The Great McGinty, Preston Sturges’ directorial debut and one of my personal favorites from his all-too-brief filmography, was on TCM the other night and I caught it from about the middle on. This is one of the great rags to riches to rags stories — a domestic/political farce with real heart, and great performances, especially from lead Brian Donlevy and “antagonist” Akim Tamiroff (character actors afraid of “overacting” in comedies today, and there may not be any that are, would do well to study Sturges’ well-tempered casts). The ending is a real dagger in the chest, too; I don’t think Sturges ever maxed out his credit card of the pathetic to that extent again, although he came close in Christmas in July, which — like McGinty, is soaked in depression-era pain.
I was reminded of another depression-era bum while re-viewing McGinty — perhaps el rey de depression-era bums, if you will, William Powell in My Man Godfrey, from 4 years earlier. Granted, the two films are very different — one a dramedy of sorts and the other a screwball exemplar, one a political satire and the other a skewer aimed at the UHBs whose cushy lifestyles were threatened, but not quite demolished, by the soaring unemployment rates and plummeting stock market of the 1930’s. And, the two bums in question — McGinty and Godfrey — are practically polar opposites. Godfrey is an entrepreneurial bum who takes command of his own destiny, where McGinty is plucked from the gutter and thrust into greatness. Godfrey’s character is static throughout his journey (and the film really is in the end about Carole Lombard’s efforts to daffily woo him) whereas McGinty is a social psychology portrait slowly gathering definition as the movie progresses. Godfrey is a linear film, McGinty shows us the ending first and flashes backward (preparing us, mercifully, for the fate that will befall our titular friend).
And yet…is there not, hidden in there somewhere, delicate traces of a mirror image in either film when juxtaposed? Both concern transients who in some way wish to better themselves, and who prove themselves great men. Both fight tooth and nail the possibility of love. It’s superficial, but look at even the titles. Both are brief, three-word collections that qualify each bum in some way (“My Man…” is both a reference to Godfrey’s vocation and Carol Lombard’s “ownership” of the plot’s third act; “The Great” is tragic/ironic, even more so when you consider Sturges’ original title Down Went McGinty). Both titles even alliterate the same consonant sounds — M & G — and end on a long “e” sound.
So how do the two stack up? Personally, I think McGinty would whoop Godfrey’s ass in a roughhouse, but we’re not talking physical strength here.
Call me crazy, but on closer inspection I think that McGinty emerges from the fray the stronger film. I think part of this is the dated quality of Godfrey. I remarked to my wife the last time that we watched it, “They just don’t make bums like that any more” (I should point out that we were living in Berkeley, CA at the time, where homelessness is viewed a disease, like schizophrenia). Granted, Akim Tamiroff’s ethnic racketeer is nothing if not an outdated stereotype (though not exaggerated by the actor), but this pales in comparison with characters like Carlo, the Bullock mother’s protégé. While I don’t doubt that upper-crust families like this still exist, mocking them now would be like hunting lox in a barrel to spread on one’s bagel.
Sturges’ films, on the other hand, are steeped in the vernacular and vague bigotry of their time (McGinty even has the obligatory African-American maids and butlers, but then, didn’t the family in Hannah and her Sisters?), yet they always feel curiously modern — I think simply because of the man’s daring. Consider the conjugal configuration in McGinty which has the protagonist marry his secretary as a ploy to win the women’s vote, then sleep in a separate room for six months before realizing that he’s loved her all along. It’s a plot gimmick, maybe, but this pulling back of the curtains on the dynamics of even quotidian sexual discourse (aberrant or not) – such as what marriage really means to some people, who sleeps where, etc – still seems considerably juicier than it really is (I felt a similar sensation watching My Favorite Wife for the first time). In contrast, when Carole Lombard invades Godfrey’s servant quarters against his wishes, we may feel Hayes grumbling a little bit and Aunt Mabel gasping “Scandal!”, but we don’t feel like we’ve learned anything about how “real people” behave.
And yet I ADORE Godfrey. I adore Carole Lombard’s dippy head-over-heels puppy love and the tender tremors of Eugene Pallette’s swollen jowls. The premise would today be a ghastly anachronism (then again, look at the Princess Diaries franchise), but it’s a real testament to the writing and the acting that the film is still hilarious and heartwarming after so much time. But for me McGinty wins the celluloid melee because it refuses to condescend to any of its characters, rich, poor, straight, or crooked (or woman — Muriel Angelus “concocts” her marriage as either a method of freedom or a method of seduction and sees which one pans out) and because I think that the well-depicted moral trajectory of a single man, satirical or not, may be more rewarding than the tale of the refined businessman who learns to love a nut. And, though it surprises me to say it, I might prefer erudite schmaltz to erudite screwball.