“This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic. One of them never did anything dishonest in his life except for one crazy minute. The other never did anything honest in his life except for one crazy minute. They both had to get out of the country.”
I don’t review many oldies, as much as I love them. There are plenty of other blogs that concentrate on classics, like Out of the Past, and do a better job. But sometimes I like to share a favorite, and this one’s one of them. I took a film class in college, and this was one of the first presented; it stuck with me. The teacher was a huge Preston Sturges fan, and some of it rubbed off.
Sturges’s first directorial effort, The Great McGinty remains very poignant, as it tells the tale of a man who worked his way up a corrupt political machine, and was destroyed when he finally did one honest thing. Loosely based on politician William Sulzer and his dealings with Tammany Hall, we begin at a dive bar in a banana republic, where the bartender stops a failed banker from offing himself. And to keep the guy’s mind off things, he tells him how much he’s lost- that he used to be Governor!
The story begins with Brian Donlevy as a hobo whose vote gets bought for $2 and a bowl of soup; he decides to vote 37 times, running all over town, and gets taken under the wing of “The Boss,” for his moxie and take-no-guff attitude. Donlevy was 5’8″ but seems like a huge tough guy in this- he’s helped by elevator shoes- and a hell of an attitude! Eventually, he goes from enforcer to alderman to being a mayoral candidate, and finally Governor. But he’s just a figurehead for “the Boss,” the Russian immigrant mobster who puts in patsies so he can push through big construction projects and get kickbacks from the winning bidders.
McGinty trading snaps with William Demarest and The Boss
We get some great screwball comedy in between the cynical lessons in politics. He marries his secretary Catherine (Broadway songbird Muriel Angelus) for expediency, but soon real romance blossoms- she has two kids from a former marriage and a sassy maid to help things along. Brian Donlevy practically carries the picture with his rambling energy, with chips on both shoulders and more bravado than brains. Whether he’s engaging in fisticuffs with The Boss because he refuses to kowtow, or threatening to toss Catherine’s date out on his ear once he realizes what a dame she is, he’s impossible not to watch. If you’ve seen George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou? you can get an inkling of what to expect. Catherine is just as witty and charming, the last film role for Broadway soprano Muriel Angelus- someone who deserved a much longer career.
William Demarest (best known as Uncle Ernie from My Three Sons) is perfect as the Boss’s flunky making his snide asides, and perfectly foiled with a silent, coke-bottle spectacled heavy who manages some hilarious comic relief as he’s stuck doing things no hitman should have to do. McGinty finally does his one good thing, when Catherine tells him to stand up to his bosses, because what they do hurts the average joe. And since she and her kids- two little imps with a crazy dachshund in tow- have softened his heart, he decides to go straight. The Boss tries to get him framed as corrupt, and McGinty strikes back, and well, you’ll have to see the movie to see how McGinty winds up tending bar in a banana republic. It’s 90 rollicking screwball minutes, with the same spirited dialogue of classics like His Girl Friday and other films adored and homaged by folks like the Coen Brothers.
Since it’s Preston’s first time behind the camera, everything has a slightly choppy, improvised quality. He famously sold the script for $10 with the stipulation that he direct; it went on to win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 1940, and launched a career that would include The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, Unfaithfully Yours, and Hail the Conquering Hero. Sullivan’s Travels is what partly inspired O Brother, but I prefer McGinty; partly because I saw it first, but mostly because the amateur quality makes everything seem a bit crazy and improvised. While the movie is low budget and a bit rough, it’s still very charming, lots of fun, and very different from the views of government we got from older movies. This makes the Washington Mr. Smith went to look like Disneyland! Preston Sturges’s sense of humor was sharp, fast and unique; he lacked the sentimentality of Capra and had a more cynical edge that I always appreciated. The Great McGinty is a lesser-known classic, and worth a viewing.