Monday, August 23, 2010

 

“I was the governor of a state, baby…”


By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
With the success of his first stage hits The Guinea Pig (1929) and Strictly Dishonorable (1930), aspiring playwright Preston Sturges soon answered Hollywood’s siren song in 1930, landing employment at the Paramount studios as a scribe-for-hire. Throughout the decade, the talented if temperamental Sturges became a force to be reckoned with, churning out screenplays for films that have since been acknowledged as cinema classics: The Power and the Glory (1933), The Good Fairy (1935), Diamond Jim (1935), Easy Living (1937) and Remember the Night (1940), to name just a few. He’d clearly found his niche in the motion picture business — pulling down a healthy $2,500 a week and establishing a sort of early independence (Sturges often wrote on his own, at a time when most motion picture projects were pounded out by two or more writers.)

Before “What I really want to do is direct” became a timeworn Hollywood cliché, Sturges had a burning ambition to take full control of his movies, since he was often dissatisfied with how motion picture directors handled his witty, razor-sharp dialogue. In 1939, he offered to sell Paramount a script he’d written for $1 if they’d allow him the luxury of letting him direct it as well — and the studio acquiesced to such a bargain (though they later upped Sturges’ compensation to $10) but hedged their bets by budgeting only $350,000 for the venture…not to mention giving their highly paid scriptwriter just three weeks to shoot it and casting the film with inexpensive contract players. The result — which was released to American movie theaters 70 years ago on this date — was a concoction that would net Sturges (and the studio) an Academy Award for best original screenplay: The Great McGinty.


In a sleazy dive located in an unnamed “banana republic,” bartender Dan McGinty prevents a despondent American bank clerk (Louis Jean Heydt) from shooting himself in a suicide attempt, then tells the clerk and a dancer from the bar (Steffi Duna) the story of his rise and fall in politics. McGinty starts out as a mere hobo in a breadline, taking advantage of a soup kitchen set up by the machine that’s promoting mayoral candidate Wilfred T. Tillinghast (Arthur Hoyt). Informed by party hack Skeeters (William Demarest) that he’ll receive a couple of bucks for voting for Tillinghast, McGinty makes the rounds at the various precincts and comes back with 37 tickets” — demanding payment of $74. Strapped for cash, Skeeters takes Dan to party headquarters, where the head of the machine (Akim Tamiroff) — referred to only as “The Boss” — is impressed by McGinty’s initiative in participatory democracy…and gives him a job collecting for his protection racket.

McGinty’s combination of street smarts and fisticuffs paves the way for his advancement in the party — he’s elected alderman, and when a citizens’ “Purity League” begins to complain about the corruption that’s running rampant in the Tillinghast administration, the Boss decides to run Dan as a “reform candidate.” Because women voters are averse to casting their ballots for a bachelor, The Boss demands that McGinty find himself a bride as quickly as possible. McGinty’s secretary Catherine (Muriel Angelus) volunteers herself for this marriage of convenience, and because she was married before (with two children from the previous union); the mayoral candidate has a ready-made family that enables him to be elected handily.

As mayor, McGinty is taking in far more graft than was possible in his previous alderman duties…but his marital arrangement with Catherine (who calls him “Mr. McGinty”) and her exposure to serious societal problems (as part of attending women’s club meetings and lunches on his behalf) begins to soften his cynical shell — he even orders the boyfriend (Allyn Joslyn) she’s been seeing on the side that their little out-of-the-way dinners come to a screeching halt. Catherine realizes that there’s a good side to Dan, and that he’s a finer man than he himself gives credit…and when he’s swept into the Governor’s mansion she convinces him to go straight. This plan of attack doesn’t sit well with the Boss, who tries to give his protégé a little hot lead and is arrested for his trouble…shortly thereafter; McGinty is arrested and jailed on charges stemming from a crooked bridge construction deal from when he was mayor. With Skeeters’ help, McGinty and the Boss bust out of the joint and take it on the lam…but not before Dan calls Catherine to tell her that it’s in her best interests (and the kids’) to get a divorce, after making sure that she’ll be taken care of with some money he socked away for a rainy day.

