Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The (Almost) Great McGinty


There is Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby who aspired to a romantic fantasy that was his vision of the American Dream. And there is Preston Sturges’s Dan McGinty whose aspirations didn’t, at first, extend beyond the opportunities of the moment, a warm bowl of soup, a couple of quick bucks. Different as they were, both of these fictional fellows rose from nowhere to stunning prominence…for a while. Gatsby’s tale is a celebrated tragedy; McGinty’s saga is comic/ironic and not nearly as well-known as it should be.

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Dan McGinty was originally to be the central character in Biography of a Bum, the screenplay Preston Sturges sold to Paramount in 1939 for a piffling $10 so that the studio would allow him to direct it. Sturges had been in Hollywood writing screenplays since the early ‘30s and had, over the years, developed an itch to direct his own work. When the deal was finally done and Sturges was set to make his directorial debut, the New York office sent word west that the title had to go because, according to Sturges, “bum meant something terrible in Australia.” Apparently Paramount was concerned that the movie would be construed at various points across the globe as Biography of an Ass. Censorship being what it was in those days and international box office always being a major consideration, “bum” was out. Thus, The Great McGinty (1940).

"Do you want Tabasco in it?" the bartender asks.

Though the opening title announces that “this is the story of two men,” the less interesting of the two is onscreen for just a few minutes. This man was a bank cashier who acted on a weak impulse and lost everything. “I was going places!” he howls, prompting the other man to relate the unruly tale of what he once was and what he has lost. This man is Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy), now bartending a rowdy dive in an unnamed banana republic where the other man has become very, very drunk. “I was the governor of a state,” McGinty tells him.

Dan McGinty had been a big city street tough. One fine election day he stopped by a soup kitchen where he got a tip on how he could make an easy $2.00. Soon he was commiserating with a fast-talking political operative (William Demarest) who says he will pay that amount to McGinty if he will vote for the incumbent mayor. On his own initiative, McGinty votes 37 times under 37 different names at 37 different precincts. This amazing accomplishment brings him face to face with the local political Boss (Akim Tamiroff). McGinty’s brash self-possession along with his rough-and-toughness inspires the Boss to hire him as muscle for his crooked outfit. McGinty’s implausible whirlwind trip from street bum to protection collector to alderman to mayor to state governor to bartender set the mold for the string of offbeat, slapstick-riddled Sturges comedies of the 1940s.

The Boss is pleased. Even in that "horse blanket" of a suit, McGinty collected all the overdue protection money.

A mayor must have a wife...he gets a family.

McGinty is a raucous - and biting - political satire that travels at the tight, foot-to-the-floor pace that became a Sturges trademark. The dialogue is snappy and smart, the pratfalls cleverly placed. But when, well into the film, McGinty falls in love with the woman (Muriel Angelus) he married strictly because a mayor must have a wife, the tone softens. A divorcee, his wife brought two young children to the marriage and he has fallen for them, too. As McGinty slips into a happy home life his conscience, with a gentle but firm nudge from his wife (“Darling…”), begins to stir. This, just as the corrupt political machine that plucked him from the gutter drops him into the governor’s office.

Which brings us back to the opening title:

This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic. One of them was honest all of his life except one crazy minute. The other was dishonest all of his life except one crazy minute. They both had to get out of the country.

Rumble in the Jungle...the Boss and McGinty are at it again...Skeeter looks on.

The three subversively oddball and gruffly charming central political characters, McGinty, the Boss and Skeeter the operative, are so colorfully drawn and so vividly spun to life by Donlevy, Tamiroff and Demarest, respectively, that the viewer cannot help but take a shine to them and wish they hadn’t had to make a run for it. And the viewer will wistfully recall lovely and loving Mrs. McGinty, the children and their Dachshund, Brownie. They will all miss McGinty terribly...

It was a B-movie that became an A-movie at the box office and it brought Preston Sturges an Oscar for his screenplay. Which is to take nothing away from his canny direction. Sturges would go on to write and direct the rest of his best films over the next eight years: The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and Unfaithfully Yours (1948).  After that, it was over for him in Hollywood but what a trove of fun and games, sharp wit and screwy-yet-poignant romance he left behind. McGinty is one of his gems and oh so timely in 2020.

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Postscript:

In 2017, Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities) and Gay Talese (Honor Thy Father), old friends – not to mention titans of the New Journalism - were interviewed by French critic/TV host François Busnel at Talese’s home in New York City. Toward the end of the session, conversation turned to politics and, naturally, Donald Trump, then in office less than a year. Reviewing Trump’s background and his rise, Wolfe, who died the following year at age 88, remarked, “Jay Gatsby and Donald Trump could be cousins" noting that both men are "nouveau riche thugs" who have fabricated their histories, lied about their finances and so on.  And now, three years later and given all that has transpired since that interview, it seems possible that Trump might some day suffer the same not-so-great fate as McGinty.

