The Best Political Movie Ever

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is one you probably haven't seen.  It's Preston Sturges' "The Great McGinty," the first film to win the the best original screenplay Oscar. Sturges, who had long labored as a scriptwriter, won the right to direct his own script by selling it to the studio for $10.  The movie was a big hit at the box office when it was released in 1940.

It's the sort of film no longer made--a comedy of ideas. It's a hilarious sendup of urban machine politics that also raises several important ethical issues. The film features some hilarious slapstick moments along with consistently witty and intelligent dialogue. The scenes where Dan McGinty, a vagrant of the street, quickly rises in the political machine by voting illegally and collecting graft are uproarious and highly instructive about the bad old days of American politics.

But along the way, you also hear McGinty and the machine's boss give their justifications for their line of work. Consider this oration by the foreign-born boss as he rides in the back of his limousine with McGinty:

"Where I come from is very poor, see?  All the richness is gone a long time ago, so everybody lives by chiseling everybody else.  It comes to me very natural.  If I live five hundred years ago I guess I be a baron maybe, a robber baron.  I live on a rock and chisel the city down below and everybody call me 'baron'.  Now I live in a penthouse and everybody call me 'boss'."

I show a selection from the film in my American Government classes to demonstrate the prior evils of American elections. Those evils spawned the progressive reforms--voter registration, merit employment, primaries--that are central characteristics of our contemporary politics.

Sturges' sensibility is quite evident in the film. He is clearly outraged by the waste and corruption of machine politics. That's a message that resonates with my students.  

Why the outrage from Sturges? The story of the script is a fascinating one. As a budding Broadway playwright in the 1920s, Sturges lived in Westchester County, New York. His next door neighbor, Andy Seiler, was a state judge who aggressively pursued cases of political corruption. This good work eventually produced his murder by mobsters. Sturges wrote the script in part to avenge Seiler's death.

The movie, amazingly, is based on a true story. Democrat William Sulzer was elected Governor of New York in 1912 while affiliated with the Tammany Hall machine. Once in office, he vowed to pursue a political reform agenda. That got him impeached and removed from office by the Tammany-controlled legislature. A similar fate befalls McGinty.

The inspiration for the Russian spy Boris Badenov of Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon fame came from the character of the Boss in the film, played brilliantly by Akim Tamiroff. Brian Donlevy turns in a sterling performance as McGinty.

To further stimulate your appetite for the film, which is available on DVD, consider this choice and representative bit of dialogue. It features McGinty's wife Catherine, played very well by Muriel Angelus, discussing politics with a machine flunky, portrayed by the hilarious William Demarest:

The Politician (William Demarest): If it wasn't for graft, you'd get a very low type of people in politics. Men without ambition. Jellyfish!

Catherine McGinty (Muriel Angelus): Especially since you can't rob the people anyway.

The Politician: Sure! ... How was that?

Catherine McGinty: 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.

The Politician: That book should be in every home!

"Still the funniest American movie about politics." - Andrew Sarris
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Presented by

Steven Schier

Steven E. Schier is the Dorothy H. and Edward C. Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Washington Monthly, Brookings Review and other publications. Visit his Web site here .

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