The Great McGinty (1940)
Written & Directed by Preston Sturges
We begin at a bar in a banana republic where a forlorn and suicidal American banker is stopped from ending things by the bartender. The bartender is also an American, Dan McGinty, who tells his patron that he was once governor of a state in the U.S. From there we flashback to the story of McGinty’s rise and fall to power. During the Great Depression, he’s another jobless schmoe who is coerced into a voting fraud scheme for two bucks. He ends up showing an impressive level of moxie, and a local mob boss decides to use McGinty in his plans. He starts out as an alderman before moving to mayor and eventually governor of an unnamed state. But, as the film’s opening prologue tells us, one moment of good will topple McGinty back to the bottom.
Preston Sturges couldn’t be a more perfect contrast to Frank Capra. In Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington there is a near religious admiration applied to American symbology. Capra’s film return to the themes of inherent goodness in man and that hope is possible. Sturges took a different approach by highlight the cynical reality most people lived in and turning it into comedy rather than tragedy. In Mr. Smith, the accusation of graft against Paine is met with righteous indignation. The same charge of graft in The Great McGinty is met with a passive shrug and sentiments of “Oh, well, what else would you have expected?”
The first step in McGinty’s journey to the top begins with a rather prolific bout of voter fraud. The jobless men are told they go vote, bring back a ticket of proof, and get two dollars. McGinty decides to capitalize on this and hits multiple voting sites posing as various dead men in the community. At each location is a voting official who is in on the scam and even comically has to help him spell the names of the people he is posing as in the voter log. The old ladies manning the stations are apparently aware of the fraud but can only look on with bitter disapproval. Voter fraud has been a highly controversial topic as of late, with members of the Trump administration making accusations against undocumented immigrants as the perpetrators of this act. From the Democratic Party’s point of view, they see some of the ridiculous gerrymandering going on in heavily Republican states as a form of fraud. There has also been the removal of voters off of the roles without notifying any voters who may still be living.
At the time of McGinty’s release, the idea of paying for votes was a relatively old concept. In the mid and late 19th century it was fairly common for members of competing political parties to openly pay citizens to vote for them. This became so commonplace that campaigns would set up vote buying shops where customer secrecy was paramount. The value of a vote would even fluctuate in price as the campaign went on, with some voters receiving what would have been a handsome fifty dollars for their support. Sturges accepts this not as a corruption of the system, but a natural component of an already corrupt mechanism. McGinty is the one we should root for because his gumption scored him seventy-four dollars after going out and voting at thirty-seven different locations.
Sturges frequently poked fun at the institution of marriage, a habit that got him into some trouble with more censorious members of the public. In The Great McGinty, our title hero is told that before he can run for mayor, he has to be married. McGinty has no interest in being tied down and finds out his secretary Catherine is divorced and wants a platonic marriage so other suitors will leave her alone. McGinty agrees but doesn’t find out until after they are married that she has two children with her first husband. Arrangements are made, and he begins to grow fond of the children and Catherine. Sturges came from the theater, and I suspect the love story angle was just a trope expected in stage and film at the time (even still today really). His personal take provided an unlikely path to true love blossoming. Marriage as a business and political move is even still a very cynical idea, but one more in line with the historical institution of marriage.
Whereas Capra’s Mr. Smith ends with the protagonist becoming a metaphorical Christ figure and achieving his goals, McGinty ends with the title character washed up and back at the bottom. He’s never framed as a martyr. Instead, he’s very accepting of what his lot in life has given him. In many ways, this harkens back to the medieval concept of the Wheel of Fortune, that humanity is forever on a spinning wheel where we experience the highest highs only to eventually come back to the depths of the bottom. Fate is control, and the machinations of someone like the Boss are displayed in a humorous light at how pathetic they are. It is easily seen how Sturges has influenced many directors of our time, notably the Coen Brothers. And I will admit, I enjoyed his vision of America in the Depression/FDR-era much more than Capra’s.