Preston Sturges worked on almost 20 screenplays before figuring out how to keep mediocre directors from mucking up his words and stories: direct the pictures himself. Lucky for him, Sturges scripts made bank, and Paramount Pictures was desperate for the next one. When Sturges offered it to them for $10—with the caveat that he would direct—Paramount bit, and The Great McGinty, a comedy about a hobo (Brian Donlevy) who becomes a successful political puppet for a corrupt boss (Akim Tamiroff) before growing a conscience, became Sturges’s debut as a filmmaker.
Sturges would go on to become one of the best and wittiest auteurs of the studio era, but before you can run, you gotta crawl. The Great McGinty is a perfectly well-put-together film, even if it doesn’t have Sturges’s knack for staging and masterful use of the frame. That would all come later, primarily out of refinement. Instead, what is on display in The Great McGinty are the early hallmarks that would come to define many Sturges films: ridiculous and convoluted set-ups that somehow make sense, sympathetic characters that lean on stereotypes without being reductive, and pratfalls—lots of pratfalls. In one scene, McGinty comes home drunk and manages to fall into, and break, every last good china dish while searching for a light switch.
The Great McGinty is a fun premise, one that echoes Nietzsche’s aphorism: “Be careful, lest in casting out your demon you exorcise the best thing in you.” It takes a while for McGinty to grow a conscience, but when he does, he can’t shake it—even if it lands him in a purgatorial banana republic. There’s honor in that. Humor too. Sturges finds both.
The Great McGinty (1940)
Written & directed by Preston Sturges
Produced by Paul Jones
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Muriel Angelus, Akim Tamiroff, Allyn Joslyn, William Demarest
Paramount Pictures, Unrated, Running time 82 minutes, Released August 23, 1940