After hearing Dan’s story, the dancer accuses him of lying, and convinces the bank clerk to return home to the States, assuring him that his situation isn’t as bad as McGinty’s, who’s just a dishonest “tramp.” When McGinty pockets the money for the American’s drinks by ringing a fake bell near the cash register, the Boss gets up from a nearby table to accuse him of being a chiseling crook — and the two men engage in another of their “brannigans” as a world-weary Skeeters looks on.

Sturges’ pointed political satire has lost a little bit of its luster over the years, but remains an entertaining comedy with more than a few kernels of truth (particularly since Sturges based the screenplay on the career of real-life politician and lawyer William Sulzer). One of the things I find remarkably spot-on about McGinty is its refusal to take sides, tarring any and all political parties with the sticky brush of corruption. A particularly telling moment occurs when the Boss confronts Dan with the news that he’s going to run McGinty as a reform candidate:
BOSS: Now, listen…do you want to be reform mayor?
McGINTY: What do you mean, reform mayor?
BOSS: Well, what do you think it means? Don’t make me say everything twice, will you? I’m a little irritated today…I said, do you want to be reform mayor—the mayor of this city?
McGINTY: Well, what do you got to do with the Reform Party?
BOSS: I am the Reform Party! What do you think?
McGINTY: Since when?
BOSS: Since always! In this town, I’m all the parties…do you think I’m going to starve every time they change administrations?

Although the days when candidates and their supporters stood on soapboxes to give spiels on why they should be elected have given way to the pithy sound bite and slick, manufactured campaign ad, the content hasn’t changed at all…as in this scene where Skeeters and an orator (Robert Warwick) stumping on behalf of Dan’s gubernatorial opponent tell two separate crowds (in a series of back-and-forth cuts) precisely what they want to hear:
SKEETERS: Look what he done to our lakefront! Look what he done to our city…for our city…look what he done for you…and you…and you!
OPPONENT: The worst crook we’ve had since the year of the big wind!
SKEETERS: The least you can do, friends…the smallest token of gratitude you can show…is to send him to the Capitol! I’m giving it to you straight, friends…you owe him that!
OPPONENT: Senator Honeywell, on the other hand, my friends…
SKEETERS: You won’t be makin’ no mistake, friends…and I’ll tell you something else…
OPPONENT: Now just compare them…coolly…without prejudice…on the one hand, he have virtue…on the other…
SKEETERS: …year alone he put 40,000 men to work!
OPPONENT: He gutted the treasury…
SKEETERS: Forty thousand lunch pails, my friends!
OPPONENT: …he raided the city…
SKEETERS: Forty thousand happy families!
OPPONENT: …he raised the taxes…
SKEETERS: Money in circulation! Prosperity!
OPPONENT: …he built miles of useless buildings…bridges…beaches…eyesores, my friends…each and every one of them a monument…a testimonial to graft!
SKEETERS: …and gave you the most beautiful city in the world!

McGinty also has one of my favorite Sturges dialogue exchanges; I love it because of its sly subtlety, as Dan “negotiates” what it will cost businessman Maxwell (Thurston Hall) to keep his bus franchise with the city running by innocuously discussing baseball game attendance:
McGINTY: Drop in again some afternoon…we’ll go to a ball game…you like baseball, don’t you?
MAXWELL: Well, I’m not a fan by any means…
McGINTY: You know, that’s where you fellows make your biggest mistake…
MAXWELL: Yes…
McGINTY: …you worry too much about business…and contracts and the flaws in them and things like that…get out in the open, fill your lungs with fresh air…forget your troubles..
MAXWELL: Yes, but let me…
McGINTY (pointing to a photograph on the wall): Now look at that crowd…how many people do you think there were at that game?
MAXWELL: I’m sure I haven’t the faintest idea…
McGINTY: Look again…how many people do you think are in that photograph?
MAXWELL: Ten thousand…now…
McGINTY: Guess again…
MAXWELL: Twenty thousand…Mr. Mayor…
McGINTY: You’re not even warm, Mr. Maxwell…
MAXWELL: Well… (Realization setting in) Oh…you mean it’s more like 40,000?
McGINTY: It’s more like it…but that ain’t it…
MAXWELL: Mr. Mayor…about that flaw you mentioned…
McGINTY: There’s no flaw in that photograph, Mr. Maxwell—it’s perfect…what was your last guess?
MAXWELL: Fifty thousand?
McGINTY (chuckling): There were 75,000 people in that stadium… (Clapping Maxwell on the back) Ain’t that wonderful? Seventy-five thousand filling their lungs with nature’s own sunshine…I’ll send the guy up to see you…goodbye…

