A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges,1940)

Poster with the British title for The Great McGinty
The attitude of Hollywood in the studio era toward screenwriters is usually summed up by the epithet "schmucks with typewriters," which has been attributed to various studio heads, or the sexist joke about the ambitious starlet who was "so dumb she slept with the writer." No one was more aware of the attitude than Preston Sturges, who had been a Hollywood screenwriter for a decade. He had seen several of his scripts mangled in the hands of other directors, so he is said to have made a deal with Paramount: He would sell them the script for what became The Great McGinty for $10 if they would let him direct it. They agreed, grudgingly, and the film was a hit, launching Sturges a career as one of the great writer-directors and winning him his only Oscar -- for the screenplay. There are glimpses in the movie of what Sturges would become: a great, irreverent satirist with a gift for screwball comedy. But on the whole, it's a more serious movie than we're accustomed to from him. It's told in flashback: McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is a bartender in a south-of-the-border saloon, who recounts his fall from grace -- ironically because "he never did anything honest in his whole life, except for one crazy minute." As a tramp, he was offered a bribe for his vote in a big-city election, and he discovered that the more he voted in that election the more money he could make. This got the attention of the city's political boss (Akim Tamiroff), who remade McGinty into a successful candidate for alderman, then for mayor. In order to get elected, he needed a wife, so his secretary, Catherine (Muriel Angelus), agreed to an in-name-only marriage. Eventually, however, they fell in love, and Catherine made him change his ways. He was elected governor, and tried to go straight, but this led the boss to fire a gun at McGinty, and they both wound up in jail. At the end, we see that the boss is now the owner of the bar McGinty tends. The somewhat low-wattage cast was forced on Sturges. Angelus is a rather pallid heroine, and Donlevy's performance shows why he never became a major star. But as his later films demonstrate, Sturges knew something about the texture that a colorful supporting cast could bring to a film, so we get standout work from Tamiroff, and William Demarest, who appeared in eight films Sturges directed and two more that he wrote, plays another politico. Another future key member of Sturges's stock company, Jimmy Conlin, has a bit part.