The Great McGinty Review
This title is only available as part of the 'Written and Directed by Preston Sturges' boxed set.
1940 was the year which marked Preston Sturges’ transition from being a highly respected writer to a director of the most formidable reputation. He embarked on this new career with a brisk little morality tale entitled The Great McGinty, yet it’s hardly the kind of work with which to woo a studio. Certainly, the quality is there, but it’s a film which is almost unrelenting in its sour outlook on life. Within the opening moments we are witness to a suicidal drunk armed with a revolver, vote rigging, political PR scams and a newly elected mayor with mob connections. And it starts as it means to go on: the “great” McGinty of the title is bum-turned-state governor, played by Brian Donlevy, who cynically rises to the top with a permanent sneer and continual tough guy attitude.
Indeed, at times it is difficult to ascertain whether Sturges is making a film which should be considered primarily a comedy or something a little more serious. After all, the troupe of character actors who would come to populate the majority of his films are already falling into place, and each has a face suited just as well to noir as they are screwball or slapstick. Yet this delicate combination between light and dark, and Sturges’ precarious balancing act of the two, is what makes The Great McGinty such an enticing prospect. It provides the film with an extremely sharp edge and continually has us putting up our guard. Consider, for example, the figure of Donlevy. At one point he could be mistaken for a Capra-esque figure lost in the unscrupulous world of politics, the next it’s as if he’s auditioning for one of Broderick Crawford’s later scenes in All the King’s Men. Even more surprising is the use of that great lost actress Muriel Angelus (this was her last picture; she retired at the age of 31 to start a family and never returned to the industry). Much like Donlevy she’s openly aware of the manipulations going on behind the scenes, but for the most part never bats an eyelid.
For all the comedy it is these darker undercurrents which continue to make The Great McGinty such a fascinating film. In retrospect it was closest Sturges ever got to a gangster picture, yet it’s no mere screwball with underworld trimmings. The sourness, as said, is there from the very beginning, whilst the director is absolutely unapologetic in his stance against the corruption of the US political system. Moreover, he even throws in a few sly digs against the sanctity of marriage and – in a choice moment – children’s storybooks. However, it should also be noted that had it not been for the comic nature, much of this wouldn’t have been so outré. Infidelity, for example, is dealt with as almost a shrug – a situation that would unlikely have arisen in a wholly serious work.
What prevents The Great McGinty from being such an unwholesome wallow, however, is Sturges’ stance on his lead character. Whilst his disgust for politicians and their corruption is there for all to see, McGinty himself is free of any judgement. Admittedly, Donlevy may not be the most appealing of leads whom the director would get to work with, but we’re with him all the way nonetheless. Indeed, it’s our ability to get right inside the cynicism which makes The Great McGinty such a powerful work.
Considering The Great McGinty’s age, it arrives on DVD in fine condition. The original Academy ratio is, of course, adhered to (and therefore presented non-anamorphically), whilst we are offered the original mono recording (spread over the front two channels). In both cases, the presentation is as good as could be expected. The image is crisp and has the requisite clarity, whilst the soundtrack is similarly audible and pleasingly free from any damage. Certainly, there are minor instances of scratching and dirt, but these should perhaps be expected from such a title. As for extras, The Great McGinty comes with only its theatrical trailer as accompaniment, though it is currently only available as part of the Written and Directed by Preston Sturges boxed set, and therefore also comes with six other Sturges’ feature and a glossy 20-page booklet which contains potted biographies for various cast members.