The film’s central joke is a bit of flashback humor, whereby a down and out bartender (McGinty, played by Brian Donlevy) recounts to an appreciative audience of two no-goods that he was once further down and out, a drifter who was fortuitously placed on a corrupt political boss’s payroll as a ballot-stuffer, and did such a terrific job that he was brought in as an elected patsy, first as mayor, then governor, finally as fugitive when he got sick of crime in his own name and tried to run out on his benefactor (Akim Tamiroff, easily upstaging the rest of the cast). Now, the two of them are in this distant country together, sweeping the floors and paying the night’s entertainment and still dealing with the exact same power structure. This is a closing reveal of the narrative, which marks this as a sort of shaggy-dog screenplay. It’s pretty weak business — there’s not much room for the joy and warmth of Sturges’ later films, though there is a shoehorned romantic subplot that becomes sufficiently burdensome for Sturges to essentially toss off a half-hearted resolution to it like he has a meeting to be off to.

Beyond the surface pleasures of the dialogue, of which more in a moment, there are some shades of genuine political and moral insight in the film. Sturges had a lot on his mind, much of it not too many leagues distant from some of the more pointed satirical elements of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (and Robert Rossen’s overly busy film adaptation a few years hence). There’s a kind of tragic nobility in the way McGinty justifies his own behavior — modern viewers may think of Van Doren in Quiz Show, or the Jeremy Renner character in American Hustle — by telling himself that all of his boss’s Big Money schmoozing is really helping his community at some level. Because Sturges is devoted to frothy comedy, he’s not quite able to make this point as dark and troubling as it deserves to be.

That doesn’t stop him from attempting a rather crude balancing act between gangster picture, wacky caper and political satire. It’s not that he isn’t a sufficiently talented director to do all this or that he doesn’t know what to say. He simply isn’t sure how to say it, and little things like the absence of an involving climax and big ones like the fatally bland acting of Donlevy in the lead derail him. His sole narrative achievement is turning Capra-like sentimentality on his head, which admittedly is fun to see. (And physical comedy was always Sturges’ weak point, but a rice-throwing bit outside a wedding made me laugh out loud.) Though I have reservations about some of Sturges’ later major works, especially The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, it’s truly incredible how quickly he moved from this film to The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, both absolute masterpieces released the following year, and for that reason I almost wonder if I will appreciate The Great McGinty more when I see it again. One thing’s for sure: those great movies wouldn’t be possible without the unexpected, overwhelming success of this one.

I will say that I certainly smiled a lot more at this than I had at a movie in a little while. Here are some reasons why:

“I just wanted to tell you that even though our marriage is a peculiar one, to say the least, it’s made me very happy.”
“It’s a cinch! We ain’t got nothing to fight about, like people that’s in love with each other.”

“A dam is something you put a lot of concrete in. And it doesn’t matter how much you put in, there’s always room for more. And any time you’re afraid it’s finished, you find a crack in it and you put some more concrete in. It’s wonderful.”
“What’s the matter with the old dam?”
“It’s got a crack in it.”

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