The Great McGinty (1940)

The Great McGinty (1940) movie poster

director Preston Sturges
viewed: 01/01/2017

The Great McGinty was Preston Sturges’s first film as director and quickly establishes him as a comic yet incredibly cynical voice in a Hollywood full of happy endings.

McGinty starts in an unnamed “banana republic” where a man down on his luck and low on drink attempts suicide. The bartender (a terrific Brian Donlevy) dissuades him and then regales him and a young woman with his own tale of woe, noting that he was once a governor somewhere in America.

The flashback takes us to a soup line, and Daniel McGinty (Donlevy), another grizzled, hungry face in that line. Turns out, to earn their soup and $2, the local muckymucks want the unwashed masses to go and vote their candidate for mayor. McGinty votes 37 times and wins the eye of “The Boss” (Akim Tamiroff) and a place in his organization. The Boss eventually sets McGinty up as mayoral and gubernatorial material. All this would be well-and-good, but McGinty develops a conscience through his marriage of convenience (Muriel Angelus) and his integrity brings them all down.

While McGinty does the right thing, he still winds up in a foreign land, serving beer, abandoning his wife (though leaving her money for her and her kids). The final scene sees him brawling with Tamiroff (who is also an ex-pat prison escapee). No Hollywood happy ending, though sort of a gag. It delivers a very bitter message about American politics and serves a rather scathing moral if moral at all.

Like his later and brilliant Sullivan’s Travels (1941), McGinty casts an eye to the world of the poor, the masses who at the time would be hitting the cinemas for escapist Hollywood fare. Donlevy is a tough mug, right out of a crime flick or later noir, rather than the charming leading man. This is oddly refreshing, like casting different characters from alternate genres into new situations almost.

I’ve got enough Sturges under my belt now to have a real feel for him, and right now, next to Sullivan’s Travels (which I really want to see again), I think The Great McGinty is my second favorite.

Maybe that just shows my own cynicism in liking cynicism.

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