Friday, September 16, 2011

The Great McGinty (1940): Boss Sturges Brings 'Honest Graft' to Hollywood

Preston Sturges, the playwright-turned-director, was a bit of an artiste. Even when he was a young kid just starting out, he tussled over creative decisions with the studio brass from his lowly perch in the script department. That is normal enough for a hired writer, but Sturges also took several successive pay cuts in order to climb the ladder from writer to writer-director to writer-director-producer, to better preserve his product's integrity.

It's funny that Sturges turned out this way, because "temperamental genius" was the exact opposite of what he always wanted to be. His real ambition was to be wildly popular and commercially successful -- in other words, to be a hack. It sounds like a strange desire for a writer, but it makes sense once you learn about his mother, whom he was determined to rebel against.

"They did everything they could to make me an artist," Sturges said, "but I didn't want to be an artist. I wanted to be a good businessman like my father." The primary "they" here is his mother, Mary Dempsey Sturges, a daffy bohemian who used to send him to school in a Greek chiton. (To school in Chicago.) She once served as a medium for Aleister Crowley, performing otherworldly transcription for his occult books. Her best friend was notorious decapitee Isadora Duncan, the dancer; the fateful scarf that broke Duncan's neck when it got caught in the tires of her car had been a gift from Mrs. Sturges. Before the fatal incident, the two women had gallivanted around Europe, often with Preston in tow, making sure to expose him to every bit of high culture in sight.

Mister Sturges Senior, on the other hand, was in stocks. It was he who obtained for Preston a position as a runner on Wall Street, which was where he met his first real-live machine politicians. In his memoir, Sturges swears that many of the ploys he depicts in The Great McGinty were lifted straight from their stories of Tammany Hall.

Mostly I believe him. When William Demarest promises to pay McGinty, a bum, two dollars for every repeat vote he can cast, that's very believable. So is the shakedown scene between McGinty, who has become a machine enforcer, and a businessman seeking a city contract for a bus franchise. ("Look here, I will not pay graft. Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!" "You could call it 'advertising.'")

There's one especially tantalizing glint of realism in the film, which I hope I am right in detecting. (I warn you, though, my zero-hits search for "the great mcginty nyc mayor william j gaynor" suggests that I'm the first person on the Internet to think of it; bad sign.) In the film, McGinty is rewarded for his loyal service to the machine with a seat as an alderman. When the reform movement starts agitating for an end to corruption, the party boss decides to put up a so-called reform candidate he can portray as an honest man but still control behind the scenes; he picks McGinty, who wins. Then, as mayor, McGinty resists being controlled, turning out to be more of an honest man than anyone, including himself, expected him to be.

This is exactly the kind of story that would have stuck in Sturges's cynical mind if he'd ever heard it from a Tammany flunky: Oh, yeah, that "reform" mayor was one of our guys; the people looked like they wanted clean government, so we just went through our roster and picked the most honest-looking candidate we could find, and can you believe it, the people fell for it.

It's basically the story of Mayor William J. Gaynor, who was elected six years before Sturges started working on Wall Street.

Gaynor was a Tammany man who was chosen for the ticket thanks to the reputation for honesty he'd earned as a judge on the state supreme court. After being elected, he pulled a McGinty and turned on Tammany Hall, getting rid of graft and all that. He's also the only New York City mayor ever to have been shot by an assassin; the shooter was a former city employee -- a patronage appointee, needless to say -- who was upset that he had been replaced by a more qualified candidate from the civil-service rolls.

Tammany picks an honest-seeming man when it suits them, never figuring that he might actually be honest -- Gaynor and McGinty have the same story. Also, the timeline fits.

To get back to the movie: It's far from being the funniest movie in the Sturges canon, but I suppose we can come to the conclusion that Sturges himself would have wanted: that its defects were the fault of meddling studio producers. Out of Sturges's hearing, we might add that it was his first outing as a director, and perhaps he still had a few things to learn. He sold the McGinty script to Paramount for the low, low price of one dollar, in exchange for permission to direct it himself; I told you he took several pay cuts for the sake of greater control.

But if you're looking for a reason to see the film, think about how well-suited Preston Sturges was to make a film about machine politicians. Like him, they were cynical professionals, even professional cynics; it would be hard to say which was less tolerant of principled integrity, Tammany Hall or Hollywood. (And Sturges, like the corrupt pols, secretly relished the hackery his business required. It had a certain scrappiness.) Both Sturges and the bosses were abjectly democratic when forced to pander to the voters (or filmgoers) who were the source of all their power, but deeply contemptuous of the people when any Regular Joe tried to interfere with their chosen domains. You might call it aristocratic populism: I'm here to serve you, and if you leave me alone, I'll damn well do it.

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