Great Man Votes, The (1939): Garson Kanin’s Dramedy, Starring John Barrymore

Garson Kanin, better known as writer, directed The Great Man Votes, a drama starring John Barrymore as a widowed professor turned drunkard who has the deciding vote in the next mayoral election.

The Great Man Votes
Great Man Votes.jpg

theatrical poster

It was based on the short story of the same name by Gordon Malherbe Hillman published in the November 1933 issue of American Magazine.

Former Harvard professor Gregory Vance (John Barrymore), now an outcast alcoholic in a small city, is introduced hitching a ride with the local milkman, who also delivers alcohol to him, after his shift in his current job as a night watchman. Despite his alcoholism, Vance cares for his children, Joan (Virginia Weidler) and Donald (Peter Holden), bringing them up on the classics, teaching them Latin, and having them recite Shakespeare. They in turn look after their father and his reputation.

After an altercation between his children and some bullies, led by the son of “Iron Hat” McCarthy (Donald McBride), the local political boss, Vance is visited by his children’s teacher, Agnes Billow (Katherine Alexander), and the two become friendly with each other, especially as she realizes that Vance is a writer she respected and he reveals that his fall from respectability began with the death of the children’s mother.

City election for mayor is nearing, and Iron Hat is informed that every vote in the city is locked in place, with a likely tie between the boss’s handpicked current mayor and a rival.  There’s one exception in one crucial ward—Gregory Vance.

Vance’s wealthy in-laws are threatening to take custody of his children, which Joan and Donald do not want, despite the material advantages.

Trying to woo Vance for his vote, Iron Hat offers him low-level job with the city, but the children raise the bargaining stakes until Vance is offered the post of Commissioner of Education.

Vance himself is reluctant to be part of such dirty politics, but when he demands getting the offer in writing, he is able to expose the corruption of the mayor and Iron Hat.

In the happy ending, now socially respectable and new man, Vance is able to turn over a new leaf, with Miss Billow.

The film recorded a loss of $10,000.

Of Similar Interest

The plot of the 2008 movie Swing Vote has been compared to The Great Man Votes.

John Barrymore as Gregory Vance
Peter Holden as Donald Ainslee Vance
Virginia Weidler as Joan Vance
Katherine Alexander as Agnes Billow
Donald McBride as Iron Hat McCarthy
Benny Bartlett as Davy McCarthy
Brandon Tynan as Chester Ainslee
Elisabeth Risdon as Phoebe Ainslee
Granville Bates as the Mayor
Luis Alberni as Manos
J. M. Kerrigan as Hot Shot Gillings
William Demarest as Charles Dale
Wayne and Warren Hull as Twins Running Alongside Car


Directed by Garson Kanin
Screenplay by John Twist, Garson Kanin (uncredited), based on “The Great Man Votes” (short story) by Gordon Malherbe Hillman
Produced by Cliff Reid
Cinematography Russell Metty
Edited by Jack Hively
Music by Roy Webb
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures

Release date: January 13, 1939 (US)

Running time: 72 minutes
Budget $265,000
Box office $432,000


I am grateful to TCM for showing the movie on July 7, 2022.

Garson Kanin Filmography

Films directed

A Man to Remember (1938)

Next Time I Marry (1938)

The Great Man Votes (1939)

Bachelor Mother (1939)

They Knew What They Wanted (1940)

My Favorite Wife (1940)

Tom, Dick and Harry (1941)

The True Glory (1945)

Some Kind of a Nut (1968)

Where It’s At (1969)

Films written

The More the Merrier (1942)

From This Day Forward (1946)

A Double Life (1947)

Adam’s Rib (1949)

Born Yesterday (1950)

Pat and Mike (1952)

The Marrying Kind (1952)

It Should Happen to You (1954)

The Girl Can’t Help It (1956)

High Time (1960)

The Rat Race (1960)

Plays written
Born Yesterday (1946)

The Rat Race (1949) (also direct)

The Live Wire (1950)

Do Re Mi (1960-62)

Moviola (1979)

Smash (1980)

TV written
Born Yesterday (1956)

Mr. Broadway (1964)

Hardhat and Legs (1980)