When we think about the “writer/director” we often think about the works of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jean-Luc Godard or Lars Von Trier. The auteurs who charge into the uphill battle of putting their own story to film. It’s more than a credit, it’s a type of filmmaker – one that more often than not starts outside of the studio system, one that more often than not considers themselves a writer first and a director second, one that falls in love with their own dialog. It’s very common now but it didn’t used to be.
75 years ago this week a film was released with the first “Written and Directed by” credit, making official something that had been going on in movie making since the evolution of narrative filmmaking and giving birth to the modern day writer/director. The first credited writer/director: playwright Preston Sturges, who came to make movies after discovering the love of playing with the gadgetry of movie cameras. The film: 1940’s The Great McGinty – Sturges’ debut feature and one that will later go on to make Sturges the first Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay, even beating out such classics as Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Now, before you jump up insisting that Chaplin was robbed, McGinty deserves a good, hard look. Sturges’ crackling, clever dialog deserves a listen.
The Great McGinty opens with a title card reading that it will be about two men, one who was honest all of his life but for a minute and one that, after a lifetime of dishonesty, had one crazy minute of honesty. Both find themselves down and destitute in a bar drowning their sorrows. Like the action-opening fake-out in Sturges’ classic Sullivan’s Travels, we are first presented with a tall, handsome, blonde typical leading man who tells a tale of how temptation caused him to steal from his employer and ruin his life. Sturges isn’t interested in this guy, he’s interested in the low life. But how can someone’s life be ruined by a crazy minute of honesty? McGinty, as he tells the story, was a politician.
The Great McGinty is a lively, razor sharp political satire filtered through Preston Sturges’ signature screwball comedy style. It’s the kind of film that became fashionable in Hollywood in the Nixon era 70s, only thornier and more caustic. Where something like Warren Beatty’s paranoid The Parallax View or Robert Redford’s The Candidate hang a lantern on the political process that says “Look how crazy all this is”, this film’s power is in how casually cynical it is. Sturges presents us right off the bat with a main character who is an unlikable thieving hobo in a world where the mayor is controlled by an obvious mobster (Akim Tamiroff). McGinty catches the eye of the mobster because, after being offered $2 for a vote for the mayor, he votes 37 times. When coughing up the money and one of the clerks says “I didn’t think a man could vote 37 times” it sounds more like a disbelief at McGinty’s stamina, instead of surprise at the fraud of it all. This starts his rapid rise in the mafia from debt collector (wearing a suit that is so hilariously loud it screams garish through the black and white) to alderman to mayor to state governor.
It was gutsy for Struges to center his first film around such an oddball, with Brian Donlevy playing Dan McGinty as a thief with a child-like naivety. He doesn’t miss a chance to take his, is quick to slap a mafia boss across the face but is mostly just content to go along for the ride. Mostly. Even down and out in the present-day he seems to just go with the flow of his new life. It would have been obvious to tell a story of a moral man who is corrupted by politics, a story that has been told many times since, but The Great McGinty is a sharper political spear in which even a crook is pushed too far by the mandates of the process.
Sturges blows through the actual mechanics of McGinty’s rise through power, less concerned with the details than with tracking McGinty’s moral trajectory. In a film soaked with prophetic modern day cynicism the manipulative details of how a man goes from thief to governor are irrelevant, if not obvious. There is a great scene where Sturges cuts back and forth between two political speeches for and against McGinty’s initiatives, both talking about the same things with their own spins. The one hurdle McGinty has to cross – however – is to get married, because women won’t vote for a bachelor, which results in a marriage of convenience with his secretary (Muriel Angelus) and the start of the deft handling of the onscreen relationships that will be a trademark of Sturges for the rest of his career. A relationship in a Sturges film is sweet without being sappy, critical without being ugly, unlike anything in modern movie love stories. “It’s a cinch we don’t got nothing to fight about like people in love with each other”, McGinty tells his acting wife.
To give away more would diffuse the film. Where a modern movie would have gotten up on its soap box in a sanctimonious huff over political corruption, Sturges bats it around like a cat with a shoelace. The big ideas that the plot turns on are ridiculous themselves, and then Sturges layers in his brand of slapstick and some smaller, drier gags that might only reveal themselves on multiple viewings. The convention wisdom on Sturges seems to be that he made light-hearted fare and that the more murdery Unfaithfully Yours at the end of his career was a change in tone, but McGinty proves that darker edge was always there, if hidden behind prison guards falling out of their chairs.
While McGinty isn’t quite as uproarious as the cream of the Sturges crop – the likes of Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve or Unfaithfully Yours – the movie has the same unique feel to it that makes a Preston Sturges film such a joy to watch. It’s full of colorful characters, clever naturalistic dialog and well-staged comic set pieces. Even today it feels unique, wrapping a rogue’s gallery of political tropes into one wacky film.
Sturges made 6 more movies in those next 4 years and in the years since his work has inspired filmmakers like Tarantino and, particularly the Coen brothers. But it all started right here with The Great McGinty. It is the kind of slashing, opinionated work that would only come out of the singular vision of a writer/director. A team of scriptwriters building the movie by committee would have shaved off its edgier points.
Compared to the depression-era politics of Sullivan and the Roosevelt joke of Palm Beach – and despite a few archaic expressions (“a man without a women is like a pig without a poke”) – there is something even more timeless about this absurd story of a man who bumbles his way up the political ladder. Maybe skewing politics will always be in style, but the way Sturges does it here is unlike anyone else. 75 years later this movie still feels as relevant and contemporary as any political satire to come along since.