The Great McGinty

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not Rated.
Stars Brian Donlevy, Muriel Angelus, Akim Tamiroff, William Demarest.

Few traditions are more eternal than political corruption no matter the country in question, and even as we speak, Americans are seeing it in Imax three-camera Cinerama with 96-track stereo sound, just to mix some exhibition metaphors. Thus, it’s a little surprising that it took Hollywood until 1940 to attack the subject as directly head-on as in The Great McGinty — though there had been, just thinking here, some satirical jabbing from The Dark Horse (1932, Warner Bros.). But that one’s release came less than half-a-year before FDR’s first election ushered in a period of the president-as-deity except in certain Alf Landon circles — leading to a subsequent period not conducive to all-out comical skewering, though, of course, played-for-laughs political grifters and grafters were often side-issue mainstays in the Golden Age.

However comparably minor it might be compared to the enduring Preston Sturges masterpieces that were shortly to come, McGinty is nonetheless full-throttle instant auteurism and effortlessly identifiable as a Sturges concoction from just about any 30-second excerpt. (Or if you write about film, and it’s not instantly identifiable, I hear there’s a job opening down the street at my car wash.) As in other Sturges comedies, the fortunes of the central character are inverted almost overnight by a chance or flash occurrence, and his staging of knockabout physical comedy is almost as pronounced as anything you’d see in the silent era. Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff brawling with each other (once in a moving car, no less) isn’t much different in life-attitude from the club-car slapstick mayhem in The Palm Beach Story or William Demarest landing on his behind when trying to kick someone in the pants in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

Anyway, the story behind McGinty, which voiceover commentator Samm Deighan reiterates on Kino Classics’ bonus commentary, is that Sturges, like Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, was in a “let’s bash Mitchell Leisen mood” at Paramount. Though a lot of today’s historians raise amazed eyebrows over this, these ace writers (who worked predominantly but not exclusively for that studio) supposedly hated what Leisen kept doing or not doing when it came to interpreting their scripts. In McGinty’s case, Sturges supposedly offered to sell Paramount his script for a measly sum (Deighan says $10, though I’ve also heard a buck) if they also allowed him to direct it as well for what would be his directorial debut. When the studio agreed, it was a big deal and not just for Sturges. Shortly thereafter John Huston and Billy Wilder joined him to usher in a new era of the writer-director.

Paramount didn’t have that much to lose. The cast was modest (Donlevy, Tamiroff, the now obscure Muriel Angelus), and so was the budget. Nor was this exactly Leisen’s historical extravaganza Frenchman’s Creek when it came to lush Paramount production design — though even at once, Sturges showed himself to have a camera eye, a definite way with actors and a certain deftness with crowd scenes (this you can also see already as well in the same year’s Christmas in July). Low expectations gave the burgeoning filmmaker the freedom to indulge his love-hate attitude toward American foibles with very little sentimentality, which (as Deighan notes) makes Sturges’ political films seem more contemporary today than Frank Capra’s.

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Told in flashback from the banana republic from which he now tends bar, McGinty relates what is arguably the vintage screen’s most telling comic portrayal of ward heeling (though, yes, John Ford’s movie of The Last Hurrah has its moments as well). In an unnamed city that has the “feel” of Chicago, local “boss” Tamiroff hires Donlevy/McGinty as one of many to cast a bogus vote for the local machine’s lackey choice of a mayoral candidate — for the princely sum of $2. Because soup kitchens qualify as his second home, McG overcomes his confusion (the guy is affably dim) and votes 37 times — good not only for $74 but also to show the bosses that he’s an out-of-the-ordinary guy who might fit into the operation. He starts out successfully as heavily pugnacious debt-collecting muscle, though from the example presented does charm at least some of the female victims with a more soft-soap approach.

With his improved fortunes come an upgrade of sorts from a wardrobe best described as “flophouse-traditional” — though at least one of his new-era suits is nearly as sartorially haphazard as anything Spike Jones ever wore, though I suppose it doesn’t quite have the decibel level of those floral prints that preyed on your pollen allergies whenever Roy Rogers donned them during his Trucolor period. Improved fortunes also result in a mostly harmonious arranged marriage to his secretary Catherine, played by Angelus — a London-bred actress who only made a handful of Hollywood films (this was her last before early retirement, not counting a few more years of Broadway appearances).

It’s all for image — women voters supposedly want married candidates — and both sides get something because the bride is a single mom with two young children (a fact she takes a suspiciously long time to divulge, imo). But it works out well because McGinty takes to the children and enjoys, in one amusing scene, reading them the funnies. Somehow, the onetime bum ascends to becoming governor of the state, at which point Catherine’s motherly reformer instincts take over, at which point the picture lingers toward conventionality though not to artistically perilous extremes. But as for McGinty, it becomes a no-good-deed-goes-unpunished situation, which is what you get when you do the right thing for the only time in your life. This is not, getting back to what I noted before, an attitude Capra ever would have voiced, though I can imagine Sturges and Wilder having lunch in the studio commissary and chuckling about how people always vote against their own interests.

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Commentator Deighan seems to have done her homework discussing Sturges’ salad days (as opposed his eventual suffering of a shockingly severe artistic and box office declines), but I winced when twice she noted that Tamiroff and Donlevy won Oscars for performances in other films when, in truth, they only received nominations. And speaking of Oscars, McGinty took one for best original screenplay when The Great Dictator and Foreign Correspondent were among the competition — an indicator of just how much this modest box office success (no more) was admired in the industry. Bigger budgets and bigger stars for Sturges would follow, though the actors — peppered with Demarest and a slew of other loony types who’d make up Sturges’ future stock company of regulars — can’t be faulted at all here.

