Review: If I Had A Million (1932)

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IIHAM One of the best ways to appreciate the features of modern cinema (good and bad) is to look back into past eras of film through the use of contrast and comparision to provide context.

That was one of the benefits of watching the 1932 American comedy “If I Had A Million” which has numerous qualities apart from that which made it worth watching. There’s a wide array of talent behind and in front of the camera, with stars ranging from W.C. Fields to Charles Laughton to Gary Cooper appearing, as well as the likes of Ernst Lubitsch and Joseph L. Mankiewicz writing and/or directing. As an aside, considering they were working for the studio that made this picture (Paramount) it is surprising the Marx Brothers don’t make an appearance in this.

The film concerns a cantankerous, dying, elderly millionaire who – distrustful of his associates and family – decides to bequeath his wealth by randomly picking out names from the telephone book and giving them each a million dollars.

What follows is eight separate stories of what happens to people when they receive this monetary gift. Perhaps because there are a gaggle of different writers and directors for the various segments, there is no consistent tone in the various stories as they range from comic, sentimental, ironic to tragedy. While this varied style may seem jarring, it works in the film’s favour as it helps give a more flavoured and textured feel whereas a sole writer or director would’ve probably been somewhat repetitious.

One of the interesting aspects of watching IIHAM is its use of music (or non-use). Apart from the opening credits there is virtually no background music at all. This makes a refreshing change from much modern cinema which uses background music by default as a form of noise activity due to a lack of faith in the activity on screen. In IIHAM there is no such safety net and all the better for it.

IIHAM is also noteworthy in that it was made before the introduction in Hollywood of the notorious Production Code, so it has sections that are quite startling in how explicit they are in comparison to what one expects from ‘Classic Hollywood’. Particularly so in the segment where the winner of the million dollars is obviously a prostitute (played by Wynne Gibson) who celebrates her winnings… by sleeping alone.

Also of note is a comic segment with a women and her partner (played by W.C. Fields) using their new wealth by buying up a fleet of cars to attack ‘road hogs’. Not only is it amusing and slightly surreal to watch, but the car stunt work is surprisingly impressive for its day.

Probably the most famous segment is the shortest where Charles Laughton is an office worker who reacts to his million dollar gift in a succinct but blunt manner. Directed by the famed Ernst Lubitsch, it’s a small gem of using cinematic technique to build up a gag for the maximum payoff.

But some episodes have no comedy at all and are indeed quite harrowing. Particularly the story of a man on death row (Gene Raymond) who gets a million dollars and delusionally thinks this will guarantee him the legal representation he needs to escape the electric chair. What makes it haunting is the intensity of Raymond’s performance, which is at the level desperate hysteria throughout.

Overall, IIHAM is prevented from being a film of the highest class by its very structure – the episodic nature means it doesn’t come together as a classic whole. But overall it’s a fine film that holds up very well and is a great guide to the style of 1930s Hollywood cinema.

Rating: B+

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