“If it wasn’t for graft, you’d get a very low type of people in politics!” – William Demarest
The Great McGinty feels like a film of many notable firsts. The two most prominent ones being Preston Sturges’s first time in the director’s chair, famously agreeing to a salary of $10 for creative control of his screenplay. The second first has to be Brian Donlevy getting a break at a starring role, even if the picture itself was an inauspicious beginning. As an in-joke, he plays into his image as a heavy only to turn that on its head for something far more intriguing and intermittently hilarious.
We wind up in a banana republic for a hot minute. There’s the usual melange: dancing girls, sailors, drunks, and behind the bar is a very familiar face indeed. It’s the strangest of interludes for such an expedient picture and for a satire that will wind up whipping us all the way around the world to the grand ol’ United States of America. However, one should admit in the mind of such an inspired looney as Preston Sturges, the progression is as natural as X, Y, Z.
Because, formerly, Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) was no better than a tramp before his bartending days. However, even someone like him was a vital cog in the crooked methods employed by a dirty political machine. Led by a bigshot shyster (Akim Tamiroff), they conveniently pad the ballot boxes in the favor of their rather limp candidate.
In fact, they finagle the homeless vote in return for some hot soup and a couple of bucks in their pocket, getting it down to a very dubious science. Each ballot box is manned by an inside man who supplies a name to each new recruit with the deceased, the elderly, and the chronically infirm played by masquerading vagrants.
They’re an easy market to exploit because when desperation is your only guiding light, you’ll bend to any low for some grub. Only one man is cunning enough to take advantage of their shady business for his own benefit. Soon McGinty’s weaseled his way into over $70 bucks and his tough-guy act gets him in with the boss.
He starts out on the lowest rung as an enforcer but soon works his way up thanks in part to his self-assured charisma and the built-in brawn to back it up. When the old mayor gets tossed out on the waves of scandal, the time is ripe for a new up-and-comer. The recurring farce of the movie is how easily the Boss shifts between tickets and candidates with the system all but rigged his way regardless of political affiliation. Is it some uncanny portent Tamiroff originated from the Russian Empire by birth?
The Great McGinty might feel like a one-joke pony if it solely relied on the ludicrous premise of a nobody jumping through the hoops to become mayor and then governor. Instead, Sturges fills out his story with the details of a real life, including the highlights of marriage to his secretary, the new home they purchase together, and the mammoth parade that is thrown in his honor to celebrate his ascension.
Muriel Angelus’s name has been all but buried under years of celluloid — this was her last picture in a truncated career — but she has surprising bearing and charm throughout the picture. One is briefly reminded of Madeleine Carroll. But either way, it serves the movie well to lean into this highly irregular and totally ill-proposed couple. Somehow she manages to be well-suited for Donlevy because they appear so diametrically opposed. His hard-nosed rough and tumble bravado constantly chafes against her inbred propriety and ready-made home life with two kids.
After all, their subsequent marriage is only meant to be a vehicle of convenience although it’s easy enough to infer…perhaps she loves him dearly but is also too proud to force her affections on him. He’s a numbskull, yes, but perhaps there’s some deep-rooted affection in him as well.
They shape one another. He becomes a father figure. Catherine encourages him to tap into his inherent decency and the slivers of goodwill she’s seen glimpses of, even as he feels content to let well enough alone, riding the machine all the way to the governorship.
On the other hand, sweatshops, tenements, and child labor all need a champion to hasten their demise. He has the chance to actually stand for something of substance, and Sturges suggests behind at least some cutthroat half-rate men stands a great woman. They can change for the better.
Admittedly, The Great McGinty is actually a much darker, more foreboding film than we might be initially be led to believe from a production headlined by Preston Sturges. It’s easy to start cross-referencing it with the political graft featured in some of Frank Capra’s notable works, even as the wit and jabs of cynicism of a similar nature would also find their way into the work of Billy Wilder.
Capra’s pictures like Mr. Smith and Meet John Doe probably lay into the graft and corruption harder, but they grant us a sincere happy ending to smooth everything over. Wilder would have to subvert everything to the very last line. And Sturges is more so in this camp although Wilder would come in his wake as another prominent writer-turned-director.
But the stock company is his alone, and he is totally devoted not only to the word on the page but the utter mayhem of it all. It’s a story of graft and corruption where the “bad guy” winds up playing barman alongside the man he was looking to bury earlier on. That in itself is the grand joke Sturges gives us as a parting gag. Thankfully, it doesn’t kill the satire of this otherwise unheralded comedy. In fact, it helps punctuate the utter lunacy of it all.