As a political science major, movies, books and TV shows that are about politics tend to hold a special place in my heart. Whether it’s The American President (which romanticizes the White House and idealistic government) or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or The West Wing, I have a fondness for fiction that does politics right. And the early days of cinema were rife with great political satire from the aforementioned Mr. Smith all the way up to the 1960s and Dr. Strangelove (which is coming up soon on my list to review for this blog). When the 1940s Preston Sturges Oscar-winner The Great McGinty wound up near the top of my Netflix queue, I had never heard of the film before. And that’s a shame because The Great McGinty was an uproarious satire of the graft and corruption at the heart of American party politics in the 1930s and 40s that I enjoyed almost every minute of.
Daniel McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is an American expatriate living in an unnamed Banana Republic when the film begins. After another cast-off from the states attempts to kill himself in McGinty’s bar, Daniel takes the time out to explain his life story and how he wound up on the run. A couple years earlier, McGinty was just another bum on the breadline. But when a local hand in the party machine pays McGinty to vote under an assumed name, McGinty shows such a knack for voter fraud and has enough guts that the Boss (Akim Tamiroff) decides to hire Daniel as an enforcer in his racketeering schemes. And it isn’t long before they decide to have Daniel run for mayor and have him win. But when Daniel’s arranged marriage to his former secretary (Muriel Angelus) turns into a real romance, her morality and his own essential decency prove to be his down fall.
Unlike other Preston Sturges screwball comedies, The Great McGinty isn’t quite a straight comedy, and although I referred to the film as uproarious earlier, that’s more of an indication of the wit and energy of the film rather than how much time I actually spent laughing. Although perhaps it is more like the screwball comedies than I give it credit before, because like those films, The Great McGinty proves to be a series of snowballing incidents that avalanche one after another until the film’s final moments. For the most part, The Great McGinty is a non-stop reminder of how flavorful and smart the classic comedies used to be while operating under the strictest morality codes thanks to being part of the Hays Code era. Although the film doesn’t prove to be quite as insightful as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it’s still a wonderful, character-driven comedy.
This may be the only role that I’ve ever seen Brian Donlevy in and I can’t for the life of me figure out why he wasn’t a bigger star in his day. He brings such life, intelligence, and sensitivity to the role of Daniel McGinty. Whether he’s fighting in the back seat of a town car with the corpulent Boss or reading a bed time story to the children of his newly wed wife (which she had from a first marriage), Donlevy taps into the basic humanity of McGinty while still reminding you of his toughness in the scenes where he coerces and intimidates others to suit his political needs. I’m not saying Donlevy was on par with the Bogies or Grants of the day, but I’m legitimately shocked that this actor had totally escaped my attention until just now. Throw in his wonderful romantic chemistry with Muriel Angelus, and it was a film with delightful lead performances.
I love raunchy modern comedies (Horrible Bosses, Harold & Kumar, etc) but there’s just something so appealing about the wit and innocence of the classics like this. Even when they make dirty jokes (at least for the time) or allusions to sex, it is handled with such an agile subtlety and grace that it reminds you how heavy-handed even the best modern raunchy films can be. There was a scene where McGinty’s wife is helping him undress after he’s had too much to drink, and he grabs her hand as she’s taking his money-roll out of his coat. He then more or less implies that he’s had a prostitute try the same trick on him. And The Great McGinty is simply bursting with that kind of understated humor and sly references. It may not be an all-time classic, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t soak up as much fun as possible in this screwball of a ride.
Final Score: B+