In a bar in an unnamed Latin American country, Tommy Thompson (Louis Jean Heydt) is down in the dumps, and is about to commit suicide before Daniel McGinty (Brian Donlevy), the bartender, stops him. Turns out Thompson was once cashier of a bank (before, it's implied, he stole money), and when McGinty poo-poohs this, a dancer (Steffi Duna) who's obviously in love with Tommy sarcastically wonders if McGinty was president of the bank. "Who, me? Nossir...I was governor of a state, baby," he replies.
In a Flashback, we see how that came to be; McGinty was initially a bum, until he went to a soup kitchen one night and heard about a scheme to make money. He was directed to Skeeters (William Demarest), a political hack, who told him he could make $2 to vote for the mayor, as long as he asked for "Bill" at the voting place. McGinty asked him if he could make more money for voting more, and Skeeters, thinking McGinty a nut, said yes. So, McGinty voted 37 times, to the amazement of Skeeters. He brings McGinty to the Boss (Akim Tamiroff), who runs the mayor's office and in general runs the political machine in the town. McGinty is thoroughly unimpressed, and even belligerent, but while the Boss doesn't appreciate the belligerence, he thinks McGinty has a certain style, so he hires him to collect "protection" money.
McGinty gradually works his way up to alderman, and when the current mayor gets indicted for graft, The Boss decides McGinty might make a fine mayor. There's one catch, though; he has to get married. McGinty has no intention of doing this ("My parents were married!"), but his secretary, Catherine (Muriel Angelus), thinks they can have a marriage of convenience; he can become mayor, and she now has support for her two children by her previous marriage. At first just amiable companions, they gradually fall in love. But while she's been accepting of the graft McGinty participates in, she thinks he ought to use his office for the public good, like ending sweatshops and child labor and so forth. He refuses at first, but his conscience starts to nag at him, especially when he's able to make the leap from mayor to governor. This, of course, puts him on a collision course with the Boss.
With this film, Sturges became the first screenwriter who became a director, thereby paving the way for other writers like John Huston, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Billy Wilder. He did so by agreeing to sell his screenplay to the studio for $1 on the condition he direct it (he was eventually paid $10 for it). The movie ended up being a big hit, and Sturges won his first and only Academy Award for it, for Best Original Screenplay.
Donlevy and Tamiroff would reprise their characters for a brief appearance in Sturges' 1944 comedy The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.
This film contains examples of:
- Affably Evil: The Boss, though McGinty often tests his affability.
- Anti-Hero: McGinty ranges from Type III to Type V, and back again.
- Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: While The Boss is explaining his philosophy of life and how he came to make it in America, McGinty keeps getting distracted by the limousine they're riding in, wondering why it's so quiet.
- Banana Republic: The opening title card uses these exact words to describe wherever it is that McGinty has wound up turning bar.
- Becoming the Mask: McGinty, who was pushed up by The Boss as a fake reformer, actually decides to become a real reformer.
- Corrupt Politician: All of them. Deciding not to be this is what brings about McGinty's downfall.Skeeters: If it weren't for graft, you'd get a very low type of people in politics.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Boss.
- Framing Device: As mentioned above, the movie starts in a bar until McGinty tells his story, and it ends in the same bar.
- Funny Background Event: McGinty and The Boss start to fight and wrestle in the back of the limo, and then we immediately cut to the chauffeur complaining to The Boss' bodyguard about his girl troubles.
- HeelFace Turn: McGinty, as revealed in the title card. It doesn't last very long, though.
- Hypocritical Humor: The Boss is trying to explain to McGinty why he should get married:The Boss: Marriage is a wonderful thing; it's the most beautiful set-up between the sexes.McGinty: Then why aren't you married?The Boss: Because I ain't running for mayor!
- Interrupted Suicide: McGinty stops a banker from killing himself at the beginning of the film.
- I Take Offense to That Last One!:McGinty: Listen, you fat little four-flusher!The Boss: *Fat*? (they start fighting)
- Non-Specifically Foreign: The Boss is played by one of classic Hollywood's kings of this trope, Akim Tamiroff (born to an Armenian family in Georgia while it was still part of the Russian Empire).
- Perfectly Arranged Marriage: As mentioned above, McGinty only marries Catherine grudgingly, because The Boss tells him they need the women vote, and Catherine is willing to help. But they end up falling in love. Played with, however, in that while McGinty still loves Catherine he ends up having to leave her to avoid prosecution. He does make sure she and her children are well provided for before he leaves.
- Running Gag: Whenever McGinty gets The Boss riled, they start fighting.Skeeters: Here we go again!
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: There is idealism if you look for it, but mostly, this definitely tilts on the cynical side. Being a corrupt criminal sent McGinty to the governor's mansion; turning honest destroyed his life.
- Two Lines, No Waiting: Subverted; despite what the title card seems to promise, we don't hear Tommy's story, we only hear McGinty's.
- Unusual Euphemism: McGinty describes the fights he has with The Boss as "brannigans".
- Vitriolic Best Buds: McGinty and The Boss seem to have settled into this relationship by the end of the film (out of necessity, since they're both fugitives).
- Vote Early, Vote Often: McGinty votes for the mayor 37 times.