(I'll link, but I'm also recycling key bits below, and expanding, so no real need to click through).
If you don't know it...McGinty (1940) is the first movie directed by Preston Sturges. As a movie, it's only fair...or, better, it's only brilliant occasionally. He's still learning the craft, or maybe it was cut up by the studio; at any rate, while The Lady Eve or Miracle of Morgan's Creek are extremely well-constructed, this one isn't.
The movie follows McGinty, a homeless bum who wins favor with the corrupt machine that controls local politics by setting a record for casting the most votes in an election, as he goes from the bottom all the way to the top, only to be undone when he suddenly goes Goo Goo after becoming Governor.
The question of the movie is whether McGinty was right to reform. Peter Hoskin apparently believes so:
McGinty’s wife Catherine – played by the London-born Muriel Angelus – isn’t as strong and single-minded a female character as Barbara Stanwyck’s in The Lady Eve (1941) or Veronica Lake’s in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), she’s still the moral centre of the film. “What are you trying to do? Reform me?” blusters the tough-guy McGinty, when she encourages him to change his ways. But reform he does.Yes. But are we supposed to buy McGinty's wife as the "moral center" of the study? I don't think so, at all; I think that gets Sturges wrong. She's no more the moral center of this one than Henry Fonda is in The Lady Eve...or for that matter than the title character of Sullivan's Travels is the moral center. It's true that the politicians in "McGinty" are corrupt, but the jobs they provide and the public works they build are real, and as I read the movie, real points in their favor. The quote I like to pull isn't from Catherine (she's not quite a sap, but she's out to make others into saps), but from William Demerest's character:
If it wasn't for graft, you'd get a very low type of people in politics, men without ambition, jellyfish!It's played for laughs, and gets them -- but he and the rest of the gang are also making the same case made by Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, that self-interested politicians make democracy work for ordinary citizens. That is, that the wise guys are the only ones in a position to make democracy work. Not by going Goo Goo, though. Barbara Stanwyck, after all, doesn't wind up with Henry Fonda in "Eve" by going straight, exactly.
Perhaps thinking about her, though, helps us to think about McGinty and his wife. Because I think it's absolutely clear that she, and not Fonda, is as close to a moral center as that movie gets, isn't it? Unless it's Demerest, I suppose, but even there he's not the sap that Fonda is; he at least sees through Stanwyck's disguise. I'd argue, though, that it's her fully aware willingness to...well, not exactly do good, is it? No; at all points in "Eve," her character is fully acting on self-interest. She starts off as a simple scam artist; she then uses her skills in a will revenge plot; and then, finally, she uses her skills again to reconcile with Fonda. Not, surely, for him, but for herself.
If that's the case, then McGinty's moment of selfless "good" is in fact a terrible mistake -- not just for him (as he is quickly and surely punished for it), but for the citizens who voted for him, as well. To the extent that McGinty needed to reform, it wasn't that he needed to give up "corruption." He only had to restrict himself, and the machine, to Plunkitt's "honest graft."
"The Great McGinty" probably can support either reading, but Sturges as a whole really doesn't, I don't think. Hoskin sees Sturges in that movie as "cynical," and I agree that everyone is a legitimate target for satire -- but I don't think that it's an "equal-opportunities disdain for everyone and everything in the system." I read Sturges as saying exactly the opposite: it's not disdain that he feels for the people he pokes fun at, but respect and, sappy as it may sound, patriotism.
What destroys McGinty isn't that the system is evil and he's unable to overcome it; it's that he (for just a moment) foolishly mistakes an imperfect, seemingly irrational, often ugly, but actually working system for an evil one, and for that moment he closes his eyes and becomes a sap. And for that, he is justly ruined.
Anyway, go see as many Preston Sturges movies as you can.