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A grumpy old tycoon postpones dying a while longer so that
can give his fortune away to strangers, a million dollars at
IF I HAD A MILLION is an almost legendary example of a rarely used cinematic form, the episodic film. Really a series of common-theme shorts strung together, produced by a conglomeration of writers & directors and using a large array of actors, the episodic film is an easy recipe for disaster if done wrong. Episodes compete or even clash, while the brevity of the individual sections can give the audience scant time to empathize with the characters, resulting in boredom.
Here, however, spotlighting the brilliant spectrum of talent available to Paramount Studios, everything jells quite nicely. Some episodes are more famous than others - that is inevitable. But the entire picture as a whole has cohesion & sparkle, something to grab & hold the viewer's attention. Mixing comedy, drama, and some surprisingly effective pathos, the plot of IF I HAD A MILLION - while today a mite creaky, acknowledging its age - should keep most contemporary audiences well satisfied.
Director Ernst Lubitsch & writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz are representative of the exceptional talent behind the camera. On film the following stars perform, all excellent:
Prologue - Richard Bennett as the millionaire.
Episode 1 - Timid, henpecked Charlie Ruggles & Mary Boland as his domineering wife.
Episode 2 - Wynne Gibson (uncredited) as a world-weary prostitute.
Episode 3 - George Raft as a criminal forger.
Episode 4 - Allison Skipworth & W. C. Fields as ex-vaudevillians with a special aversion to road hogs.
Episode 5 - Gene Raymond (uncredited) as a prisoner on Death Row.
Episode 6 - Charles Laughton as a lowly clerk in a huge office.
Episode 7 - Gary Cooper, Jack Oakie & Roscoe Karns as carousing Marines.
Episode 8 - May Robson as a feisty old lady in a very restrictive rest home.
Fields, Laughton & Ruggles - playing variations on the worm that turns - have come in for a lion's share of the praise down through the years, but all the performers do a very fine job, with Gene Raymond & May Robson especially poignant.
Movie mavens will enjoy spotting many familiar faces among the uncredited character actors: Grant Mitchell, Clarence Muse, Frances Dee, Berton Churchill in Episode 5; Joyce Compton & Lucien Littlefield in Episode 7; Dewey Robinson, Margaret Siddon, Gail Patrick in Episode 8; and Samuel S. Hinds as one of the millionaire's lawyers.
Episode 2 presents some pre-Production Code situations and Episode 5 is relentlessly downbeat. These sequences were often excised for television showings in decades past.
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!
IF I HAD A MILLION is one of those rare films worth having on tape. I was
thrilled to find this back in the 1980's, and it's a prized item of my
The plot is simple, but crazy. A dying billionaire, sick of his greedy relatives, decides to randomly give million dollar checks to strangers picked via the phone book. Since this is in the middle of the depression, the results are eye-popping!
My two favorite segments involve George Raft as a petty thief unable to cash the check because the law is after him. His downward spiral is rather chilling.
The other favorite segment, and the one this 1932 film is most famous for is the one where two eccentric ex-vaudevillians (W.C Fields and Alison Skipworth) decide to run selfish road-hogs off the road. Road rage has never been funnier than in this segment. Fields' angry comments to fellow drivers is a scream.
The rest of the segments run from sappy (a man going to the electric chair gets the check) to sweetly funny (The almost wordless segment with Charles Laughton, May Robson as a fiesty rest-home victim, and Gary Cooper as an out of control Marine) This film is worth a million!
"If I Had a Million" (Paramount, 1932), directed by seven directors
including Ernst Lubitsch and James Cruze, etc., is the first of it's
kind released during the early sound era, an all star cast with eight
separate stories. The central character is the supposedly dying John
Glidden (Richard Bennett), an elderly millionaire, who would rather
leave his fortune to various strangers whose names he picks with a
medicine dropper from a telephone directory, than to his immediate
relatives. The first name he picks happens to be John D. Rockefeller!
(If this movie were to be remade today, it probably would be Bill
Gates!) Turning the pages, he settles with the next name in line. The
story to each beneficiary is told. (1) Henry Peabody (Charles Ruggles),
a nervous clerk in a china-ware store finds his paycheck is limited by
him breaking all the china. He must also cope with his nagging wife
(Mary Boland) who awaits at the door to get and spend his paycheck
money. See the results when Henry receives his million dollar check by
Glidden; (2) Violet Smith (Wynne Gibson), a waterfront prostitute, is
given the check personally by Glidden in a bar, and after being
convinced the check is "not a gag," she uses the money to sleep alone
in a hotel. This short segment was sometimes the one that got the ax
from local TV prints; (3) Eddie Jackson (George Raft), a check forger
wanted by the police, receives the check from Glidden, but finds he
can't cash it; (4) Emily LaRue (Alison Skipworth), and Rollo (WC
Fields), a vaudevillian and juggler, are owners of a boardinghouse.
