Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The release of the Abscam comedy American Hustle has us thinking back on other films about politics and corruption.
The Great McGinty (1940)
It would be difficult to find a more hilariously pessimistic take on the subject of government corruption than 1940’s The Great McGinty, in which the title character, a bum played by Brian Donlevy, rides a wave of graft and corruption all the way to the governor’s mansion. Initially hired to be the political equivalent of those homeless people standing in line for new iPhones—a local boss (Akim Tamiroff) pays him to vote for a particular mayoral candidate under false names—McGinty demonstrates a knack for vice that inspires the boss to have his new employee cleaned up and groomed for office. The only snag in the plan is McGinty’s marriage, for political purposes only, to his secretary (Muriel Angelus), whose idealism gradually starts rubbing off on him. Even after he becomes governor, however, extricating himself from the machine’s commitment to legislation for profit proves all but impossible.
The Great McGinty was the first feature directed as well as written by The Great Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story), and like his other films, it’s far too uproarious to be upsetting. But Sturges was a hardheaded realist, and beneath McGinty’s wisecracking surface is a genuinely jaundiced view of the electoral system, predicated on the conviction that almost anything can be bought. Even after McGinty sees the error of his ways, he tries to convince himself that it’s possible to serve the public good even as one bilks the public—a tortured bit of mental arithmetic that’s depressingly close to the actual compromises made by real politicians every day. And the movie’s flashback structure, which has McGinty telling his sad story from behind the bar in some third-world country, implies, via an unexpected punchline, that the cycle of influence and capitulation is never ending. It’s funny, because it’s dispiriting.
Availability: Netflix has the DVD for disc delivery.