Watching movies at Memorial Library: ‘The Great McGinty’

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My Preston Sturges kick continued on Sunday afternoon with The Great McGinty (1940), which screened here in Madison last Fall as part of the Cinematheque’s series of ‘political’ films (in honor of the 2008 presidential election). For whatever reason I wasn’t able to see the film then, but seeing it yesterday, I was struck by how the film was at once both weirdly political and deceptively unpolitical.

Dan McGinty (played by Brian Donlevy) begins as a bum, morphs into a volatile lump of hired muscle, abruptly emerges as a legitimate mayoral candidate, and finally, is elected governor of the never-named state in which the film is set; he then proceeds to fall from grace in a goofy, self-consciously implausible manner. Thankfully, most of this fantastic absurdity is treated as absurdity, and thus the film narrowly avoids being too ridiculous for its own good. In ‘real life’, politics inevitably becomes a parody of itself; but the truth is, as always, in the details, and The Great McGinty is essentially disinterested in those very details. The closest we ever come to finding out what’s really going on behind the slightly illusory surface of what seems to be going on is when, very late in the film, the charges of corruption levied against McGinty are revealed to be… true. And then he rides off into the sunset.

The Great McGinty is not nearly as relentless or as hilarious as Sturges’s comparatively conventional screwball masterpieces; indeed, throughout the film’s latter half, the depiction of McGinty’s personal transformation is bogged down by an unnecessarily generous coating of melodramatic shellac. The film manages to redeem itself with an ending that’s nihilistic in the sneakiest of ways. To be sure, Sturges’s subsequent pinnacles (like Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, etc.) are more dramatically dazzling, and those films are also staged in a more overtly (though not more obviously) expressive style; that said, at a concise 80 minutes in length, one certainly wouldn’t be harming oneself to check this DVD out from Memorial Library’s Media Center.

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