If I Had a Million

by Charlie Largent May 13, 2023

If I Had a Million
KL Studio Classics
1932 / B&W / 1.33: 1
Starring Wynne Gibson, W.C. Fields, Charles Laughton
Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Oliver Garrett
Directed by Norman Taurog, Norman Z. McLeod, Ernst Lubitsch

John Doe hits the jackpot in Paramount’s If I Had a Million, an indispensable piece of Americana produced in the midst of the Great Depression. The film represents some of the era’s finest directors and actors in a series of short films both comic and tragic—times being what they were, the comedy and tragedy are occasionally indistinguishable.

In 1932 Norman Taurog was one of the studio’s most notable directors (he’d won the Oscar the previous year for Skippy), and it’s left to him to introduce the film’s protagonist, an unhappy tycoon named John Glidden—he’s supposedly at death’s door but seems too full of piss and vinegar to shuffle off anytime soon (Glidden is played by Richard Bennett, the patriarch of The Magnificent Ambersons). Glidden’s greedy relatives and so-called-friends are on a 24/7 death watch, and those vultures may be even more unhappy than the old sourpuss—he refuses to include them in his will and instead plays Santa to a random selection of strangers he finds in the phone book. The lucky few will receive a million dollars and pick up a few life lessons along the way.

Some of those folks are just weary of life’s slings and arrows—like Henry Peabody, saddled with a nagging wife and a job that tests his congenital clumsiness: he works in an antique shop and the slippery-fingered Peabody manages to wreck the merchandise on a regular basis—which reduces his paycheck faster than he can cash it. Glidden’s gift changes all that. The happy ending to Henry’s sad tale takes the form of revenge—as so many of these stories do—and Norman Z. McLeod, the director of The Marxes’ Horse Feathers and W. C. Fields’ It’s a Gift, knows exactly which buttons to push. Henry is played by Charlie Ruggles and the part—written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz—seems tailor-made to the actor’s milquetoast persona (most boomers became acquainted with Ruggles’ dulcet tones on The Bullwinkle Show in the late ’50s).

Though she favored the musical theater, actress Wynne Gibson found a steady career in melodrama, often as the unlucky woman on a downward spiral—a persona made to order for Violet, the short and sweet tale of a prostitute transformed by Glidden’s generosity. To celebrate her newfound wealth she takes a suite in the city’s most expensive hotel and treats herself to a night in bed—alone (solitude never seemed so blissful).

The story is quite touching but it managed to fog the glasses of more than one prude. The episode was trimmed directly after its premiere but other elements continued to scandalize the Hays Office, in particular the moment when Violet remembers to take off her stockings before closing her eyes—something she never did with her clients. It’s the cherry on top of Violet’s story but censors rarely respond to irony, only skin. Director Stephen Roberts has a clear-eyed, economical style but it’s Gibson’s steely yet delicate performance that makes Violet such an unexpected heart-tugger.

The Forger was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone and gave the usually stoic George Raft a chance to cut loose loose as an itinerant fraudster named Eddie Jackson. When he’s handed Glifford’s check, Jackson discovers he’s unable to cash it because of his own shady past. The segment is bleak as can be—the grim irony is like an overheated Twilight Zone episode—but it reaches nightmare territory thanks to Raft’s histrionics and his quick descent into purgatory. Written by Oliver Garrett, the dark tale casts a pall over If I Had a Million and that cloud extends to even the slapstick segments, in particular McLeod’s Road Hogs starring W.C. Fields and Alison Skipworth.

Fields and Skipworth play ex-vaudevillians who use their million to take some fender-bending revenge on a parade of L.A.’s more selfish drivers. It’s a surprisingly nihilistic episode: there’s little joy in the duo’s vehicular mayhem, just destruction. Still, it’s a picnic compared to Death Cell in which a man on death row is convinced Glidden’s check is his ticket to ride.

As the doomed convict taking that last walk, an overwrought Gene Raymond swings for the fences but hits the audience instead (a few years later Cagney would show him how it’s done in Angels with Dirty Faces). Directed by James Cruze, Death Cell is as much fun as its title implies and it makes the next segment, The Clerk, only more welcome. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Charles Laughton, it’s a deft pantomime about another put-upon worker and his elegant kiss-off to an ungrateful employer—and at two minutes and thirty seconds, it’s even shorter than Gibson’s five minute segment.

The final two entries are longer vignettes and tend to overstay their welcome—though both have their charms. Written by Harvey Gates, The Three Marines was directed by William A. Seiter and stars Gary Cooper, Jack Oakie, and Roscoe Karns. Their disbelieving reaction to Glidden’s million dollar gift leads to an unfortunate turn of events for them and a nice surprise for the object of Cooper’s affections.

In Whitney Bolton’s Grandma, May Robson takes aim at our heartstrings as Mary Walker, the resident of a rest home run by a matron with an iron hand. Resigned to an existence that feels more like a life sentence, Mary uses Glidden’s help to turn the tables on the heartless matron while gaining a wealthy new beau in the process.

With eight directors, this was one of the most democratic of Paramount’s pre-code releases yet some of its diverse crew went uncredited, the five cinematographers who helped give the film its enduring appeal; Harry Fischbeck (The Big Broadcast of 1938), Charles Schoenbaum (Little Women), Gilbert Warrenton (South Pacific), and Alvin Wyckoff (The Storm).

KL Studio Classics has done those unheralded craftsmen proud with their fine new Blu ray release. Along with an excellent transfer the disc features a commentary from filmmaker Allan Arkush and film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer. Their observations are both entertaining and insightful, the feature length equivalent of their Trailers From Hell! commentaries.

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