Monday, June 22, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'If I Had a Million'

Notes from another gathering of the local cinephile society….

Want to know whether you’re my age or older? Here’s a quick quiz:

Suppose I told you that a Mr. Michael Anthony was now on your doorstep. How would you react?

If your response was “Who? Get rid of him,” you are probably under 50.

If your response was to hide behind the biggest piece of furniture in your house and cuddle up with an Uzi, you probably are not going to get to be 50.

But if your response was to grin from ear to ear and say, “Great! Let him in,” chances are you’ll have a special interest in the movie I’m about to discuss.

Because back in the 1950s, long before Lotto, Michael Anthony was an assistant to a mysterious man named John Beresford Tipton, who each week would give Mr. Anthony a check for $1 million to be given to someone Mr. Tipton had personally chosen, on a TV series called (Surprise! Surprise!) “The Millionaire.”

Before you start Googling for Mr. Tipton’s address (the old guy would probably be dead now anyway), I should tell you that he and Mr. Anthony were fictional, and each episode would tell the story of the New Millionaire of The Week and how the huge bonanza affected his or her life. (Some of the episodes were directed by a then-unknown Robert Altman.)

Clever idea, huh? (Although one might wonder why Mr. Anthony, given all these chances – more than 200 episodes – never merely forged a recipient’s name, then took off for Tahiti.)

Anyway, this idea didn’t start there. It had its roots in “If I Had a Million,” made by Paramount in 1932, when it must have been a particularly appealing fantasy, especially for people who counted themselves lucky if the could find someone who could spare a dime.

Mr. Tipton doesn’t appear here. Instead we have John Glidden, a dying tycoon played with paradoxical but delightful gusto by Richard Bennett. Angered by relatives and other hangers-on who are awaiting his demise, he decides to give his money to strangers whose names he picks out at random from a city directory.

This leads to a series of episodes filmed by various directors and featuring various Paramount contract players, among them:

George Raft, who plays a forger who finds that because of his reputation he can’t cash Glidden’s check.

Gary Cooper, as one of three Marines who don’t think Glidden’s check is on the level.

Gene Raymond, as a man on death row, in a segment directed by James Cruze, who apparently neglected to tell Mr. Raymond that when it comes to playing a condemned man, less is particularly more.

Charles Laughton, as a meek employee, in a segment directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Charles Ruggles as a china shop employee who keeps bumping into things.

Perhaps the movie is most famous for two segments, both of which screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz had a hand in, years before his directing days:

A prostitute (Wynne Gibson) uses the money to get a room in a well-appointed hotel and go to bed by herself.

Rollo and Emily LaRue (W.C. Fields and Alison Skipworth) use their windfall to buy a long-dreamed-for car – which is then struck by a careless driver. They then buy a whole fleet of cars and use these vehicles to run other “road hogs” off the street.

This segment marks the first time Fields used the phrase “My Little Chickadee,” which Mankiewicz wrote into the script. I read somewhere that Fields paid him for any future use of the phrase.

I first saw this movie almost 40 years ago and hadn’t seen it much since; it doesn’t seem to be readily available on DVD.

I was looking forward to seeing it again – especially with an appreciative audience – and it didn’t disappoint.


Brian Cubbison said...

It's remarkable how these tycoons randomly found people with fate-filled lives, instead of someone who simply pays off a mortgage and puts the rest into a peaceful retirement.

Now the gossip columns are claiming that Lindsay Lohan and Ryan Seacrest are developing a reality show based on the same idea.

VP81955 said...

I can recall seeing "If I Had A Million" on channel 9 (then WNYS) in 1964... which included the Wynne Gibson segment, normally withheld from TV release at the time. Needless to say, it made a great impression on a boy age nine, so much so that my mother hurriedly changed the channel. I wrote about this, and other things about the movie, some years back at

Another item of note: Richard Bennett was a famed stage actor in the early 20th century, but today he's probably best known as the father of Constance and Joan Bennett. (Connie, of course, was a big star in the early 1930s and later portrayed sexy ghost Marion Kerby in "Topper" and "Topper Takes A Trip," while Joan didn't come into her own until turning brunette and going into film noir.) There was a middle daughter, Barbara, who didn't have much success in movies, but married '20s-'30s tenor Morton Downey; you probably remember their late, rather rambunctious son, Morton Downey Jr.

Mark Murphy said...

I too first saw this movie on Channel 9. It may have been that Friday night show that Ray Boyce used to host. Remember him?

I also particularly remember Richard Bennett from "The Magnificent Ambersons."

I knew about Morton Downey Jr.'s link to the Bennett's. In the '60s, I think, he was a DJ in Syracuse under the name Doc Downey, though I don't remember him in this role.

Downey returned to Syracuse years later at the height of his fame to bring his talk show act to the Landmark Theatre, but it wasn't recorded for broadcast.

I had the privilege of seeing Sylvia Sidney -- and John Carradine! -- in a summer stock production of "Arsenic and Old Lace" here in town.