Sturges and politics
THE GREAT McGINTY (Preston Sturges, USA, 1940) – 8
HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO (Preston Sturges, USA, 1944) – 10
I swear it was a pure coincidence that last night, the night of the political impossible (“a tea bagging centerfold” won a US Senate seat from Massachusetts as a Republican), I happened to have a Preston Sturges tape next in the queue to be dubbed. And on it were his two explicitly political movies, both about men with dubious pasts who become unlikely politicians.
When I say “explicitly political,” I should clarify. They’re the two where politics plays a major surface role in the plot, but neither could serve any possible partisan or ideological angle. From Sturges’s portrayal of vote fraud by ACORN in big-city machines, a statewide “reform” party, graft in stimulus public-works projects, and community organizers urban populism, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out that Dan McGinty is a Democrat and audiences at the time probably knew that. But Sturges mentions no parties and there never makes any implication that Chicago the city would be less corrupt under the other party or some other faction of that party. Or that McGinty would be a better mayor/governor if he had more ideological committment. Indeed … SPOILER (highlight text to see) … McGinty’s downfall comes when he tries to be honest, to become his own man independent of the machine. One could even cynically suggest that the moral is “if you’re a crook, you must remain a crook” … /SPOILER.
But to me what makes McGINTY very funny and HERO even funnier, even today, is precisely that strikethru-function jokes aside, politics isn’t really what they’re about. Political satires generally date badly because they usually assume a shared topical frame of reference between film-maker and audience. By definition, that will be gone very quickly (who, after all, other than political junkies or people 75 or older would get a joke now about a Scandinavian accent and Wendell Willkie). McGINTY is about the rise and decline (or decline and rise, depending) of a bum, defined as much by marital love as political success. Indeed … WARNING: Incoming Wack Comparison … I kept thinking last night about the Dardenne brothers’ LORNA’S SILENCE, which is also about a person who enters into a fake marriage for mercenary reasons but then grows to really love that person and suffers for having done so. The key “turnaround” dramatic scene in both films is even the same — the husband and wife for the first time in physical union, shown to the degree the content codes of the times allowed. That’s just the skeleton of both movies, which have practically nothing else in common, and McGINTY is told through the conventions of comedy and so the ending has a different tone. But still …
As the grades imply, I think HERO is the better film — Sturges’s direction is surer, his pacing more frenetic and his ensemble company “better oiled.” I have long considered HERO to be Sturges’s masterpiece. Indeed, it has inspired me to always be generous around military men in bars (I dunno why … it’s not like really good things happen to Eddie Bracken as a result). HERO is the story of a 4-F from a long line of Marine heroes who gets roped into pretending to be a Marine hero of Guadalcanal. By the end, he’s been drafted into city politics, to run against Everett *Noble* — a gassy windbag who is maybe Sturges’s funniest creation. Overall, HERO is the funniest of Sturges’s movies in part because you laughed twice at every joke. At every joke and gag and line, there’s the laugh itself and then the amazed internal chuckle that Sturges was able to get away with this in 1944. Suggesting that small-town America could be easily fooled by stories of heroism, and even in the end wanted to be fooled? Portraying homefront politics as not affected by the war, except in the mouth of the venal Noble? And NOBODY in the movies ever suggested that Marines, even if only part of the time, were anything less than statue-burnished heroes (they’re the ones who rope Bracken into the ruse and then nurse it along; one is a bit psycho; another is an open playa; they get into trouble from gambling).
Even though the Vietnam War produced an orgy of self-hatred in American movies that has never truly left them, this much gentler, much less ill-intentioned, not even arguably “anti-war” movie still comes across as bracingly subversive fun. Indeed, it may well be that HERO plays so well today precisely because of the post-Vietnam turn. It shows that it was once possible to make fun of Marines, middle America and the mom-and-apple-pie muthos (not that the people of the time ever doubted it — “Willie and Joe,” for example, ran in Stars and Stripes) without turning against them.
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