“The Great McGinty” (1940) charts the rise and fall of a Depression-era hobo to mayor of a city, then Governor, and finally exile in a banana republic.
Though a satire, Preston Sturges, certainly the greatest writer-director in Hollywood history, was a keen observer of American political life.
McGinty, played by Brian Donlevy, finds favor in the eyes of the corrupt political machine by casting 36 ballots in a local election, elevating voter fraud to an art form that would be the envy of any Chicago Democrat. McGinty then works as a most effective collector for the protection racket run by The Boss, played by the great Armenian actor Akim Tamaroff.
McGinty is soon tapped to be the reform candidate for mayor.
The following dialogue (from the published script) captures the spirit of reform candidates:
McGinty: “What do you mean reform?”
The Boss: (with irritation) “What do you think it means? Don’t make me say everything twice, will you? I said, do you want to be reform mayor… MAYOR of this city?”
McGinty: (suspicious of a joke) “Whata you got to do with the reform party?”
The Boss: “I am the reform party, what do you think?”
McGinty: “Since when?”
The Boss: “Since a long time. In this town I’m all the parties. You think I’m goin’ to starve every time they change administrations?”
McGinty allows that he might be interested in becoming mayor. Fine, says The Boss, but first McGinty will have to get married.
McGinty: “What do you mean, get married right away?”
The Boss: “What do you think it means? Do I have to start saying everything twice again? Women got the vote now… maybe you didn’t hear about it… they don’t like bachelors.”
This complication sets up the central love story. The down-to-earth secretary Catherine, played by the luminous Muriel Angelus, volunteers to be McGinty’s bride. We learn that she’s a single mother who sees marriage to McGinty as one of convenience.
Catherine: “You see I don’t want to get married either… I feel the same way you do about it… this way we’d both be protected… because there’s always somebody who wants her to marry them. We’d never have to see each other except to be photographed on the steps of the city hall, and I could run your house for you and make speeches for you at women’s clubs… and be your lawful wedded wife in everything except… when we were alone… you see I’ve already been married… and you’d get the women’s vote… which is the really important thing.”
In the very next scene, McGinty and Catherine are hastily married, and their life as a power couple begins. So far, Catherine seems like a decent if opportunistic young woman. But when she introduces McGinty to her two children we glimpse the maternal side of Catherine, a loving and devoted mother who every night prays with her children as she tucks them into bed.
In every well-crafted screenplay the protagonist has a sidekick who functions as a moral sounding board. Most often, the sidekick encourages the main character to remember and act in a decent and moral way–in opposition to the antagonist. In this case, Catherine is the sidekick and the love interest. The antagonist is The Boss and McGinty’s cynical, materialistic nature. Catherine’s morality is rooted in religious belief.
Sturges provides a brilliant and subtle augur of Catherine’s religious morality when she takes him on a tour of the apartment she’s chosen as their new home. They step out on the balcony and survey the city.
McGinty: “Pretty, ain’t it? (Now he squints into the darkness) What’s that across the street, a church?”
Catherine: “Yes, it is.”
McGinty: (Scowling) “Ring a lotta bells?”
Catherine: (Mildly) “I don’t think so.”
We HEAR a deep “bong”. McGinty gives Catherine a look.
McGinty: (After a moment) “Well, I guess we seen everything.”
He turns to enter the apartment.
Catherine: “Mr. McGinty.”
McGinty: “Yes, ma’am.”
Catherine: “I…” (She takes his hand diffidently) “I just wanted to tell you that… even though our… our… marriage is a… a peculiar one… to say the least… it’s made me very happy.”
McGinty: “It’s a cinch we ain’t got nothin’ to fight about… (He chuckles) … like people that’s in love with each other.”
Catherine: “Right you are.”
With great elegance and precision Sturges sets up Catherine’s moral space in the movie. The church that looks directly at their apartment and her provisional happiness based on a loveless marriage foreshadow the love that is to come and McGinty’s transformation from corrupt politician to genuine reformer.
Soon enough, McGinty is elected governor and The Boss is poised to loot the pocketbooks of the citizens. By this time, McGinty is thoroughly in love with Catherine and a devoted father to her children. Her decency has redeemed his character, and McGinty is now less than enthusiastic when The Boss enumerates his fiscal plans for the state.
The Boss: “I can see from your expression you don’t know what a dam is. You think a dam is something you put a lot of water in… A dam is something you put a lotta concrete in… and it doesn’t matter how much you put in there’s always room for a lot more… and any time you’re afraid it’s finished there’s always a crack in it and you put some more concrete. And in the third place it’s always behind a mountain somewhere at the top of the state where nobody could find it in the first place.”
McGinty: “What’s the matter with the old dam?”
The Boss: (Giving him a look) “It’s got a crack in it.”
Later in the scene, The Boss realizes that McGinty’s reluctance to go along with the old corrupt ways is due to Catherine’s influence.
The Boss: “Don’t you know nothing? Don’t you know a rib started all the trouble? Didn’t you never hear of Sampson and Delilah or Sodom and Gomorrah….?”
Hilariously, but with great accuracy, Sturges once again highlights religion: the nutty biblical references, the church bells and Catherine’s nightly prayers emerge as organic and central to the narrative.
This is fascinating because Sturges was not a pious Christian; he was a modern secular man who relied on clever quips rather than scripture. But Sturges was also thoroughly American and he understood–perhaps unconsciously–that the only effective argument against bad politics and policies is not facts and figures–more politics–but moral arguments rooted in the eternal values of Judeo Christianity.