Monday, September 2, 2013

Monday Movies Post

I need to talk McGinty. It's the first movie I ever wrote a Monday Movie Post about, and although that was shorter than what I normally do (when I do them...), I wouldn't feel the need to revisit a movie. Except that someone else wrote about "The Great McGinty" this week, and I think got it wrong.

(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.


  1. We just saw "Bad Day at Black Rock" a week ago at a local Spencer Tracy film festival and I was amazed at how relevant it was to current-day issues. Hate the Japanese in 1946, hate the Muslims now. The movie was apparently made in 1954 and released in 1955, and it must have been too soon after the war, because apparently it was not very popular.

  2. What about "Hail the Conquering Hero?" Going on an about five-to-seven-year-old memory here, so not certain of details, but isn't the happy ending basically that everyone agrees to pretend he's a hero now that they've gotten to know and like him -- a chance they only gave him because they thought he was a hero? (I mean, they pretend that his admitting he lied to get where he is is equivalent to meritorious military service, yeah?) Or iow isn't the point that regardless of whether people who fit certain stereotypical criteria really make the best officials, that we can't maintain the trust necessary for a functioning democracy without the pretense that our officials meet those criteria, so we have to make him a hero even if we all know he isn't one? And more disturbingly, we even have to convince HIM he's a hero even though he plainly isn't in order to get him to properly play his role in the system?

    If so, that wouldn't suggest some kind of "good government" streak in Sturges, but it might also mean that he thinks that even if googoo is foolish in practice, the appearance of it is considerably more helpful than "honest graft." I mean, helpful to democracy. Like how in "Miracle at Morgan's Creek" everyone agrees to pretend that the young lady's licenseless, pseudonymous, champagne-splashed marriage to a soldier whose name she never knew both was definitely a real legal marriage and also was definitely really legally retroactively annulled by Governor (yup) McGinty so that her fake name-saving marriage to the protagonist was really real and legal all along. Like -- the solution isn't to honestly and openly face the situation, which would be the equivalent of openly embracing "honest graft," but to fake it more coherently. Or even in "Eve" how when he meets Jean again Hopsy says he doesn't care what's happened and the happy ending depends on his willfully ignoring that Jean is Eve? (which, btw, is why William Demarest couldn't be the moral center of that movie: his final "Positively the same dame" shows that he's missed the point; that he's too focussed on the literal truth that Eve was always Jean to understand why Hopsy needs Jean ... )

    Let me see if I can say this more clearly. You're obviously right that Sturges thinks honesty isn't always the best policy, but he seems to me to mean by that more that we need to collectively and individually embrace a lot of fictions, than that we should openly be crooked. McGinty's problem isn't his embrace of the fiction of googooism -- it's that he forgets it's a fiction.

    Also, yay Monday Movies!


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