Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Johnny California: IF I HAD A MILLION (1932)

 by JB

Remember when anthology films didn’t necessarily need to be horror?

I wish I had appreciated local television more when I was growing up. In those long- ago days before black and white films began to poison people, the local channels in the Chicagoland area offered an embarrassment of riches. WLS Channel 7, Chicago's ABC affiliate, led the pack with the late, lamented “3:30 Movie,” which I have waxed nostalgic for innumerable times on this very website; and the big “ABC Sunday Night Movie,” the announcer for which was none other than Ernie Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson’s father. Chicago's WBBM Channel 2, the CBS affiliate, owned nights with “Late Shows” and “Late-Late Shows” that stretched into the early morning hours. WMAQ Channel 5, the NBC affiliate, staked out its cinematic territory with “Saturday Night at the Movies.” Chicago PBS station WTTW Channel 11 actually ran films from the Janus Films library a full decade before the Criterion Collection was a reality, along with scores of foreign and silent films. A bonanza of choices for Movie Kid JB!

Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, on my beloved Channel 11, was when I first saw The Gold Rush, The Phantom of the Opera, The General, Safety Last, Metropolis, The Birth of a Nation, West of Zanzibar, Nosferatu, The Kid, and other lesser-known silent classics. Channel 11 also had the added benefit of no commercials... aside from those annoying pledge breaks.

Hey, I live in SoCal now, I need ALL those tote bags!
I still remember reading an interview in Chicago magazine back then with the WLS film programmer. He revealed that trash was shown in popular time slots because at those times people would watch anything, but that classics were reserved for early in the morning because HE KNEW THOSE FILMS HAD A BUILT-IN AUDIENCE THAT WOULD SEEK THEM OUT, FIND THEM, STAY UP, AND TUNE IN WHEVER THEY WERE SCHEDULED.

ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: Gosh, I guess that’s why they always scheduled Dr. Strangelove for three in the morning? Back when I was ten, I purchased my first copy of Leonard Maltin’s TV MOVIES guide, and I was so naïve that I decided to “test” the book's completeness by looking to see if it included Strangelove. I was convinced that Strangelove was an esoteric cult film that ONLY I knew about.
WBBM often scheduled Blake Edwards’ The Great Race in the early hours of the morning, and to show you just how long ago this was, the station would SPLIT it into two pieces and show it over two days because the 160 minute-long epic comedy just wouldn’t fit into a single time slot with commercials. I think these dawn screenings were why No-Doze was invented.

Which brings us to the film at hand. The first time I ever saw If I Had a Million was in the wee hours of the morning on local independent WGN Channel 9. I’m guessing that I was about ten years old, and I remember liking the movie a lot. Back then, it seemed like the movie equivalent of a book of short stories. My favorite sequence was the one featuring W.C. Fields, because I was ten and that segment shows a whole bunch of old-timey cars getting smashed-up: comedy gold for a grade schooler. Of course, I had already read about the movie, probably in one of the many library books I inhaled about W.C. Fields. Yet in those days, if it didn’t show up over the airwaves, you were out of luck--I'd read about many films I felt as if I knew, without ever having the opportunity to screen them myself.

TANGENT: Whatever happened to W.C. Fields? Although he was a major movie star in the 1940s, Field’s star dimmed somewhat until he experienced a huge surge of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. How famous was Fields in the 1970s? A character in the original Friday the 13th does a W.C. Fields impression, and ALL HIS FRIENDS KNOW WHO HE IS TALKING ABOUT. Richard Dawson would often do his W.C. Fields impression when answering a question on the old Match Game program in the 1970s, and no one ever asked Dawson what the fuck he was doing. Now, Fields is all but forgotten, though a fanciful mural of him does show up in the parking lot of Musso & Frank’s Grill in the recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Millionaire John Glidden (Richard Bennett) is close to death and hates his family, so he hatches a scheme to bequeath his fortune to a series of strangers. He has one of his toadies hold open a phone book, and he chooses random New York residents to receive a million dollars each, no questions asked.
The film then splits into a series of vignettes showing the effects of the surprise million- dollar gift on a series of characters: Henry Peabody (Charles Ruggles), a hen-pecked husband who works in a fine China shop; Violet Smith (Wynne Gibson), a streetwalker; Eddie Jackson (George Raft), a street tough and forger; Rollo and Emily La Rue (W.C. Fields and Alison Skipworth), a married couple who hate road hogs; John Wallace (Gene Raymond), a prison inmate; Phineas V. Lambert (Charles Laughton), a meek accounting clerk in a massive bank; Army Privates Mulligan, Gallagher, and O’Brien (Jack Oakie, Gary Cooper, and Roscoe Karns); and Mary Walker (May Robson), a senior citizen living in a retirement home. What will this broad representation of the American population do with all that money? Will comic complications and hijinks ensue?

You bet your checkbook.

Making the film seems like a masterstroke of marketing and planning for Paramount Pictures. The shooting schedule took advantage of studio stars who had a few days to spare between pictures; the production employed no fewer than 15 of the studio’s contract writers (including Joseph Mankewicz, William Slavens McNutt, and Sydney Buchman) and at least eight contract directors (including James Cruze, H. Bruce Humberstone, Ernst Lubitsch, and Norman Taurog). I’m surprised that more studios didn’t follow Paramount’s lead and make more of these “If You Have Time to Lean, You Have Time to Contribute to A Major Motion Picture” pictures. For a cost-conscious studio with a literal movie-making army on its payroll, it’s a no brainer... and a way to keep your salaried workforce busy busy busy.
The new Warner Archive disc of If I Had a Million contains two tasty supplements. First is a bizarre, original theatrical trailer that seems to be missing most of its onscreen title cards, meaning it’s 90% heraldic music accompanying otherwise empty paintings of elaborate drapery. Strange! We also get a rambunctious audio commentary featuring Filmmaker Allan Arkush and Film Historian/Filmmaker Daniel Kremer. They both love the film and recite facts about it at breakneck speed. I only caught one mistake: Norman Taurog directed nine Elvis Presley movies, but Jailhouse Rock was not one of them.

I recommend this film to my readers without hesitation. It’s a fine “antidote” film to the modern malaise of classic filmgoing. Sometimes I fear that boutique disc labels and reparatory theaters are increasingly focusing on a smaller and smaller pool of films. Yes, it’s terrific to finally see Halloween, Casablanca, or Monty Python and the Holy Grail in an honest-to-goodness movie theater, but I’m afraid the list of classics that get screened or released is shrinking*. None us want a movie-going future that consists of some "Sacred 50", a list of half-a-hundred reliable standards that are the only older films screened anymore. If I Had a Million... dollars, I would buy an old reparatory theater, spiff it up, and show nothing but old obscurities. Popcorn would be free.
*Good News! Vinegar Syndrome is releasing a Blu-Ray disc of a new restoration of obscure, esoteric Universal Horror Film, The Cat Creeps in just a few weeks. There is hope!

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