Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The (Almost) Great McGinty

There is Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby who aspired to an out-of-reach 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.


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 around 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 and laughs and screwy romance he left behind. McGinty is one of his best and oh so timely in 2020.



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…” And now, given all that has transpired since then, it seems possible that Trump might one day share McGinty's not-so-great fate.


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


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


Saturday, August 8, 2020



This is my contribution to Maddy's 4th Annual Alfred Hitchcock blogathon, click here to learn more...

In 1962, French film director/critic Francois Truffaut spent a week sequestered at Universal Studios with Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker he admired extravagantly. There, the two explored each of Hitchcock’s films to date in detail. Discussing Stage Fright (1950), one of his lesser films, Hitchcock remarked, “The greatest weakness of the picture is that it breaks an unwritten law: The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture. That’s a cardinal rule, and in this picture the villain was a flop!” Truffaut was delighted, “The better the villain, the better the picture,” he exclaimed, “that’s an excellent formula!”

Is it? Let’s take a closer look at the villains in some of Hitchcock’s best films.


Friday, May 22, 2020

Gimme Shelter: Classics for Comfort, CMBA Spring Blogathon 2020

The Classic Movie Blog Association is hosting its annual spring blogathon from May 19 – 22. This year’s theme is “Classics for Comfort,” about films that soothe us in difficult times. Click here for more info and links to participating blogs.


When we first began to shelter-in-place in my area two months ago, I pulled a Marilyn Monroe collection from the shelf. What could lighten the heart more than frolicking through Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot? Not much. And so I did. Seems a very long time and lots of movies ago now. Among the films I’ve watched since then that have given comfort or relief in different ways are these. 

Saturday, May 16, 2020

6 from the '60s for National Classic Movie Day

It's May 16, National Classic Movie Day, and Rick over at the Classic Film & TV Cafe is hosting his annual blogathon to celebrate the occasion. This year the subject is 6 from the '60s, in which we participating bloggers put the spotlight on six films of that decade. Click here to find out more and for links to all participating blogs.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Film Series Alert! "Simenon 2020" Launch Spotlights "Inspector Maigret"

Great noir news! Midcentury Productions, the brilliant and groundbreaking little company that has so far staged six terrific French film noir festivals at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater over the past several years, is about to launch a new, unique series, Simenon 2020. The program begins with a double bill this weekend, on Sunday the 23rd at the Roxie, and will run ‘til October. Here’s what it’s all about…

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Many Loves of Elizabeth Taylor

This exploration of the life, loves and career of Elizabeth Taylor is my entry for "The Wedding Bells Blogathon" hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood


She exchanged wedding vows for the first time at age 18 in 1950 and married for the eighth and last time in 1991 at 59. Of her apparent proclivity for collecting husbands, actor/composer/raconteur Oscar Levant would razz Elizabeth Taylor with the quip, "Always a bride, never a bridesmaid!"

Friday, January 10, 2020

Celebrating "The Shop Around the Corner" on its 80th Birthday

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the premiere of what has been called Ernst Lubitsch’s “most discreet tour de force of art concealing art,” The Shop Around the Corner (1940).