Movie Review: Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931)
Does anything make less sense than a Cole Porter musical without the Cole Porter music? Maybe a Pearl Jam concert without Eddie Vedder? It’s like you’ve got LeBron on your team and you leave him on the bench. Because “box office receipts for LeBron are down at this time.”
My roundabout rationale for checking this out:
- A few months back, I was watching the Cagney flick, “The Crowd Roars,” in which Cagney players a race-car driver, and at one point Joan Blondell says sardonically, “Well, 50 million race-car drivers can’t be wrong.”
- My ears perked up. I’d long known that Elvis Presley had a greatest hits album called, “50 Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong,” which I’d always thought a weird, catchy title. So much so that I’d played off it before. Example: “5,000 Elvis Cards Can’t Be Wrong,” about a Memphis attorney who sends cards to his clients on Elvis’ birthday rather than Christmas. But I had no idea the Elvis album title was playing off of something else. But what? What was Blondell referencing?
- Turns out, the 1927 hit Sophie Tucker record, “50 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.”
- Hey, Cole Porter turned that into a musical in 1929!
- Hey, Warners turned that into a movie in 1931!
- Hey, Scarecrow Video has it!
And here we are.
So was it worth the journey? Eh.
The song is mostly about sex (“They shorten them here, They shorten them there/ And if her name is Teddy they make Teddy bare”) but the movie is mostly about love. So Hollywood. Apparently even pre-code.
Jack Forbes (William Gaxton) is a rich American playboy who arrives in Paris on a luxury liner with a French girl on his arm (Carmelia Teraghty of Rushville, Indiana), but spots an American girl, LuLu Carroll (Claudia Dell, Octavia in the ’34 “Cleopatra”), and falls hard and fast. He searches all over Paris and finally finds her dining with relatives at the Hotel Ritz. It’s his friend Michael Cummins (John Halliday) who IDs her. Trouble? Cummins likes her, too, so he suckers Forbes into a bet. Part of their dialogue here almost feels like song lyrics:
Cummins: May the best man win? What’s that got to do with it—with all his jack.
Forbes: That sounds like a dirty crack
Cummins: That may be. But everyone woman you’ve ever got, you’ve got with your money.
Cummins winds up betting Forbes $50k that in two weeks, with no money he didn’t earn during that time, he can’t get the girl. Then Cummins badmouths Forbes to her. Says he’s crazy. And he is—for her—while she’s surprisingly open. I mean that negatively. She’s just kind of a big blank.
So was such a bet a common conceit in 1930s movies? Or high society? I was reminded of “Trading Places.”
I did like the moment when Forbes realizes how much of his day-to-day he’s lost by losing money. He calls the bellboy over to page Lulu and is going to tip him, then pats his pockets. Right, no dough. He still makes the request, but the bellboy, knowing the score, stands there, waiting. Forbes pats his pockets again and gives him ... is it a pen? Anyway, not a bad bit. Later, when he hops aboard Lulu’s cab and sweet talks her all the way back to her hotel, but is left holding the cab fare, he hands over his coat in exchange. Good thing he gets a job or he might’ve been naked before long.
The job he gets? Tour guide. Leads to a long scene in which various characters (in both senses of the word) try to engage him. There’s a slim woman “who wants to be insulted” in Paris. She’s played by Helen Broderick, who like Gaxton, was in the Broadway musical. There’s a Jewish couple and their bratty kid.
Wife: Mister, will you kindly tell us where is the house of Victor Hugo?
Forbes: Victor Hugo? The guy who wrote the movie ‘The Man Who Laughs’?
Forbes: Never heard of him.
It’s like the absurdist comedy of the Marx Brothers without the Marx Brothers. Or the comedy.
All the while, Forbes is being tailed by two inept detectives, Simon Johanssen and Peter Swanson, played by the vaudeville comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. They’re supposed to make sure Forbes doesn’t get the girl. But of course they wind up sympathizing with his plight.
Olsen and Johnson are actually the stars of the film—the leads—but for the most part I didn’t find them funny. L’opposite. Olsen is the stern, severe one while Johnson has an insane, sloppy giggle that wears fast. He laughs at an effete bar patron and a fat one. He laughs more during the movie than we do.
I do like a scene where they become unwilling assistants to a magician (Bela Lugosi, I believe), and a nice slow-mo chase by the cops over a recently tarred street. And of course how could I not love this self-intro to the high-society types: “And my name is Peter Swanson. Of the Minnesota Swansons.”
In the end, of course, Forbes gets the girl and wins the bet, Cummins is foiled, and Olsen and Johnson wind up at a place called “Café of All Nations” with a bevy of beauties. Initially it’s just Johnson (we hear his giggle inside) while Olsen stands on the sidewalk with their ticket home: From HAVRE to NEW YORK. But he tears this up with a shrug and says the movie’s closing line. “Well, fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” So we get the line if not the song.
Apparently director Lloyd Bacon filmed the entire musical, which was released in Europe, just not the U.S., where audiences had supposedly soured on musicals. Only the music-less American version remains. Evalyn Knapp gets a credit, and a photo, on IMDb, but I don’t remember seeing her, so maybe she wound up on the cutting room floor? Meanwhile, an actress playing a hotel-room hottie named Suzette gets no credit at all. Anyone know who she is?