“The Great McGinty” was Preston Sturges first directorial effort. Already rooted with a reputation as an excellent screenwriter, Sturges sought to direct; he disliked when directors changed his scripts, in particular Mitchell Leisen who directed two of his works, “Easy Living” and “Remember the Night.” Sturges, in a deal with Paramount, sold “The Great McGinty” script for $1 in exchange for letting him direct his first film. For legal reasons, Paramount actually had to increase the payment to $10 but either way Sturges was directing. The script’s origin goes back to 1932 and went under various titles among them “The Vagrant”, “Down Went McGinty” and “The Biography of a Bum.”
We first meet McGinty bartending in an unnamed banana republic where he begins to tell his story to another American (Louis Jean Heydt) who is drunk, depressed and on the verge of suicide. In an attempt to convince the man, others have fallen further in life than he has McGinty narrates his story. We flashback to an American city, probably Chicago, where we first meet McGinty as a vagrant getting mixed up with local gangsters who are rigging elections and controlling elected officials. A character, only known by the name The Politician (William Demarest) is fixing votes for the current puppet Mayor, Wilfred Tillinghast who is owned by the big guy in town simply called The Boss (Akim Tamnioff). Straight from the breadlines, McGinty is a willing volunteer to join The Politician’s crusade to vote and vote often, with the promise he will get $2 for every time he vote’s. How is this accomplished? By using the names of dead people and going to different election polls of course. McGinty’s tenacity brings him to the attention of The Boss when it is discovered he managed to amazingly vote 37 times! Now he wants the $74 that is owed to him. The Boss is impressed by his doggedness and hires McGinty as an enforcer to ensure delinquent storeowners pay for protection (“you’ve got to pay somebody to protect you from human greed.”) The Boss soon realizes that McGinty has potential for being more than just a thug and shortly has him running for the office of Alderman. Within a short period, Tillinghast is out as Mayor, and McGinty is The Boss’ new “reform” candidate. There is only one problem, McGinty now has to get married because as The Boss tells it “if you haven’t heard, the women have the vote now….they don’t like bachelors.” So, McGinty marries his secretary Catherine (Muriel Angelus) who has her own reasons for agreeing to this odd couple arrangement. What first starts out as a “business” arrangement soon turns to love when McGinty becomes jealous of Catherine going out to dinner with an old male friend of hers. It does not take long for Catherine to go from calling him Mr. McGinty to darling.
The graft has been lucrative and the Boss decides to go big time and have McGinty run for Governor. Before long victory is theirs, however The Boss’ new plans for bigger graft are thwarted when McGinty decides to go the honest route. No sooner is he in office they fight over McGinty’s new honesty policy resulting in The Boss shooting McGinty. The Boss is sent to jail, and he immediately implicates McGinty in all the graft schemes they initiated over the years. The new Governor is quickly arrested, ending up in a jail cell next to The Boss.
Both men manage to escape, thanks to The Politician, and exit the country in the dark of night. For McGinty, this also meant leaving his wife and family behind. We flash forward to the present time as McGinty’s finishes telling his tale. One customer who has been listening to McGinty’s story yells out that it is all a lot of malarkey. McGinty does not deny it however; truth or not, he did save a man from suicide.
When the film was released in August of 1940, no one was expecting much. There was no advance publicity from Paramount. All anticipated the film to come into town, play a week or two and disappear. To the surprise of everyone, the film turned out to be a laugh out loud hit. Moreover, the film had bite! It also had Brian Donlevy in a rare lead role that he took full advantage of, delivering an excellent and sensitive portrayal of a man who starts out as a simple thug and develops into a selfless individual. Akim Tamiroff plays well off Donlevy and Muriel Angelus is fine in the pivotal role of his secretary/wife who at first accepts the greed and thief of her husband’s political lifestyle by rationalizing that it is impossible to rob from the people because when you rob, you spend and it all ends up going back to the people. When she eventually abandons this absurd philosophy, it also kindles McGinty’s will to go straight and be an honest politician. Of course, going honest turned out to be his downfall. William Demarest, one of the many actors who became part of Sturges stock company is lively and filled with plenty of spunk in his role known only as The Politician. Many other actors who would become part of Sturges “stock company’’ also appear in the film. Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff would reprise their roles as McGinty and The Boss a few years later in Sturges’ “The Miracle of Morgan Creek.”
For Muriel Angelus, “The Great McGinty” would be her final film. She made two appearances on Broadway in the early 1940’s in “Sunny River” and Fats Waller’s “Early to Bed” before retiring. In the late 1930’s she had made her Broadway debut in the Rogers and Hart musical, “The Boys from Syracuse.”
An interesting aside (source Wikipedia) is Akim Tamiroff’s malaprop laced performance here was the source for the villainous spy Boris Badenov character in the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show