This isn’t a movie with the visual tools to showcase its 4K mastering, but it made for a very satisfying view on my 75-inch screen. Thank you, again, Kino Classics for what you’re doing for the Universal-controlled Paramount library in general (they hold rights to the 1929-49 titles, with a couple exceptions). This library was the last, Goldwyn’s excepted, to sell its titles to TV back in the day (in my local market, it was fall of 1959). It held Holy Grail status for on-the-ball film fans then, and for a long time history was repeating itself until not long ago. Now, it’s an embarrassment of riches, with Kino having just announced Beau Geste, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and more for April 7 alone (I think Murder, He Says might be in there, too).

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Great McGinty’ and ‘Watergate’

Christmas in July

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 11/26/2019;
Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dick Powell, Ellen Drew, William Demarest, Raymond Walburn.

As the funniest, and likely only screen treatment of a familiar premise to exhibit a little depth on the side as well, Preston Sturges’ 1940 Christmas in July is widely regarded as that revered comic comet’s most underrated writing-directing achievement — a point reiterated here on a Blu-ray commentary by sharp and thoughtful film historian Samm Deighton (her speaking voice is easy on the ear as well).

This farce with a heart could hardly be otherwise given its short running time (67 minutes) and a Sturges cast that doesn’t include the likes of Henry Fonda or Barbara Stanwyck or Joel McCrea or Claudette Colbert. Its lead is Dick Powell, who, make no mistake, is way up there in my personal pantheon of all-time favorite actors — but only after Murder, My Sweet turned him into a recipient of crushing Mike Mazurki strangleholds to launch him as one of the most bedrock film noir figures ever. In July’s case, Powell was here amid his Paramount tenure during that strange period bookended by his days as a fading Warner Bros. tenor and a reinvented specialist of shadowy intrigue at several studios (with an occasional comedy thrown in). His fairly obscure Paramount output (including a couple Technicolor musicals) is so ill-revived that it’s tough to make ultimate judgments, but there’s no question July was his standout achievement there unless you want to count his vocal introduction (with Mary Martin and the Golden Gate Quartette) of the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer Hit the Road to Dreamland in Star Spangled Rhythm.

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Based on an unproduced (until 1988) play by Sturges himself that already had gathered dust for years, the movie casts Powell as a New York tenement dweller someone who’s both realistic and a dreamer at the same time. That is, he’s hard-nosed enough to think he can’t afford to marry his girlfriend (Ellen Drew) until his fortunes improve — and yet somehow remains convinced he’s going to win the radio jingle contest held by a coffee company that’s a rival to the one that employs him (nice touch there). The plot turns — actually, it’s more like a huge semi that jackknifes on a mountain road — when three pranksters in his office (one of them played by future Republic Pictures mainstay Rod Cameron) send Powell a fake telegram informing him to come on down and get a check for 25 grand, which is about half-a-million in today’s currency.

That this ruse gets is far as it does is a partial product of all the in-house mayhem at the contest-sponsoring Maxford Coffee Company, which is populated by all those Sturges stock company cranks and crackpots with their magnificent comic faces: Raymond Walburn, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Al Bridge, Jimmy Conlin and so on. Walburn is the boss, forever complaining that the executive subordinates he can never locate never tell him what’s going on in the company, though let it be said his bulb is dim when it’s not flickering. As Walburn hands the money over to Powell without knowing any better, his “team” is in 12 Angry Men-style deliberations to determine the real winner, with Demarest the immovable holdout in what would be an otherwise unanimous decision.

Once Powell starts negotiating the check he holds but hasn’t yet deposited into material goods, any plot recitation approaches spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that instead of blowing the stash on trips to Vegas or cartons of champagne, he instead purchases very specific gifts for practically the entire block — while simultaneously seeming to glean as much satisfaction from his improved job prospects at work as the contest win that, alas, isn’t. The raucous scene where his generous handouts occur is the picture’s visual standout — and this from a writer who could additionally direct for the eye as well as showcase actors (a triple threat, in other words). There’s a bit where Powell gifts a handicapped child, probably with polio, with a doll; the moment is warm and not maudlinly calculated because Sturges knew exactly when to turn off the spigot. It’s a quality that served him so well in Hail the Conquering Hero, which will always be my favorite Sturges film (of course, it doesn’t hurt it be the son of a World War II Marine).

Deighton’s commentary is much less interested in conveying biographies of cast and crew here than in examining the ways in which July and the other Sturges classics fit into the most complicated worldview of a filmmaker who had a go-get-em capitalist for a father and a mother who was such an artistic free spirit that her best friend was Isadora Duncan. His upbringing whiplashed Sturges into a complicated admiring/ridiculing view of capitalism and (having lived internationally as a child) an unambiguously ridiculing view of American politicians. The Maxford executives may be business execs, but (thanks in no small part to the supporting cast), they don’t exactly surprise of us by coming off as the equivalents of the ward heelers in Sturges’ immediately preceding directional career-maker The Great McGinty.

Simply by default, July probably is the least of the Paramount Sturges brief run, not counting that puzzling dramatic misfire The Great Moment, which muddied the waters for him at Paramount and significantly led to his departure — a whopper of a mistake for both parties. But it’s still the real deal and instantly identifiable as a Sturges picture and a somewhat better one than I remembered. The transfer isn’t any 4K job, but the result even looks better than I expected from a comedy that’s not minor but was low-budget. The following year, though, would bring both The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, which was and is about as big-time as movies got in the early 1940s.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘Christmas in July’