The Great McGinty has a gentle surprise ending. Not a twist. More a reveal, which then recasts the previous ninety minutes and change in a slightly different light. Because McGinty has a very deliberate bookending—there’s even a title card to explain the setting. An unnamed banana republic, two American ex-pats on the run from bad decisions, though one is a wrong guy who made a right choice and the other is a right guy who made the wrong choice. Louis Jean Heydt is, presumably, the right guy. He’s drinking himself to death and getting sympathy from good girl bar dancer Steffi Duna, who’s really just looking out for him in one of the film’s many nice humanity observations. Eventually they end up at the bar, where bartender Brian Donlevy (sporting an amazing blond dye-job) tells them if they want to hear a sad story, just listen up.
Donlevy doesn’t narrate the flashbacks; there are occasional mid-shelf bookends where the film checks back in on Donlevy, Duna, and Heydt, but they don’t have any presence during the flashbacks. They’re passively present, which is kind of important for Donlevy’s character arc and the final reveal. Sturges has a gentle touch with the narrative; he never gives too much the impression of guiding the narrative, just as comfortable with slowing down the present action as speeding it up and skipping ahead in time. Donlevy’s story starts on an election night; he’s in a soup line, one of the forgotten men of the Great Depression. If he goes to vote for the mayor, he can make a couple bucks. All he’s got to do is vote. Though not under his own name. William Demarest explains the whole scheme to Donlevy (and the audience), establishing that gentle touch of Sturges’s what will be the film’s many information dumps. Donlevy ends up Great because he’s a success in a city’s political Machine. Sturges has to explain a lot about that Machine’s procedures. And he’s got to make them palatable. So he gives them to Demarest, who’s cranky and hilarious about the whole thing, and to Akim Tamiroff, who’s explosive and hilarious about the whole thing. Tamiroff’s the big boss. Donlevy goes from paid voter to protection collector to alderman to whatever he wants in record time. He makes it because Tamiroff likes Donlevy’s initiative and lack of fear.
Even though there’s constant danger, Sturges makes it feel entirely immaterial to the plot (even though the audience knows Donlevy at least doesn’t die thanks to the bookend). But Sturges doesn’t leverage having those bookends to keep Donlevy safe, he puts it into the script, gets it out of Donlevy’s performance—Tamiroff walks away with every scene he’s in, he’s awesome; Demarest doesn’t walk away with his scenes (except when they’re just his scenes) but he definitely distracts from the action; female lead Muriel Angelus does walk off with the scene, but usually without having to move. More on her soon. But Donlevy doesn’t get to be flashy, he doesn’t get to be outrageous. He gets to show excitement, he gets to show outrage, he gets to show love. But all at very human levels. Angelus’s human, but the way Sturges composes her shots, she’s angelically functional. It’s like Sturges sketches a caricature in the script and, with his actors’ performances, together they make it into a full character. But Donlevy doesn’t get that synthesis, not the same way. There’s no compensating for his performance. Donlevy’s always got to be the straight man, which makes for an interesting character arc. He never gets a dramatic character move. His character development has to lead the narrative, but it also doesn’t get to be directly addressed.
One result of that approach is the ending reveal working so well. Sturges sets up the narrative distance in the opening bookend and never changes it too much. There’s always a definite distance between the film and Donlevy’s protagonist and narrator, making enough room for Tamiroff to live large in the first half, then Angelus in the second. But when Tamiroff’s big, it’s still Donlevy’s movie. When Angelus’s big, it’s kind of more her movie. Because she’s getting to see behind Donlevy’s scrappy, functional exterior. And sometimes the interior is just as scrappy and functional, which then leads to more context for Donlevy’s character and more potential for Donlevy and Angelus’s relationship. She’s the single mom, Machine secretary who sees his potential for greatness, even before she realizes she sees it. She and Donlevy have this quiet relationship in the middle of all this noise and Sturges focuses more on Angelus in those scenes, leading to some awesome little moments in both her performance and the film. Sturges’s direction of the cast on the film is spectacular.
There’s a lot of nice echoing in Sturges’s script. Gentle but deliberate, like everything else. He’s also able to get a lot of laughs out of not necessarily humorous situations. It’s a great script.
The whole thing’s great. So great I wish I’d been making Great puns right from the start. And don’t let the last paragraph of them dissuade you on The Great McGinty—Sturges, Donlevy, Angelus, and Tamiroff do some… exceptional work on it.
The Great McGinty. It’s terrific.
Written and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by Hugh Bennett; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Paul Jones; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Brian Donlevy (Dan McGinty), Muriel Angelus (Catherine), Akim Tamiroff (The Boss), William Demarest (Skeeters), Libby Taylor (Bessy), Donnie Kerr (Donnie), Mary Thomas (Mary), Allyn Joslyn (George), Louis Jean Heydt (Tommy Thompson), and Steffi Duna (The Dancing Girl).