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Tycoon John Glidden, dying though still vigorous, is so dissatisfied with his relatives and associates that, rather than will his money to any of them, he decides to give it away in million-dollar amounts to strangers picked from the city directory. He picks a meek china salesman; a prostitute; a forger; two ex-vaudevilleans who hate road hogs; a condemned man; a mild-mannered clerk; a boisterous marine; and an oppressed inmate of an old ladies' home. Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
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Something for everyone: comedy, melodrama, a hint of sex and several car crashes
I love this movie, it's a special favorite of mine, and the memory of my first viewing of it thirty-some years ago is so pleasant that it's hard for me to be objective about its merits. That said, after seeing it again recently I'm more convinced than ever that If I Had a Million is one of the most underrated films of the '30s. As far as I'm concerned this is a movie that has it all: comedy, pathos, irony, melodrama, a hint of sex, several car crashes, and a cast boasting some of the greatest character actors of all time. Maybe it isn't perfect, maybe the tone is erratic and a couple of segments are a bit weak, but taken as a whole it's as entertaining as any film of its era.
The story concerns millionaire industrialist John Glidden, who is ill and believed to be dying. Sick he may be, but Glidden is nevertheless energized by the contempt he feels for the greedy relatives who have gathered to await his death -- and to collect whatever monies they might inherit, of course. Glidden is so infuriated by this hypocrisy that his anger gives him a new lease on life, and it inspires an idea that fills him with glee: he decides to leave his fortune to total strangers, one million dollars at a time. At first the plan is driven by spite, but as it unfolds Glidden becomes increasingly interested in the people who receive his bequest, in how they react to their unexpected luck and what impact the money has on their lives.
Made in 1932 in the depths of the Great Depression, If I had a Million surely must have represented a mouth-watering wish-fulfillment fantasy at the time of its release, when even a hundred dollars would have amounted to an amazing windfall for many viewers. The cast of familiar faces in cameo roles was a strong selling point in the wake of Grand Hotel and other star-studded extravaganzas, and naturally it's fun to see Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields, Charles Laughton, etc., among the players, but watching the film again today I am especially struck by the performance of Richard Bennett as millionaire John Glidden. Bennett (father of Joan and Constance) was a veteran stage actor who recognized this role for the plum assignment it was, and threw himself into it with gusto. His exuberant performance really drives the opening scenes and gives the story the strong presence needed to link the segments in a satisfying way. Bennett, wild-eyed and giddy, kicks off the show with all stops out, and this not only grabs our attention immediately but also serves to sharpen the contrast with the more subdued Glidden who returns at intervals throughout.
Reviewers commenting on this film tend to single out the comedy segments featuring Laughton, Fields, and Charles Ruggles, and they're all terrific -- although Laughton's scene is best recalled for its extreme brevity and resounding punchline -- but some of the dramatic vignettes of If I had a Million are equally notable. Wynne Gibson is poignant as the waterfront prostitute who can't believe Glidden is on the level, while George Raft, never the most nuanced of actors, is surprisingly effective as the small-time crook who comes to realize that his ostensible good fortune is not a blessing but a curse. The maudlin Death Row sequence featuring Gene Raymond has never been anyone's favorite, but at least it's brief. Two older actresses, Alison Skipworth and May Robson, each make a strong impression in separate segments. Skipworth is a joy as an aging vaudevillian settling into retirement, and she more than holds her own alongside W.C. Fields in the crowd-pleasing "road hog" sequence. Robson is gallant and deeply sympathetic in the final vignette, set in a home for old ladies, where she serves as a fierce advocate for the women against the home's repressive, tyrannical director. This last sequence is the longest in the film and teeters on the brink of sentimentality, but ultimately leaves us with the most satisfying denouement of them all.
As I noted up top my first viewing of this movie was a very pleasant one. In the summer of 1970 I rented a 16mm print of If I had a Million to show at a party, and it scored a big hit. The kids loved the car crashes, Charlie Ruggles' plate-smashing spree, and Laughton's Bronx cheer, while the grown-ups appreciated the clothing, slang, automobiles and general trappings of the early '30s, a period they remembered first-hand. In later years I found that broadcasts of the film on TV usually lacked the sequences featuring Wynne Gibson and Gene Raymond, and still later I found that the movie itself had become scarce, rarely shown anywhere and never officially offered in a home-viewable format. This limbo is apparently due to legal issues involving copyrights, but I do hope the matter will be resolved eventually. If I had a Million is a delightful film that richly deserves rediscovery by a new generation!
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