erik lundegaard


Monday February 06, 2023

Movie Review: The Millionaire (1931)


This one surprised me. I’d heard about it, tried for years to see it, read what its star, George Arliss, said about Cagney in it. I had background on the matter.

What startled me was Arliss. He was an acclaimed British theatrical actor who made some early talkies, mostly bios, won an Academy Award for best actor in 1930 (“Disraeli”), then, what, poof, stopped making movies in 1937 and died in ’46. And the movies he made didn’t exactly age well. Biopics rarely do. Plus he's got a long, prim face. Shame he never played Woodrow Wilson. 

Given all that, I was expecting theatrical. I was expecting hammy and not modern.

But he’s great.

Hardly what you’d call a gentleman
He plays James Alden, the titular millionaire, a world-famed automaker and benevolent boss who wants to do right by both customers and employees. Think Henry Ford, but nicer, and without the anti-Semitism.

He’s got two problems as the movie opens. Two of his honchos, Mac and Ed (Sam Hardy and Charley Grapewin), think they can improve upon the engine for his automobiles. And by “improve” they mean “make it cheaper.” He refuses. They offer their resignations. He refuses those, too.

The second problem is tougher to dismiss: He’s begun feeling lightheaded. At his house/mansion, his doctor shows up to tell him he has to retire or he’ll be dead in six months. “Your business can get along without you,” the doc says. “But can your wife get along without you?” That’s when realization crosses his face, and after a moment he apologizes to his wife (Arliss’ wife Florence) and daughter, Babs (Evalyn Knapp), for not thinking of them sooner. And after a final day of work, including goodbyes all around and a few moments of quiet remembrance, he puts the keys on the desk and walks out.

And into what life? We see a train heading west, and then a kind of pool party, but I guess it’s a sanitorium? Or spa? It’s several months later, he’s in suit and tie with a blanket over his lap, and nothing is going right. Babs is dating a rich wastrel (Bramwell Fletcher), Alden is not allowed buttered toast (I thought the doc said he was too thin?), and he’s not allowed to smoke his favorite pipe. He’s bored to death and everyone around him is excessively cheery. They’re slowly killing him with kindness. 

So what shakes him loose? A burst of energy. From Arliss’ autobiography:

There was a small but important part in The Millionaire, the part of an insurance agent. The scene was entirely with me and was the turning point in the story. I knew it depended largely on the actor of this small part whether my change of mental attitudes would appear convincing. I saw several promising young men without being much impressed one way or another, but there was one more waiting to be seen. He was a lithe, smallish man. I knew at once he was right. As I talked to him I was sure he could give me everything I wanted. He wasn't acting to me now. He wasn’t trying to impress me. He was just being natural, and I thought, a trifle independent for a bit actor. There was a suggestion of here-I-am-take-me-or-leave-me, and hurry up. As I came to my decision, I remember saying, “Let him come just as he is. Those clothes and no makeup stuff. Just as he is.” The man was James Cagney.

I like that when the butler is telling Alden there’s someone to see him, it’s like pulling teeth to get specifics:

Alden: Male or female?
Butler: Not a female, sir.
Alden: Ah, I bet one hundred to one it’s a male. A man, probably.
Butler: Not hardly what you’d call a gentleman.

And that’s our boy. Cagney/Schofield just sits down and starts talking a mile a minute, trying to sell Alden a life insurance policy. Then he finds out he’s retired and, per company policy, can’t sell him life. Maybe auto? Accident? Alden questions him on this until Schofield owns up: “Well, Mr. Alden, if you must know, we don’t care to touch them when they’re retired.”

Alden: You’re a cheerful visitor. Can’t a man retire and live?
Schofield: Well, I guess he can but he don’t. Thinks too much about himself. Mustn’t do this and mustn’t do that. Mustn’t eat this, that and the other.

The two wind up bonding over pipe smoking. Apparently Cagney was a pipe smoker but it’s odd to see on film, where he usually plays cigarette guys. But they bond, and Schofield tells Alden what he’d do if he were in his shoes. He’d look through the want ads, buy a place, run it, keep the blood pumping. 

