The guileless Eddie Bracken plays a returning soldier with the overbearingly heroic name of Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, the legacy of a Marine father who died during World War I. The film's opening finds Truesmith drowning his sorrows in a gin joint, not looking forward to going home and letting his mother (who keeps a veritable shrine to her dead heroic husband) find out that contrary to all his invented stories of valor, he never served at all, and in fact was discharged from the army due to a hilariously bad case of hay fever. He hooks up with a passel of Marines (Guadalcanal vets), who, in the true nature of this period's films, all seem to hail from the same Brooklyn neighborhood. Having already lost all their money at the start of a multi-day furlough, and seeing in fellow Marine Truesmith a good-hearted sucker with a deep and guilty wallet, they all pile onto the train home with him, all the better to give the kid a proper homecoming.
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Sturges loved fake beginnings, and this is one of his best. We open on a knock-down, brawling fight on (and below) a train that's roaring through the mountains at night. The two men finally knock each other off into the raging river, and the screen reads: THE END, after which we find out that it's a film being screened for a couple worried executives by a very popular comic filmmaker, John Sullivan (Joel McCrea), who's trying to break out of his niche, going on about holding a mirror up to life and painting a "true canvas" of humanity's suffering. Chagrined to discover that the suits don't think his silver-spoon upbringing entitles him to know anything about the human condition, Sullivan hits the road with ten cents in his pocket (kitted out in authentic bum-wear from the studio wardrobe) to find out something about it. He spends the rest of the film trying to get away from the suits (worried about losing their golden goose), and striving to find realism. At first he doesn't succeed, accidentally ending up back in Hollywood time and again, but eventually Sullivan gets a little more realism than he had intended.
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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?
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'Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing)' arrives in April.
The two awards have made for a great 72nd birthday present for the country music icon.