 Sources:

Romantic Comedy in Hollywood by James Harvey (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987)

Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges: His Life in His Words, adapted and edited by Sandy Sturges (Simon and Schuster, 1990)

"Flak Catchers" by François Busnel, Air Mail, Sept. 22, 2020

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This is my entry for the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fall 2020 "Politics on Film" Blogathon, click here for more.

 

20 comments:

  1. Beautiful! Concise and insightful look at this fabulous movie and its creator. The impact McGinty has had on this viewer has been long-lasting. There isn't a single time I have voted where I haven't wryly said to myself "Never mind the applesauce. How do I get the bucks?"

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    1. Thanks. So much to love about this film. One of my favorite scenes is when McG is reading "Willie Rabbit" to the kids who have fallen asleep in his arms. When his wife tells him they're asleep, he keeps reading because he wants to find out "who do you suppose it was" that cast a shadow across the fence in the story. When he reads the name, McG responds, with great sincerity, "That's who I thought it was..." Charms me every time.

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    2. My heart! That scene is a winner. Sturges just knew where to go, and for how long.

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  2. I love your writing! Sturges is a personal favorite & McGinty paved the way for everything after. Well done!! Thanks

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    1. Thank you! Obviously, I'm a Sturges fan - McGinty was a stellar launch for his writing/directing career.

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  3. Your post has inspired me to see The Great McGinty. I have not yet seen it, but I'm a fan of Brian Donlevy. And I have to see that gingham suit!

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    1. Marianne, if you are a fan of Brian Donlevy you must see McGinty. On his own and with the ensemble supporting cast he nails it. Great film, great actor. Enjoy.

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  4. This is a splendid film, and a very nice appraisal (I will say, at least McGinty is respectful to women. Unlike Trump).

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    1. In fact, it was a woman that brought McGinty's heart and his conscience to light. He turned out to have a great big soft spot. I love McGinty.

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  5. For me, the joy of The Great McGinty lies with the supporting cast, headed by the brilliant William Demarest. Many folks recognize him from My Three Sons, but, of course, he had a long, successful film career before playing Uncle Charley. Akim Tamiroff never got an iconic role, but I've seen him in so many movies and TV series (especially the '60s for the latter). These two elevate The Great McGinty. That's no surprise as Preston Sturges always created juicy roles for his supporting players.

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    1. For me, the joy of The Great McGinty is - everything. One touch I love is the Dachshund in a bit part as the family pet. McGinty was quite a directorial debut for Sturges and it's no surprise why Paramount would give him relatively free reign following its success.

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  6. One of your best! So timely - and oh how the imagination works with this one. Since this is a political theme, I'm just adding that I hope the USA is not the banana republic of the future.

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  7. A wonderful post. I was surprised at how 'rough and tumble' this film was, with sad undertones, but still a biting wit and a great ride. That is Sturges' touch, for sure. I need to watch this again soon. I'd also recommend a recent bio of Donlevy: https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/brian-donlevy-the-good-bad-guy/

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    1. Thank you. Sturges had an ingenious knack for depicting uncomfortable truths with outrageous humor - and the occasional moment of poignancy. Like so many, he idolized Lubitsch and had wanted to dedicate McGinty to him - but Paramount said no. Lubitsch had left the studio for MGM earlier that year. And thanks for the link to the Donlevy bio. Will check it out.

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  8. Lovely post. I love the freewheeling nature of some of the politically themed movies from the 1930s and 1940s, as compared to the more constrained and almost self-conscious ones of the 1950s. I need to visit with McGinty one of these days.

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    1. Thank you, Jacqueline. McGinty is certainly freewheeling. I hope you have a chance to see it again soon. A tonic for the times.

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  9. Dear Eve,

    This is a great article! I really enjoyed reading it. Your description of this film is really interesting. I've heard of this movie before, and it sounds fascinating. In fact, I have seen a "cameo" of the McGinty character in "The Miracle of Morgan Creek." What an apropos article for this theme! I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

    By the way, I nominated you for a Sunshine Blogger Award: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2020/10/26/our-second-sunshine-blogger-award/. In this post, I also invited my nominees to join two upcoming blogathons I'm hosting, The Third Annual Claude Rains Blogathon in November (https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2020/10/01/an-old-friend-is-never-an-added-guest-please-join-us-for-the-third-annual-claude-rains-blogathon/) and The 2nd Happy Holidays Blogathon
    (https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2020/10/01/announcing-the-2nd-happy-holidays-blogathon/), plus our guest series, What the Code Means to Me: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2018/12/17/what-the-code-means-to-me/. If you could join one or more of these events, that would be wonderful. We could really use your talent!

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

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    1. Thank you. It was clever of Sturges to include McGinty as governor in "Morgan's Creek," I thought. And thanks for the invitations to and information on your blogathons. I hope to be able to participate.

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