“This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic. One of them never did anything dishonest in his life except for one crazy minute. The other never did anything honest in his life except for one crazy minute. They both had to get out of the country.”
— The Great McGinty (1940)
For today’s final entry in Shattered Politics, we take a look at how elections are won north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
The Great McGinty begins in a bar located in an unnamed country in South America. Tommy Thompson (Louis John Heydt) attempts to shoot himself but is stopped by philosophical bartender Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy). Tommy explains that he can never return to the United States because, in one moment of weakness, he stole some money. McGinty replies that he can never return to the U.S. either. Why? “I was the Governor of a state, baby…” McGinty replies.
In flashback, McGinty explains how he came to power. One day, while standing in a soup line, the homeless McGinty was approached by a local political operative (William Demarest) and offered $2.00 on the condition that he vote for a certain mayoral candidate. McGinty agrees and then proceeds to vote 37 times. When McGinty demands $74.00 for his efforts, he’s taken to the headquarters of the Boss (Akim Tamiroff, giving a wonderfully comedic performance).
The Boss is impressed with McGinty and, despite the fact that the two of them are constantly getting into fights with each other, he employs McGinty as a collector. Eventually, he also arranges for McGinty to be elected alderman and then, running as a reform candidate, mayor.
Along the way, the Boss arranges for McGinty to get married. McGinty’s wife (Muriel Angelus) originally has little respect for McGinty but, after they marry, she starts to realize that McGinty is not quite as bad as she originally assumed. Eventually, she’s even impressed enough that she even stops seeing her boyfriend, George (Allyn Joslyn).
Meanwhile, the Boss arranges for McGinty to be elected governor. However, once McGinty has won the election, he declares that he’s going to run an honest administration. How does that turn out? Well, it should be noted that the film opens with McGinty tending bar in South America…
The Great McGinty is a lot of fun and it’s interesting to think that this unapologetically sardonic look at American politics came out just a year after Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Imagine if Mr. Smith Goes To Washington had been told from the point of view of Edward Arnold’s Boss Taylor and you can guess what The Great McGinty is like.
If nothing else, The Great McGinty serves as a great reminder that political cynicism existed long before any of us cast our first vote.