The Great McGinty, in my opinion, is archetypal Sturges — a blueprint for the director’s comedies that follow. All of the elements of a Sturges film are beginning to take shape — chiefly the standard protagonist who, through sheer coincidence and plain dumb luck, finds his fortunes completely changed virtually overnight. McGinty isn’t quite as frantic as later Sturges concoctions such as Sullivan’s Travels (1941) or The Palm Beach Story (1942), but the expert blend of both physical and verbal comedy and sentiment is certainly present…not to mention the embryonic attendance of members the director’s “stock company,” with such Sturges stalwarts as Jimmy Conlin, Byron Foulger, Esther Howard, Arthur Hoyt, Frank Moran, Emory Parnell, Dewey Robinson and Warwick dotting the cast. The most notable Sturges player, William Demarest, has one of his best film roles as “fixer” Skeeters (listed in the credits as “The Politician”) and also has one of McGinty’s funniest lines: “If it wasn't for graft, you'd get a very low type of people in politics…men without ambition…jellyfish!” Demarest had worked with Sturges on two of the films he wrote (but did not direct), Diamond Jim and Easy Living, and would go on to appear in seven more Sturges vehicles after McGinty.

Because Paramount was taking a big chance on Sturges despite their sawbuck investment, the studio didn’t assign any of their major stars to appear in McGinty — Donlevy was about as close to a “star” as they got, and even he was known primarily for villainous turns in films such as Union Pacific (1939), Beau Geste (1939) and Universal’s Destry Rides Again (1939). McGinty gave Donlevy a great deal more star cache, and allowed him to play more “heroic” parts afterward in movies such as The Remarkable Andrew (1942), Wake Island (1942) and Hangmen Also Die! (1943). In McGinty, Donlevy really shines here, and I particularly like the romantic chemistry between him and leading lady Angelus…sadly, this was Angelus’ final foray on the silver screen. Donlevy and Tamiroff would reprise their McGinty and Boss roles in Sturges’ 1944 comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek but there’s also a bit of McGinty in Paul Madvig, the ward heeler in the 1942 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key in which Donlevy appears alongside Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.

McGinty was the beginning in an amazing streak of first-rate comedies for writer-director Sturges, who in just four years would see successes in Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Travels, Palm Beach, Morgan’s Creek (filmed in 1942 but released two years later) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). (I left out The Great Moment because it’s chiefly a dramatic piece, though it does have comedic moments.) The tragedy is that Sturges lost his momentum after that impressive string of hits — he so craved independence (he was incensed at the way Paramount had handled the release of Moment) that he hooked up with millionaire Howard Hughes to form California Pictures, and their collaboration — the 1947 Harold Lloyd comedy The Sin of Harold Diddlebock — tanked at the box office (Hughes tried to salvage it by re-releasing an edited version in 1950 entitled Mad Wednesday). A second Sturges-Hughes project (Vendetta) further exacerbated the hostilities between the two men and Sturges ended up quitting (or was fired, depending on which account you subscribe to).

Sturges then accepted an offer from 20th Century-Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck to direct a pair of films, Unfaithfully Yours (1948) and The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949). Both films were financial duds (though Yours has received some favorable critical attention with the passage of time) and Sturges found himself without work and his mojo. He would direct only one additional film before his death in 1958 — the 1956 French farce Les Carnets du Major Thompson< (U.S. title: The French, They are a Funny Race). Seventy years ago, The Great McGinty would recount the events of one man’s precipitous ascent and descent in the world of politics…and in retrospect; it’s not all that difficult to also apply this cautionary tale to the visionary gentleman who helmed this silver screen classic.

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Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. blogs at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and his favorite Preston Sturges film is either Sullivan’s Travels or The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, depending on the day of week you ask. He is not, oddly enough, a fan of The Lady Eve.


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