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Peter Hoskin: America according to Preston Sturges

By Peter Hoskin. Follow Peter on Twitter.

Get up on your feet and pour yourself a highball: Preston Sturges was born 115 years ago today. It’s a weird, cockamamie sort of anniversary, I grant you – made weirder by the fact that he died from a heart attack in 1959 – but let’s celebrate it anyway. It seems like the sort of thing the characters in his movies would do. Any excuse to have something strong and fizzy in your hand. Any excuse for a bit of sparkling repartee.

But which of Sturges’ films should we discuss? Which of that glorious run of seven films in four years, from 1940 to 1944, that were all written and directed by him? There’s the sinuous, sexual knockabout of The Lady Eve (1941). There’s that wonderful essay about luck, Christmas in July (1940). But, no, that’s it: let’s talk about The Great McGinty (1940). This is a political website, after all, and McGinty is Sturges’ clearest political satire. It also has the distinction of being the first film he directed himself.

What you need to understand about The Great McGinty is that this McGinty fella ain’t so great. Two of the titles that Sturges considered for the movie were The Biography of a Bum and The Vagrant, and they’re probably closer to the truth. We first meet Daniel McGinty, played by Brian Donlevy, behind the counter of a bar in a – to use the words of the title card that open the movie – banana republic. He’s a granite slab of a man, topped with sweaty grey hair and a smirk, and he has a story to tell. The story of how he used to be “the governor of a state, baby”.

That story begins, years earlier, at a soup kitchen on election night. The local tramps can have their fill, so long as they remember one thing: that this food came courtesy of Mayor Wilfred T. Tillinghast. And there’s more: they’ll get two dollars if they vote for the good Mayor, under the identities of those who have shuffled off this mortal coil but not the electoral roll. “All we’re doing is getting out the vote,” says one of the petty gangsters managing the operation. And all one tramp, in particular, is doing is looking to make a fast buck. What if he votes more than once?

That tramp is, of course, McGinty himself. He dashes around the city, from polling booth to polling booth, to vote 37 separate times. And he gets rewarded for his iniquitous efforts, with 74 bucks and a job at the true party HQ – the gang. This isn’t the American Ideal, of sacrifice and community, that Frank Capra showed you. This is America, Sturges-style. A land of winos, hucksters and thieves.

And if that sounds cynical, just wait for the rest of the movie. McGinty soon rises, as promised, from bum to mayor to governor, all the while doing his criminal masters’ bidding. And that bidding is building: roads, bridges and dams, with a percentage cut on the side. One of the The Great McGinty’s most strident sequences shows sturdy Americans toiling on construction sites. In most films, this would be a paean to New Deal economics. Here, it’s interposed with shots of the city coffers diminishing. Not even FDR gets off lightly, in this or other Sturges films. As one character quips in his The Palm Beach Story (1942), “Nothing is permanent in this world – except for Roosevelt.”          

Indeed, what’s striking about this satire is its equal-opportunities disdain for everyone and everything in the system. At one point, McGinty convinces a fortune teller to hand over protection money on the grounds that, if it isn’t the mob, it’s “every slug in a uniform”. Which is to say, the corruption isn’t sporadic, it’s bureaucratic. When you learn that Sturges was in constant struggle with studio executives over the content of his films, it comes as no surprise.

The Great McGinty is spared from heavy-handedness by the usual charms of Sturges’ work, including the dialogue and the interplay of the sexes. While McGinty’s wife Catherine – played by the London-born Muriel Angelus – isn’t as strong and single-minded a female character as Barbara Stanwyck’s in The Lady Eve (1941) or Veronica Lake’s in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), she’s still the moral centre of the film. “What are you trying to do? Reform me?” blusters the tough-guy McGinty, when she encourages him to change his ways. But reform he does.

So, does everything right itself in the end, as it would in a Capra movie? Well, McGinty and his gangster boss end up in that bar in a banana republic, so there’s some sort of comeuppance – but I don’t think it ruins anything to say that the comeuppance is limited just to them. There are no congressional hearings, no investigations. The system, you sense, just keeps on keeping on.  

> This is the first in a monthly series of political film reviews by Peter Hoskin. The next film, if you want to watch it in advance, will be Z (1969). Feel free to recommend other titles in the comments section, below.


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