“There ain’t any jail of steel or stone that can hold a body prisoner as tight as one built of old age … and lack of money.”
If I Had A million is a rare kind of film for 1932. The industry was barely out of the silent era, and stories needed to be tight and usually short. Short was the word of the day for this film. It became the first feature film to be released as an anthology with plenty of A-list stars and several directors, each taking on their own little piece of the pie. It was a rather brilliant idea for the time, but sadly this style of filmmaking wouldn’t really start to catch on until the 1970’s, starting almost exclusively with horror films and later creating its own little niche genre in mainstream filmmaking. It’s still somewhat popular today with directors like Wes Anderson embarrassing certain elements of the format. It was a brave choice that wasn’t quite rewarding enough to see the format flourish … yet. This is the perfect film for all of you with short attention spans who want to get a taste of the films of the period. It’s a nice collection of stars from the period, to be sure. KL Studios adds this awkward little gem on Blu-ray, and I must insist that you give it a try. You just might have a great time with it all.
“Herewith is a check for one million dollars presented to you by the undersigned. There are no conditions or restrictions attached to its use. I can only caution you to use it wisely and to the best of your ability in the promotion of your own happiness and welfare, for which procedure there seems to be no established precedent. Should you encounter any difficulties regarding this check, you may reach me at the above address. I will not, however, assume the responsibility of advising you what to do with this money. Cordially, John Glidden”
John Gliddon (Bennett) is a rich old coot who hasn’t had the good grace to die and leave the small fortune he’s amassed to his greedy relatives. The truth is he doesn’t find a single one of his potential heirs to be worthy of the wealth. He comes up with a plan to give the money away and does it in dramatic fashion. He randomly selects names out of the phone book and decides to give each of them $1 million along with a note cautioning the recipient to act wisely. With each of these letters delivered, we get to be there when they get the good news and in most cases see just what kind of an impact it might have on their lives. The stories are separated into film segments, each with a unique cast and director.
China Shop is directed by Norman Z. McLeod, who would later direct an episode of The Twilight Zone, perhaps the most famous and important anthology titles of all time. Here we meet Henry Peabody, played by Charles Ruggles. He works in a china shop where he once was happy in accounting. But he’s been promoted to the sales floor where his clumsy nature breaks a great amount of inventory that comes out of his paycheck. The promotion leads to much less take-home pay. It doesn’t help that his wife (Boland) constantly nags him about being such a failure. When he gets his million, he decides to show off in front of his boss, who is always admonishing him to be more careful. He races around the store and intentionally breaks some of the more valuable wares in a kind of fit. A bit of an unintended link can be found here. Mr. Peabody works for Mr. Bullwinkle, played by Reginald Barlow. Both of these characters would appear in the popular Bullwinkle cartoon, and Charles Ruggles provided voices for the show.
Violet is directed by Stephen Roberts, who is also known for directing shorts. He directed dozens of them from 1923 to 1936. Here we meet Violet Smith, played by Wynne Gibson, who is uncredited for the role. She is a prostitute working a dive bar when her money arrives. She ends up checking into a swank hotel just to spend the night in a luxury bed. This is the shortest of the stories, and that’s really all we see. A bit of a tease, appropriate to her profession, has her preparing for bed in her expensive hotel room. The film was pre-code and likely would have had to show more nuance with Violet’s profession.
The Forger is directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, who directed a lot of television like Daniel Boone and Studio 57. The story stars popular gangster actor George Raft as Eddie Jackson. Eddie is a forger who has too big a reputation for his own good. This story has a great “boy who cried wolf” twist. Eddie can’t get anyone to believe the check is real and can’t even get the price of a cup of coffee for the paper everyone thinks is worthless. I love Raft, and it’s a nice part for the iconic actor.
Road Hogs is also directed by Norman Z. McLeod. This was is done strictly for laughs. It stars the indominable W.C. Fields as Rollo and Alison Skipworth as his wife. They are constantly bothered by the bad habits of drivers on the road. When they get their check, they spend it all on a fleet of new cars and drivers so they can get back at all of the drivers who annoyed them over the years. As they crash one car they merely move on to the next. The couple are perfectly pleased with themselves, and it’s a wonderful comedic performance by the master Fields.
Death Cell is directed by James Cruz, who made his mark in gangster films and crime dramas. John Wallace is played by Gene Rayburn. He comes into his money a little too late. He’s on death row, and if the cash had come earlier, he might have been able to mount a better defense. He must take some small comfort in the fact that his wife will be comfortable.
The Clerk is directed by Erns Lubitschis, best known for directing the original 1943 version of Heaven Can Wait. This is another very short segment played strictly for laughs. Phinneas V. Lambert is a clerk working for a tough boss. He’s played by the late great Charles Laughton, who received second billing on the film for a very small part and pretty much no dialog. When he gets his money, he silently packs up his things and heads to the boss’s office, where he gives him a messy “razzberry”. (See Archie Bunker if you don’t know what that is.)
The Three Marines
The Three Marines is directed by Willam A. Sieter. He was mostly a director of comedies. This is another segment dripping in irony. Private Steve Gallagher is played by Gary Cooper. He’s hanging with his two best buddies, and they are trying to figure out a way to raise a few cents to take some ladies out for the evening. When the check is presented, it would appear to solve the problem, except Steve is convinced the check isn’t real and is just a joke. They end up signing the check over the owner of the restaurant where they met the girls for just 10 bucks to pay for lunch and taking the ladies out for the night.
The film is rounded out with Grandma, directed again by Stephen Roberts. Mary Walker, played by May Robson, lives in a home for aged women. She hates the tyranny and lack of joy to be found in the place. When her check arrives, she ends up buying the place and turning it into a happy home for the women … but not so happy for the sadistic staff.
The entire film as intended never saw the light of day. There were three segments that didn’t make it to the screen. Cary Grant was to star in The Pheeneys. Clive Brook was to star in a segment called The Man Who Drops Dead. Little is known about The Randall Marshalls with Fredric March and Carole Lombard, and there is speculation that some of these segments were at least partially shot but abandoned before release. There were also a couple of scenes cut for censorship purposes. A shot of Violet in her bed throwing off the covers was cut, as was a more detailed scene showing John Wallace being prepared for his execution.
The wonderful thing about the anthology is that there is most certainly something there for everybody … even by today’s standards. If you try out just one of the KL Studio classics this month, I’d vote for this one. “I wouldn’t fool you for a million dollars.”