They acquire a brand new car, and after a drive, they return with a car
wrecked that was caused by a "road hog." After obtaining the million
dollar check by Glidden, they purchase a fleet of cars and get even
with the "road hogs," about town by having a car smashing day. Of all
the episodes, this is the one most remembered, even long after the
movie is over; (5) From the comedic standpoint comes a dramatic theme
featuring John Wallace (Gene Raymond), a condemned murderer, who pleads
innocent, getting the check shortly before he is to be executed in the
electric chair. But can he use the money in time to get a new lawyer
and trial? Frances Dee appears briefly as John's wife who visits him in
prison. This segment is another one that was usually cut from TV
prints. It's now restored; (6) Phineas Lambert (Charles Laughton), a
meek little office clerk, gets his check by mail, and in his own
special way, walks up a flight of stairs and goes through office door
to office door to go tell his employer what he can do with his job.
(Everyone's dream, I gather, then and now). This short segment, done
mostly in mood and silence, is in many ways, priceless; (7) Steven
Gallagher (Gary Cooper), a U.S. Marine in the brig, gets his check on
April Fool's Day, and upon his release, decides to give it away to pay
a back debt to a lunch stand owner. Although this is a so-so segment,
the result is funny. Jack Oakie and Roscoe Karns add some comedy relief
as Cooper's Marine buddies; (8) The most touching and longest segment
is the last one with Mary Walker (May Robson), a forgotten grandmother
couped up in the Idylwood Home for the Aged, who must tolerate
unbearable rules and regulations by the unsympathetic supervisor
(Blanche Frederici), until she gets her check from Glidden and gets her
revenge. Each story in "If I Had a Million" speaks for itself as to
what ordinary people would do or want to do if they had that
opportunity to have a million dollars. As in most episodic movies, some
segments are good, others could be weak, and maybe one or two that
could be best and the most talked about.
Frequently shown on commercial television back in the 1960s until the 1980s, with certain segments taken out to fit in the usual 90 minute time slot with added commercial breaks, "If I Had a Million," did resurface, much to the delight of classic movie fans, on Turner Classic Movies from July 2001 to May 2002. A video or DVD copy of this film can be purchased by going on the website of Movies Unlimited. (***)
This is one of those films that exists in a cinematic no-man's land, because it is in a legal copyright tangle. That is very unfortunate, because IF I HAD A MILLION is one of the finest of the early talkies. The story has a dying millionaire who doesn't want to see his fortune go to greedy relatives. Instead, he selects some names at random from the city directory and decides to give them each a million dollars. First, he gives the money to Charles Ruggles, a henpecked husband who is always having his salary deducted when he accidentally breaks china at the china shop that he works at. His nagging wife won't let him be. So, to get revenge, he takes his million to the store and breaks every piece of china in the place. Wynne Gibson as Violet is the next to get her million. She is a prostitute at a local bar, and she takes her money to rent a private hotel room for the night, to sleep alone. Gangster George Raft is unable to cash the check because he's been arrested for forgery. Next, three marines believe the check to be a fake and give it to a friend, who finds its true worth and spends it on himself. Convict Gene Raymond learns of his new-found fortune as he is being led to the electric chair. Office clerk Charles Laughton takes his money and tells off his boss. And in GRANDMA, kindly old May Robson uses the money to spruce up the old ladies home, Idyllwood. But the highlight is the W.C. Fields sequence, in which he, fed up with road hogs, buys a whole lot of used cars to use as an army against the oncoming traffic. All in all, IF I HAD A MILLION remains a true classic.
Eight directors wow! I think this movie may still hold some kind of record
for most directors on one production. But then again! This is actually eight
small productions rolled into one. Robert Altman's Shortcuts tried the same
kind of thing minus the eight directors. My favorite parts are the Wynne
Gibson/prostitute sequence- a gem, Charlie Ruggles & Mary Boland/henpecked
husband "Gimme Your Check Dear", WC Field & Allison Skipworth/Roadhog!
Roadhog!, and of course dear ole May "I Can Bake Biscuits" Robson in the
last sequence,... Fernwood home for elderly ladies. You gotta give Paramount
credit for trying something different with eight different well-known
directors set loose to run amuck. The moral of this movie or 'movies' is the
underlying theme of money. What would you do if someone just came into your
life one day and gave you a million dollars as Richard Bennett does in each
of the eight stories? This movie was released near the start of the
Depression so it must have plucked then audiences' nerves. A million dollars
was a dream for many in 1932. And probably a dream for Paramount hoping this
would be box office gold. I wish this movie was made a staple of the
Thanksgiving-into-Christmas season period just like that classic 'It's A
Wonderful Life'. This is a great comedy to be viewed over and over again.
And even though it's a comedy it has a good ethical theme. It just gets
better with each viewing. Just pray for a vhs or dvd release.
(** Years ago this movie 'HAD' been released on home Laserdisc in the late 1980s-early 1990s)
This film was one of those episodic films that occasionally were turned
out by studios (Paramount in particular) where each story was only
tangentially connected to a running theme. Other examples are O.
