Monday, January 18, 2016
Reeling Backward: "The Greaty McGinty" (1941)
Circa 1940 Preston Sturges was one of Hollywood's most successful screenwriters who really yearned to direct. He was getting paid $2,500 a week -- that's north of $2 million a year in today's dollars -- to churn out screwball comedies and rehashed plots, hating every minute of it. So Sturges sold his script for "The Great McGinty" for $10 on the condition that he be allowed to direct it himself.
(Rather than hiding this fact, Paramount actually promoted it as part of the film's marketing push.)
In the short term Paramount seemed to get the better end of it, as "The Great McGinty" was a decent hint and Sturges won the Academy Award for Original Screenplay -- undoubtedly the lowest-paid Oscar-winning gig ever. But Sturges got what he wanted, a director's seat, and went on to a well-respected, if not particularly lengthy, career behind the camera ("Sullivan's Travels," "Unfaithfully Yours").
"McGinty" is interesting to me for three reasons. It's one of the few leading roles by Brian Donlevy, who usually played supporting parts as crooks and tough guys, most notably as the cruel Sergeant Markoff in "Beau Geste." He had one of those angled faces that, like Martin Landau, seemed almost cartoonishly villainous from a distance, but upon closer inspection was actually breathtakingly beautiful. He's effective and charming here as a lug who makes it big, then loses it all.
Second, the movie uses a storytelling framing device set many years after and thousands of miles away from the central plot, which was a pretty novel premise in 1940. ("Citizen Kane" would go on to employ it soon after.)
But most intriguingly, "McGinty" seems to fly in the face of the Production Code, which more or less mandated that reproachable behavior always be punished in the movies, and acts of goodness are invariably rewarded in the end, even if it takes awhile. ("It's a Wonderful Life" being the classic example.)
Here, the main character is a lout and a thief who becomes a state governor through outright graft and corruption. Happiness and status accrue to him the more rotten he is, including a show marriage that turns into a genuine love affair and close ties with her adopted children. But when he goes straight and attempts to do something honest for the first time ever, his entire life immediately comes crashing down.
McGinty hightails it to a remote country and becomes a bartender at a seedy dive, pouring out cheap booze along with his own story to troubled pilgrims. The wife and kids? Utterly abandoned. If you're expecting a last-minute reunion where the woman walks into his gin joint to reassure the audience everything turned out OK in the end, you'll be waiting a long time.
What's the takeaway here? It's better to be honest, but if you're a crook you'd best stay a crook?
At a spare 81 minutes, "The Great McGinty" flies by at a breakneck pace. It almost seems like one minute Dan McGinty (Donlevy) is a street bum who earns a wad of cash by going from precinct to precinct to vote for the mayor dozens of times, to becoming the mayor himself and then the governor.
The best and funniest part is the second act as McGinty becomes the collections enforcer for the local mob boss (Akim Tamiroff) -- credited, simply, as "The Boss" -- who keeps the politicians in his pocket. The Boss is bemused by the pug-nosed nobody who dares to punch him back when punched. The two form an odd brotherly relationship, exchanging brash displays of masculinity and always ready to throw down in fisticuffs at any disagreement.
McGinty buys himself an outlandish striped suit and sets out to collect outstanding debts for The Boss. He uses his fists when provoked, but shows a gift of gab, talking an elderly female psychic out of $200 by pointing out the risks to her own future. This leads to a stint as city alderman, handing out contracts for bribes.
When the longtime Mayor (Arthur Hoyt) becomes outdated for the reform-minded times, McGinty is picked as the golden boy. Since women have recently gotten the vote -- an indication the main story is set in the 1920s -- McGinty needs to be a family man. His secretary, Catherine (Muriel Angelus), volunteers for the duty, pointing out it will mutually benefit each of them -- though she fails to mention her two urchins until after the wedding vows are sealed.
Of course, once McGinty feels he is "free" of The Boss' influence, he starts listening to Catherine's urging to shut down the tenements and pass new child labor laws. The Boss doesn't take kindly to the insurrection, leading to a throwdown right in the new governor's office.
I quite enjoyed "The Greaty McGinty," though it's obviously a minor work in the oeuvre of Preston Sturges. It's the rare movie that would have been better if it were longer and slower. Still, it got him through the studio's door, gave Donlevy one of his most memorable roles and delivered a subtle middle finger to the rigid filmmaking mores of the day.