It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a more timely, accurate and hilarious rendition of the perils and possibilities of American politics than The Great McGinty, a delightful Preston Sturges tongue-in-cheek effort from 1940.
Often classified as a satire, at this point in our democratic evolution, it may be more of a cautionary tale for those interested enough to learn from the past.
Sturges had written a number of successful scripts, but he agreed to sell the story to Paramount for just $10 (such a deal!) with the understanding that he be allowed to direct. Pretty savvy negotiating and it wound up netting him an Academy Award the following year for Best Original Screenplay.
The plot centers around a man named Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) who, when we meet him, is a bartender in some banana republic watering hole. As the story opens, McGinty is recounting his rise and ultimate fall to one of the bar’s dancing girls and an American customer. The customer, it turns out, was a trusted bank employee who can no longer return to the United States because he is wanted by the law. McGinty is in a similar situation, but in his case the soft exile is due to one crazy minute of honesty rather than one ill-conceived moment of deception.
His rise, if you want to call it that, begins in Chicago when as a tramp he is offered a $2 bribe to vote under a false name in a rigged mayoral election. The commerce continues as the local boss, who controls the political parties in the city, has McGinty elected as a ‘reform’ candidate. Once in office, he continues this tradition of political corruption, rationalizing that the public still benefits from public works no matter who bribes their way into profiting from them.
It is an fluffy bit of logic, and one that holds water, for a period of time anyway. Throughout the unfolding narrative, there seems to be a subtle but persistent theme: Sturges seems to be saying If you’re a crook, stay a crook, because honesty will get you every time. The message which seems to flow through every frame of The Great McGinty is that democracy – at least the grease-ridden gears we call democracy – is a pay-to-play extravaganza that has little, if anything, to do with things like decency or fair play. In fact at one point early in the film as the story begins to rev up, one particularly hardened grifter piously explains that “you’ve got to pay somebody to protect you from human greed.”
Though truer words were likely never spoken, their utterance provides an ironic counterpoint to the alleged purpose of politics, at least politics as practiced here in our country.
What makes The Great McGinty so thoroughly enjoyable is the off-kilter combination of the unreal, the preposterous and the distantly possible. Sturges weaves a dizzying array of slickers and hicks, with characters ranging from frantic and compulsive to melancholy, literate, sub-intelligent, cynical, hushed and shouting. The typical Sturges arc calls to mind the intoxicating understatement of Lubitsch, the painful clamor of Jerry Lewis and the artful delicacy of Rene Clair. And everything is racing at breakneck speed. One almost gets the sense that Sturges is frantically trying to pack in as many jokes and quips as he can before that final fade to black. In a way, he seems to be telling us that what we prize is ephemeral. Bound to fade, freeze and fall away. Still the wanting endures. And, hopefully, storytellers like Sturges.