I love how Alden starts calling him “Mr. Bones.” “Well, Mr. Bones, if you were a man like me, what would you do, Mr. Bones?” Is that vaudeville? Radio? It’s a take on something. Oh wait, it’s minstrel shows, isn’t it? There’s always a Mr. Bones in those. And yes, a quick dive into it, and there’s a Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, and I guess Arliss is putting himself into the role of the interlocutor, the “dignified, if pompous, straight man,” per Wikipedia. One wonders if it was an ad-lib. Either way, it’s fun. You can tell Alden is having fun. (Arliss, too.) And after Cagney leaves, having just zipped through everything in three minutes of screentime, Alden, rejuvenated, goes through the want ads and then lights his pipe. He’s ready for the next chapter.

Under an assumed name, he buys a half-interest in a gas station from Wallace Beery’s brother, Noah, playing a guy named Peterson. And if that sounds like a recipe for trouble, it is. Alden haggles him down but the next day discovers, with his new partner, Bill Merrick (David Manners), the reason Peterson was selling short: a new highway opened up, Palm Avenue, and “They ain’t gonna use this street no more.” Peterson even has a new gas station on the new highway. They’ve been rooked.

Alden doesn’t wring his hands. He plots. He gets a gleam in his eye. First, he knows there’s no hope diverting traffic back to their place so he immediately gives up on it—tears it down and sells the land. Then he decides to stick it to Peterson by buying the property across the street from him, remodeling it, and reopening as the Mission Garage—offering gas at cheaper prices. Peterson, aghast at the sudden competition, lowers his price further, so Alden trumpets the quality of their gas and implies cheaper gas hurts your car. The ruse works. 

There’s an alter-ego/superhero vibe throughout. Everyone thinks he’s just an old dude running a gas station, but he’s really Henry Ford running a gas station.

And then in quick order:

  • His daughter falls for his business partner
  • Peterson admits defeat and buys them out at a substantial profit for themselves
  • Ed and Mac from his original company show up forlorn, admit they’ve bungled everything, and plead with him to return
  • His health is never mentioned again
  • The End

Talent scout
Not great but not bad. There’s a subtlety to everything Arliss does. You can see him thinking.

Oh, and I was wrong about Arliss appearing in early talkies—or at least incomplete. He made six silent films as well, between 1921 and 1924. Here’s an indication of how much the advent of sound changed the industry: Almost every silent movie he made was remade as a talkie less than 10 years later:

The Devil (1921) n/a
Disraeli (1921) Disraeli (1929)
The Ruling Passion (1922) The Millionaire (1931)
The Man Who Played God (1922) The Man Who Played God (1932)
The Green Goddess (1923) The Green Goddess (1930)
Twenty Dollars a Week (1924) The Working Man (1933)

“The Millionaire” is based upon a short story, “Idle Hands” by Earl Derr Biggers, a Broadway playwright, who actually went through what Alden went through. A doctor advised him to get away and relax or he’d soon be dead. He wound up in Hawaii, where he heard about a great Honolulu detective named Chang Apana. From that, he fashioned a character, who first appeared in Biggers’ 1924 novel “The House Without a Key.” His name was Charlie Chan.

(The doc was right in Biggers’ case: He died of a heart attack in 1933, age 49.) 

I like Knapp here. She’s cute and not dull. Got a flapper vibe. It’s fascinating how all the same actors keeping meeting in these early films. Knapp played Cagney’s sister in “Sinners’ Holiday,” then Edward Woods’ sister in “Mother’s Cry,” a role that got Woods the lead in “The Public Enemy”—but of course that role ultimately went to Cagney. She also played the femme fatale who comes between Cagney and Edward G. Robinson in his next movie, “Smart Money,” and had a cameo as the actress on the movie screen when Cagney and Loretta Young go to the theater in “Taxi!” A year later, she was tapped for the reboot of “Perils of Pauline” but I guess it didn’t do well because she was soon third- or fourth-billed in cowboy pictures. (She played Lou Gehrig’s wife in his 1938 cowboy picture “Rawhide.”) Her last role was as a secretary in the low-budget “Two Weeks to Live” in 1943. She went uncredited. She died in 1981.

Arliss was good at spotting talent—it wasn't just Cagney. A few years later, when he was remaking “The Man Who Played God,” he was having trouble casting the lead female role. A colleague, Murray Kinnell (Putty Nose in “Public Enemy”), suggested an actress he’d just worked with, but who was dispirited and ready to give up Hollywood. Arliss asked to meet her. They spoke, he looked her up and down—but not in a bad way. “Universal asked to see my legs,” she later wrote. “Mr. Arliss was examining my soul.” I guess he liked what he saw because she got the part and stayed in Hollywood. The woman was Bette Davis.

Posted at 08:19 AM on Monday February 06, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s