The Great McGinty Movie Review
One of the century's smarter films about politics, Preston Sturges' The Great McGinty takes a blowsy, no-nonsense approach to the subject at its core -- corruption -- and by treading that line between sanctimonious outrage and full-blown farce achieves a welcome attitude of realistic (and fatalistic) morality. Sturges' fable starts in one of those wonderfully atmospheric, fly-buzzed and smoky bars that inhabit Third World cities in all great films, where the man, Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy), is working as a bartender, and telling the story of his fairy tale rise and fall. In its own meritocratic way, the story is actually quite inspiring: man comes out of nowhere, rockets upward through a major city's political organization, marries well, lives better, eventually becomes governor. Sure, he rose to power on a raging tide of graft, but that's the Chicago way, right?
The Great McGinty is not technically set in Chicago (city and state are never named), but Chicago-born Sturges got most of his ideas from real details and events from the city's history. The empty-suit mayors who operate at the beck and call of machine bosses, the alderman who don't lift a finger for their constituents without a trade: a vote cast or donation check to be cashed; it all rings true to any student of the great urban political machines.
A director and writer made of lesser stuff -- legend has it Sturges sold his script to the studio for $1 just so they'd let him direct -- would have made McGinty a naïf, manipulated by Manichean exploiters. But in Sturges' eye, McGinty is one of these operators in embryonic form, one who expects to fight for everything (the wonderfully hairtrigger Donlevy spends most of the film's first third getting into it with anybody who looks at him cross-eyed) and sees no problem with paying for votes, using violence to uphold a protection racket, and basically buying and selling the entire democratic process. That's how he always assumed life was, from his position at the bottom of society's ladder, and now that he's climbing that ladder, it's just as he expected.
The trademark Sturges dialogue is in rare form here, each character armed with a quiver full of tart jabs and put-downs. The Great McGinty also more cinematic than many of his films, utilizing more vibrant mise en scene and dynamic camera movement that helps sweep the story along as McGinty gets bumped progressively higher, Icarus-like. In his case, the ultimately damning sun is the good Catherine (Muriel Angelus), a party employee he initially marries for looks (can't run for the Mayor's office as a bachelor, McGinty is told, women just got the vote and they don't like bachelors) but ultimately falls in love with, thus sealing his fate when she awakens his moral sensitivity. If only more real-life politicians had a Catherine.