"Yesterday, you was a hobo on the breadline. Today, you got a thousand berries and a new suit. I wonder where you'll be tomorrow."
That Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) somehow went from a hobo in Chi-Town* (the film doesn't explicitly spell out where it's set, but c'mon) to tending bar in some nameless banana republic would've made for a heckuva movie in its own right. When you consider that, somewhere in between, McGinty also collected for the mob, whose machinations elevated him to alderman, mayor, and even governor...?! It's little wonder why a couple of troubled folks in McGinty's bar hang on his every word for eightysomeodd minutes straight.
McGinty has a way of getting things done. Oh, The Boss (Akim Tamiroff) is paying $2 a vote to keep Mayor Tillinghast in office? Well, how much are 37 votes worth to ya? The big man upstairs can't help but take a shining to McGinty's hustle, hobo or no. He starts off collecting on debt shrugged off as uncollectible. When he's installed as a political puppet, McGinty elevates graft to high art as he bounds from one office to another. Why stop at mayor, though? The big money's in state contracts.
And sure, McGinty is game, but The Boss insists that he find himself a wife. No matter how hard the mob presses its thumb on the scale, a bachelor ain't gonna make it to the governor's mansion. Thankfully, McGinty's secretary Catherine (Muriel Angelus) is as disinterested in marriage as he is. Since neither would expect much of anything from the other, it's a perfect arrangement! The only hiccup is that married life and fatherhood wind up agreeing with him, and McGinty is in the early stages of developing what is commonly known as a conscience. But with the mob on one side and a closetful of skeletons on the other, is McGinty actually gonna be able to weed out graft and make a real difference?
"If you didn't have graft, you'd have a lower class of people in politics!" Nevermind that The Great McGinty is ringing in its eightieth anniversary this year. Its deeply cynical view of politics as a sort of kleptocracy – one in which the unqualified and corrupt are routinely elevated to the highest positions of power – has aged better than I wish it had. That's one of a great many reasons why I wish I were writing a giddier review right about now. Brian Donlevy is pitch-perfect in the lead, deftly alternating between broad shouldered bravado and gentle, paternal warmth. Plus we're talking about the movie that screenwriter Preston Sturges sold to Paramount for ten bucks so long as he could direct – a transition unheard of in those days – and won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay along the way.
Though I certainly acknowledge and appreciate all that, I must confess that I didn't enjoy The Great McGinty nearly as much as I'd hoped. Despite its lean 82 minute runtime, the pace can be surprisingly uneven. Sturges has such a wealth of ideas at play, some of which he breezes past too quickly while others overstay their welcome. It doesn't fully capitalize on the tropical framing device, opening with a bank manager's attempted suicide that carries some thematic weight but has little direct impact on the narrative. While there are a handful of big laughs – say, an out-and-out brawl in an armored car that goes completely unnoticed by the drivers up front, or a series of The Story of Everest-esque drunken pratfalls with a whole bunch of broken China – its sense of humor tends to be much more low-key. In quite a number of ways, The Great McGinty succeeds more at being sad than it does at being funny, culminating in a decidedly downbeat ending. I'm sure the idea is to express that despite his recent change of heart, McGinty can't escape the crimes of his past. I don't know to what extent a truly happy ending could ever have been in the cards, but – stepping around spoilers as lightly as I can – what Sturges settles on offers neither redemption nor justice. It's devoid of any real satisfaction.
At the same time, I get that I'm a distant outlier. While many other reviews you may stumble upon may note that The Great McGinty is far from Sturges' finest work, pretty much everyone the world over who's written about this political satire clearly adores it. As much as I'd love to join that choir, I can't. Still, I found enough to appreciate in The Great McGinty – beyond its noteworthy status as Sturges' first outing as director – for this long-anticipated Blu-ray release to still at least come Recommended.
The Great McGinty suffers somewhat by comparison, arriving on Blu-ray alongside Kino Lorber Studio Classics' achingly gorgeous release of The Good Fairy. Though The Great McGinty too has been newly remastered in 4K, its presentation is not in that same league. Though the source elements for this remaster have not been specified on the packaging or in pre-release announcements, they do appear to be at least a couple of generations removed from the original camera negative. Definition and detail are respectable yet considerably less remarkable. It doesn't boast nearly as fine a sheen of grain. Thin vertical lines remain in place for what seems like minutes at a time; not ruinously so, but my eyes couldn't help but fixate on them anyway:
Those lines – which aren't too persistent a nuisance – are just about the beginning and end of any sign of wear. The occasional speck does appear, sure, but that really only caught my attention during the jail sequence late in the film. I'll confess to not being certain what the story is with this shot:
...but that is the only moment in The Great McGinty with such a steep drop in quality. Even if there aren't quite as many stars in the sidebar as I was hoping, this is still a perfectly pleasant presentation. If you've watched and enjoyed KL Studio Classics' release of Christmas in July, the smart money says you'll be just about as happy with this disc as well.
The Great McGinty marches onto a dual-layer Blu-ray disc at its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1.
I did find myself turning up my receiver more than I ordinarily would for a comedy of this vintage, but that very slight bit of compensation aside, I don't have a whole lot to complain about with this 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Presented in two-channel mono, dialogue remains intelligible and reasonably clear for the entirety of The Great McGinty's 82 minute runtime. The score by Frederick Hollander – and, apparently, an uncredited John Leipold – is reproduced well, with the ::h'cup!:: playful cue of McGinty returning home "drunk as a skunk" standing out as the highlight for me. And while there aren't any jarring aberrations to speak of, there is a mild, persistent hiss:
It's not terribly intrusive, and honestly, I prefer a consistent level of background noise to stop-and-go filtering or the artifacts that come with clunky noise reduction. 'Sfine. As for the rest of the technical specs, they mirror Kino Lorber Studio Classics' other Sturges releases: an audio commentary and a set of English (SDH) subtitles.
The Final Word
Wait, more Preston Sturges on Blu-ray?! How much?
Thankfully, Kino Lorber Studio Classics' asking price is a whole lot less than that. I do have to admit that The Great McGinty didn't do nearly as much for me as I'd expected, given my adoration of every other film of Sturges' that I've seen, our shared cynicism regarding politics, and the commanding presence of Brian Donlevy. I'm squarely in the minority there, so my feelings won't be hurt if you disregard my thoughts about the film itself. As for its presentation on Blu-ray, The Great McGinty fares well enough, boasting a new 4K remaster and a wonderful audio commentary. It's far from an ideal starting point for those beginning to explore Sturges' filmography, but for the more seasoned among you...? Recommended.