The Art of Political Satire: Preston Sturges and The Great McGinty

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On the heels of current events, the need for genuine political satire has never been more needed.  In this age of YouTubers and bloggers (such as myself), looking back into the past can sometimes be a telling signpost pointing to future events and a much more prescient truth.  One filmmaker from the past came to mind immediately; the brilliant Preston Sturges.  A consummate screenwriter and director, Sturges enjoyed some years of success due mainly to his furiously paced and very clever films including, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, Unfaithfully Yours, and The Palm Beach Story to name a few.  All are delicious in their dialogue and screwball farce satire.  All were written and directed by Sturges with originality and a higher sense of comedic cinema language.  The films may be from the 1940’s and 50’s, but they feel as fresh today as when first released.  That is due to Sturges genius and the timeless quality of his words and ideas.

In 1939, Sturges turned in his first script entitled  The Story Of A Man (re-titled to The Great McGinty) to Paramount studios for ten dollars with the stipulation that he be allowed to direct it.  The studio agreed if he used lower paid actors and a strict budget.  Sturges surrounded himself with the best character actors working that day and produced a scathing and hysterically funny satire on the charade known as politics.  The dialogue alone is pure gold.

Skeeters: If it wasn’t for graft, you’d get a very low type of people in politics. Men without ambition. Jellyfish.

Catherine: Especially since you can’t rob the people anyway.

Skeeters: Sure. How was that?

Catherine: What you rob, you spend, and what you spend goes back to the people. So, where’s the robbery? I read that in one of my father’s books.

Skeeters: That book should be in every home.

Sturges presents a dishonest man who loses everything from being honest for one crazy moment.  The Great McGinty slices open the fallacy of an honest politician and the motivations for wanting such a seat of power.  The script is taut, very funny, and very scathing.  The film was released in 1940, but seems to ring true today more than ever.  Its treatment of a corrupt official being touted as a candidate for reform cannot be more telling.  And the dialogue…did one mention the sparkling dialogue in this film?  No comedic filmmaker working during that time could match Sturges wit.  Look again at the character named Skeeters from the quote above.  Is there a better name for a “blood sucking” political official?

Preston Sturges ended up winning for original screenplay for The Great McGinty and the film was named one of the top 10 best that year.  It launched the career of Sturges (and his recurring band of character actors), plus gave the confidence to take on a subversive role in the Hollywood dream factory.  It is imperative that a film like The Great McGinty be rediscovered and enjoyed as the biting political satire we all need today.

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  “The Great McGinty” (1940) written/directed by Preston Sturges, photography by William C. Mellor

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