Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Great McGinty

"The Great McGinty" (Preston Sturges, 1940) Guy walks into a bar in a "banana republic" and tries to ventilate his own head. Turns out he's an embezzler on the lam who's made one mistake and wants to end it all. The bartender manages to stop him, but doesn't give him any sympathy. He thinks he has problems? He used to be Governor of the State.

The rest of the movie is
Sturges' tall tale told in flashback that turns around the bar's doubters and the rolling eyes. Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is a bum. He finds out that if he votes for a candidate for Mayor at a polling place, the candidates' "political advisers" will pay him two bucks. Sounds good to McGinty. But if he votes for the guy at 37 different polling places. he'll get 74 bucks! The politico's can't believe it. They're petty criminals. They don't think "big" like McGinty. So, after a brief turner as a mob "collector," he goes to the next logical career step—politics!

Once Mayor,
McGinty starts shaking down city fathers and handing out favored construction contracts, his "tough guy" tactics backed up by mayoral power. And nobody can argue with him, save the mob boss (Akim Tamiroff) that McGinty regularly has knock-down-drag-outs with. Oh, and his "married-to-look-good-for-the-lady-voters" wife/former secretary (Muriel Angelus), she gives him a kick in the pants every so often. But, when McGinty becomes governor, she talks him into doing some good for a change, and...well, you know that "no good deed goes unpunished."

The characters are Dickensian, the fable is
Aesop turned on his toga. And drama turned on its head. A tragedy is a good man who does something wrong. And in Sturges' street-wise script, tragedy befalls a bad man who does the right thing. No moral codes are being broken—McGinty is taken down. But Sturges' view is a cock-eyed, if soberly cock-eyed, story of moral growth and the trouble it can cause, especially if you're working for the people. Told with brass and a smart alecky humor, it's a criss-crossed morality play told from the other side—an anti-Capra film, told with that director's straight-forwardness, but with more of a knockabout flavor.

This was the first film Sturges directed, and it has sophisticated ideas (which seem quite contemprary) told in a scruffy manner. If there's pretentiousness, it's all in the background and the sub-text, buried where no one can nod sagely at it. One gets the impression Sturges would look at a movie aiming for the handkerchiefs and blow it a raspberry. Before the year fades away, we're going to be looking at a lot more
Preston Sturges, a director who doesn't get near enough acknowledgement in the movie history books. There's not enough Sturges in my head, and we're going to rectify that.

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