Monday, November 01, 2010

Underrated Movie #94: The Great McGinty

It’s “Hold Your Nose” week for our American readers, so let’s wallow into the mire…
Title: The Great McGinty
Year: 1940
Director: Preston Sturges
Writers: Preston Sturges
Stars: Brian Donlevy, Muriel Angelus, Akim Tamiroff, William Demarest

The Story: Donlevy is a two-fisted bum who gets offered two bucks to vote for a corrupt mayor, so he votes 37 times, under 37 different names. This so impresses the political machine that they make him a bagman, then an alderman, then mayor, then governor. Soon he has enough power to do whatever he wants, as long as he doesn’t want to do the right thing.

How it Came to be Underrated: This is now considered a classic by cinephiles, but it deserves to have the same reputation as other political perennials like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Sturges’s extremely jaundiced view gave America a look at itself that it didn’t really want to see, but it rings more and more true every year.

Why It’s Great:

  1. A patrician politician runs such a slimy political machine that the public finally turns on him. His bosses in the business community decide that they need to anoint their own “reform” candidate to run in the next election. They find a small cog in the Chicago machine whose primary value is that nobody has heard of him. This up-from-poverty plain-talker soon takes off on a meteoric rise to the top, but there’s just one catch: his backers require him to continue all the corruption of the crook he’s replacing. What a crazy story! I guess that’s what it was like way back when in the bad old days.
  2. In the silent era, it wasn’t uncommon to have one major talent write and direct a picture, but with the coming of sound, the studios forcibly separated the two jobs. Finally, at the height of the studio era, three of the most popular screenwriters simultaneously put their feet down and demanded a chance to direct their own scripts. The result was three daring movies that re-launched the auteur era: this, John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, and Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor. They’re all great.
  3. How does Sturges manage to be so big-hearted and black-hearted at the same time? He does it by keeping a bemused ear cocked for how people really talk when they get in over their head. Now matter how farcical each scene gets, Sturges shows an unswerving dedication to portraying the way the world really works.
  4. Sturges hadn’t quite gathered his stock company yet (though William Demarest is already on hand, plus a brief glimpse of Jimmy Conlin). Without the circus-like atmosphere of Sturges’s later movies, this one gets carried almost entirely on Donlevy’s beefy shoulders. He proves to be such a wonderful leading man: comedic and dramatic, subtle and broad, that it drives me crazy when I see that he went right back to character parts after this.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Sturges follow-up film Christmas in July is also underrated. Donlevy briefly re-appeared as Governor McGinty in one of Stugres’s best movies, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

How Available Is It?: The DVD is bare-bones but it looks beautiful.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Calling Stardust!


Anonymous said...

I commented on an earlier post, and I thought I should repeat it here: What happened to rule #18?

Matt Bird said...

I thought we all agreed that we would never speak about rule #18 again-- It wasn't my fault all those nuns got killed. Who knew that they would take the rule so literally...

Or maybe I just got confused and skipped 18. I was an English major, okay? If you find this upsetting, I'll point out that there's an unnumbered rule between #22 and 23, so it all still adds up.

MichaelB said...

Sturges = my hero.