The Great McGinty (1940)
Mention the name Brian Donlevy to me and I instinctively think of the back stabbing second lead he often excelled at. The type of guy who was sure to fire a shot at leading man Gary Cooper, Joel McCrea or Tyrone Power. In essence casting him here in the title role of McGinty is somewhat of a surprise in a slightly off kilter Mr. Deeds role.
Donlevy is playing a street wise, quick tempered tough guy who rises in politics through graft and muscle having the local mob backing him only to see the error of his ways and try to make amends before the final fade out. With Preston Sturges name attached it’s all done with a decided slant towards comedy.
The movie is told in flashback from a bar on some south sea island where we find Donlevy as a bartender telling his story to the club dancer and a down on his luck Louis Jean Heydt. It all begins with Brian in a soup line biting at the chance to earn a few bucks in a crooked election. Taking the lead from a quick talking William Demarest, Donlevy hits 37 polls at two dollars a piece to cast votes for the mob’s choice man. When it’s time to collect his 74 dollars, Demarest brings him into the boss, Akim Tamiroff.
Akim takes an instant liking to Brian and sets him up as a collector of those who don’t pay up on their protection money. Sporting a checkered suit Brian goes about his business. “Buying from us is just like getting club rates.” First with the gift of gab and secondly with muscle when called for. He’s a success at the job and looks good in a suit so Akim moves him up the ladder.
City alderman to the next Mayor. Provided he finds himself a wife. Thus, Brian enters into a marriage of convenience with his secretary, Muriel Angelus. She’s a divorcee with two children giving Brian instant credibility in the eyes of voters. With Akim pulling the strings, the role of Governor is just around the corner.
It’s not hard to figure out that the marriage of convenience will evolve and crack the tough guy exterior that Brian constantly uses as a front while he piles cash into his hidden safety deposit box. There’s a wonderfully played scene of extortion when he challenges his “mark” to guess how many people are in the stands of a baseball game photograph. It’s the end result of his good will that may surprise you in that the film doesn’t necessarily wind up with the usual fade out as the credits roll.
There is plenty to recommend this Oscar winning screenplay from Sturges but more then anything it’s the comical banter and fisticuffs between Akim and Brian that win the day.
“He thinks he’s me.” Akim points out when Brian gives as good as he gets upon first meeting Akim. The actual ending of the film is sure to elicit laughter. For his part, Brian is mainly playing to the typecasting that he had been saddled with at this point of his career but the slant towards romance and comedy works in his favor. It proves he had range farther then just being the bad guy in Allegheny Uprising released one year earlier.
Akim Tamiroff shines here as the mob kingpin who constantly finds himself throwing jabs, both verbal and of the fist variety at Brian when they let their tempers get the better of their on/off relationship. Actress Muriel Angelus has that classy look associated with many leading ladies of the era and while I was not familiar with the name, I was surprised to see this was her final film. She retired after marriage in England passing away in 2004.
A nod to the fast clipped pace of William Demarest who was a regular in Sturges’ films and generally a bright spot in most any film he appeared in making him another one of those great character faces of the past.