HENRY'S FULL HOUSE (five of O. Henry's short stories) and WE'RE NOT
MARRIED (five stories of couples erroneously married by Victor Moore,
before his justice of the peace powers legally began). TALES OF
MANHATTAN was another sample of this type of film, using the same man's
evening suit as the connecting link between the stories. American films
are not the only ones that use this. Somerset Maugham's stories were
anthologized in three films: QUARTET, TRIO, and ENCORE in Great
Britain, and the classic deja vu horror tale, DEAD OF NIGHT is also
Here the running thread is John Giddens, a wealthy man who is in bad health. Played by stage actor Richard Bennett, Giddens is angry at all the over-attention being given to him by his family and physicians. The latter don't seem to be making him better (but are collecting large fees from him), and the former are actually wondering how soon before he dies so they can read his will. He tells his lawyer that he's tired of all these leeches around him. He decides to give the money away, a million dollars at a time, to total strangers he picks out of the phone book.
IF I HAD A MILLION was, actually, the prototype of a popular television series of the 1950s called THE MILLIONAIRE. The idea of THE MILLIONAIRE is basically what is the plot of IF I HAD A MILLION: if somebody plopped a fortune into your hands, what would you do with it? The eight people vary in background and situations. Charlie Ruggles works in a store that sells china. He is very nervous, and his bullying boss and his henpecking wife (Mary Boland, of course), don't help matters. When he gets the check, he demonstrates what he thinks of fancy china and glass to his boss. Similarly downtrodden corporate clerk Charles Laughton is barely noticed by his bosses at his desk job. When he gets the check, and realizes what it means, he goes to the head of the company, and in one moment shows what he feels about being a downtrodden underling. Wynn Gibson uses the money to finally get the good night sleep her normal job has always denied her. W.C. Fields and Allison Skipworth hate road hogs, as their recently purchased new car was destroyed by one. They decide to buy nearly thirty cars to destroy as many of the road pests as possible.
George Raft is a professional forger, who thinks this check is the answer to his problems about avoiding arrest. The problem for him is, will anyone cash his perfectly good check. Similarly Gene Raymond is happy to have the money - you see he is on death row, and with the check he can now mount the appeal he needs for a new trial (or can he?).
Gary Cooper is a slick soldier who knows all the angles. He and his two buddies figure the check is a phony joke, and they pass it off on a cook they owe money to for hamburgers they charged. Later their laughs disappear when they realize they gave the cook too much of a tip. And best is last: May Robson as an independent old lady who will not put up with the tyranny in an old age home. She not only uses the money to restore the spirit to her fellow old age victims, but she even manages to restore spirit (in the end) to her new friend, Richard Bennett.
The film was not all comic - the sequences with Raft and Raymond are actually tragic, and Gibson's success is after a lifetime of unhealthy activity (one hopes her health is good). But it was such a wide variety of stories and reactions to sudden wealth that the film remains a wonderful film experience.
Thank heavens for fans of W.C. Fields, because it is they who have kept this diamond in the public forum after all these years. The film certainly does not belong to Fields, as his Road Hog routine is just one of eight stories of varying lengths. But fortunately, his fans discovered this film so the rest of us can truly enjoy everything else it has to offer, as well. A collection of writers presented eight stories of people who get an unexpected windfall from a steel tycoon. Some are funny, some are touching, some are brilliant in their brevity, some just make you think. Just desserts is the main theme. The Eddie Jackson (George Raft) segment is twistedly ironic enough to be a "Twilight Zone" episode. And EVERYBODY wants to be Phineas Lambert (Charles Laughton). Great writing, great cast - a good time.
Superb, episodic film showing what various people would do if they got a million dollars. The cast includes all of Paramount's biggest stars at the time and all the segments are by different directors. All the episodes are excellent--some are tragic, some are hilarious (the Fields one especially). All the acting is great (Raft especially) and there's never a dull moment. All of the episodes are short and don't wear out their welcome (the film is under 90 minutes). Basically, one of the best all-star films of the 30s--right up there with "Grand Hotel" or "The Women". If you get a chance, see it! It's well worth it.
What a terrific 1932 film! Paramount's expensive depression comedy drama is one of the very best films made in the '30s and both a poignant and hilarious look at life in 1932 America. If you saw 42ND STREET and American MADNESS and perhaps THE KID FROM SPAIN all made the same year, you would have possibly the definitive early 30s films that allow as full a view of emotions and community as could be found. The cast is astonishing.. all the Paramount A- level stars, 8 of the best directors and 8 truly inspired vignettes present a balanced view of ordinary people 'winning a million dollars'... and their next move. My personal favorite was the prostitute who just wanted a good night's sleep, unmolested, and in a clean bed. The production values are huge, massive sets and elaborate scenes, especially the short one with Charles Laughton... the attention to detail and the fully realized settings are indicative of a very expensive film. All 8 scenes are terrific, not a slouch among them, and the final sequence in the old ladies home is particularly touching. George Raft's con man sequence and Gene Raymond's electric chair scenes are real eyeopeners given the irony involved. IF I HAD A MILLION is a film to find and celebrate. How amazing to have seen this in a 3000 seat cinema in 1932! imagine the cheering from the audience in the comedy scenes! What a crowd pleaser. In Australia this film ran prime time Saturday night 8.30pm on Nationwide free to air TV, such is its treasured reputation. It scored a ratings hit. True! check The TV guides here for ABC2 Saturday night Nov 1st 2009 if you do not believe me.
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