MOVIE REVIEW | The Great McGinty (1940)


Normally when I watch an old, old movie, there’s at least one star in there who even if I don’t recognise their face, I recognise their name. It’s that star power that is generally the reason that a movie still has any notoriety half a century or more later. But here’s one where the title was really familiar, but even after watching it, I still recognised none of the names or faces after watching. The name of the director, Preston Sturges, rings a bell, but I couldn’t name a single one if his movies without going IMDB. Which, incidentally showed that not only have I seen a Preston Sturges movie, I’d even written about one here. So, what makes the name The Great McGinty so well known to me when nothing else about it is?

Within a pretty pointless framing device that only offers one kind of OK joke at the very end, Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) tells a story that flashes back to when he was a penniless tramp, on the streets, willing to do anything for a few bucks. That anything turns out to be voting multiple times in a local election, getting paid two bucks a vote by the local crime boss (Akim Tamiroff). His ingenuity in being able to vote a mammoth 37 times in one night leads to a job as an enforcer with the mob boss.

This leads to a crooked job on the city council, which leads to a job as the crooked mayor of the city, which leads to a job as the crooked governor of the state. All the while, he’s the puppet of the crime boss, while also falling under the influence of his once secretary, current wife of convenience (Muriel Angelus as Catherine). The question then becomes, who’s approval does McGinty need more, his boss’s or his wife’s?

The first thing that struck me with The Great McGinty was that it’s an entirely different approach to acting than what you see in anything even slightly more recent. That general concept didn’t surprise me, I’ve seen enough old movies to expect that. But The Greta McGinty doesn’t even look or feel like other movies from that era. I don’t know if Brain Donlevy in the title role is the greatest actor I’ve ever seen, absolutely committing to the part, or the worst actor ever, in his first, bumbling attempt at the craft. In the movie’s scant 80 minute running time, Donlevy made me oscillate from being in awe, to wanting to punch the TV screen, over and over again.

Donlev isn’t the only one guilty of these amateur hour theatrics. Angelus and Tamiroff have moments just as bad, but with the titular role, he gets the most screen time and the most blame. And the era can’t be solely to blame. Watch Clarke Gable in It Happened One Night from six years earlier, and you’ll see something much more realistic and convincing than anything in The Great McGinty. Watch a Marx Brothers movie from the 30s, full of slapstick, fourth wall breaking, gookies, eye brow work and cigar chomping, and you’ll still see something much more realistic and convincing than anything in The Great McGinty.

Now, all of that might sound like I’m really crapping on this movie and that I didn’t like it.   But despite all of that, The Great McGinty still has a real, irresistible charm. It’s corny, hammy and over the top, but it’s also sweet, it’s sentimental and a certain kind of innocent that you just can’t not like. And it’s funny. Sometimes unintentionally, but most of the time, I laughed for the right reasons. The Great McGinty is great as a time capsule, but it’s also pretty good as a movie too.

The Great McGinty
Directed By – Preston Sturges
Written By – Preston Sturges

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