We’ve touched on three of Sturges’ better known efforts this week, so let’s take a step back and go to the beginning of his directing career. The Great McGinty was our first foray into Preston Sturges: director, after he’d found respect writing scripts. He sold this to Paramount for $10 under the auspices he’d be allowed to direct and it certainly introduces several themes Sturges fine-tuned in later films regarding political corruption and the common man. However, The Great McGinty always feels like a director testing the waters, unsure of what will sell. Many of the elements he touches on are merely introduced, not examined with as much nuance as they would be in later films like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) or the previously reviewed Sullivan’s Travels (1941).
Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is a bartender in a tropical locale, telling a man and woman the story of his past. Before ending up there, Dan was a bum enlisted in rigging local elections. When a mysterious puppet master known only as The Boss (Akim Tamiroff) decides McGinty would be better suited for office, the bum turned governor realizes his ability to do good.
The most startling element of The Great McGinty is how downbeat it is. Predominately known for his unflagging optimism and a desire for finding personal enrichment, Sturges starts things off with a broken, dispirited Dan McGinty working in a tropical dive. The rest of the bar’s patrons are similarly broken down, with booze being their only comfort and it’s starting to wear thin. McGinty’s story may have the basic tenets of Sturges’ personal philosophies, and a love story, but the ending doesn’t end with the couple kissing happily ever after. No, Dan suffers the consequences of that “one crazy moment” for the rest of his life, leading to one of Sturges’ bleakest films.
Brian Donlevy never got the chance to headline many films, and although he lacks the geniality of a Cary Grant – an actor who could have played this character in his sleep – or a Jimmy Stewart, he conveys both the bum and the politician, fashioning a look akin to Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). He’s venal when necessary, but only because he’s struggled in his life.
Unlike films like My Man Godfrey (1936), that hewed closer towards issues of The Depression, The Great McGinty explores political corruption, a theme we’d see as the decade went on, although it’s hard not seeing this as following on the coattails of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Akim Tamiroff’s The Boss is a 1940’s Boris Badenov influencing government with all but the wave of a hand. He’s a puppetmaster who, for reasons never properly conveyed, doesn’t run for office himself. (I’m assuming it’s because of his Russian background. That, in itself, makes for an intriguing idea that this is showing the burgeoning influence of Communism circa-WWII.) There’s a seedy layer of infiltration with McGinty’s rise to power, but it’s fails to produce menace. Sure, McGinty says that the poor must like “being dirty,” but none of the policy he enacts looks to have detrimental repercussions short of being wasteful.
When McGinty’s required to marry, the film injects a love story between Donlevy and his secretary, Catherine (Muriel Angelus in her final role before retiring). The two have a marriage of convenience that turns into love…and I wish it was the main story. Donlevy and Angelus have some great chemistry, and Donlevy’s reading a bedtime story to Catherine’s two children is cute. Angelus has a natural ease about her, that too often is reduced to her enticing McGinty to do good, “womanly pandering.” There’s a fair bit of history regarding Catherine’s past relationship and the issues of being a single mother during the 1940s that I also wish were given enhanced depth. When McGinty finally flees due to his crimes, it comes off as completely unfair to his new family. He leaves them some money, but the stigma he so valiantly believes he’s saving them from would be there regardless.
The Great McGinty doesn’t quite live up to its name but that’s understandable for a first-time director; Sturges would only get better as the years developed. Tamiroff and Donlevy would reprise their roles from this film in the amazing Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which leaves me wondering the timeline of events. If you enjoyed Morgan’s Creek and want to place those characters in the proper context, then give this a view.
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