Laugh Riot: I’LL GIVE A MILLION (1938)

mill0Tonight TCM is devoting its 31 Days of Oscar programming to the year 1938. Films on the schedule include Best Picture nominees THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938), FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938) and BOY’S TOWN (1938). Today also happens to be actor John Carradine’s birthday.

Carradine doesn’t appear in any of the films airing on TCM tonight but he did make nine movies in 1938 including I’LL GIVE A MILLION, which I recently watched for the first time. I’LL GIVE A MILLION might not be Oscar material or worthy of the tagline “The Laugh Riot of the Century!” that accompanied trade ads for the film but it does feature two Oscar winning actors (Warner Baxter and Jean Hersholt) and includes two amusing comical performances from Peter Lorre and birthday boy John Carradine. So in keeping with TCM’s 1938 theme and in honor of the late great John Carradine I thought I’d shine a little light on this depression-era comedy directed by Walter Lang.

I’LL GIVE A MILLION is a fairly faithful remake of an award-winning Italian film called DARÒ UN MILIONE (1936) that was directed and written by Mario Camerini along with Cesare Zavattini. The Italian version starred future director Vittorio De Sica who was a popular actor at the time but his meeting with screen writer Cesare Zavattini on the set of DARÒ UN MILIONE would change the trajectory of his career. Both men hit it off immeditely and formed a creative partnership that would become a critical component of Italy’s Neorealist film movement. After DARÒ UN MILIONE was completed, De Sica began directing and along with screenwriter Zavattini, the two men created some of Italy’s most vital films during the 1940s and well into the 1960s including THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US (1944), SHOESHINE (1946), BICYCLE THIEVES (aka THE BICYCLE THIEF; 1948), MIRACLE IN MILAN (1951), UMBERTO D. (1952) and TWO WOMEN (1961). Their films typically addressed the difficult lives of the poor and working class in post-war Italy and DARÒ UN MILIONE, along with Walter Lang’s 1938 remake, share some of the same concerns.

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The plot of I’LL GIVE A MILLION involves a rich man named Tony Newlander (Warner Baxter) who has grown weary of life and suspects that everyone is after his money. While hosting a party on his elegant yacht along the French Rivera, Tony spots a suicidal hobo (Peter Lorre) who is trying to drown himself and his sorrows. Without much forethought, Tony jumps in the water to save the man and pulls him ashore. The two strangers spend the night together on the beach swapping stories and Tony unwittingly admits that “If I could find one person who would lift a finger for me without expecting to get paid for it I’d give a million francs.” In the morning the hobo aka Louie ‘The Dope’ Monteau awakes to find that Tony has stolen his shabby wardrobe and left behind his tuxedo along with a large amount of money stashed inside one of the pant pockets. Things get complicated when Louie tells a journalist that there’s a wealthy man living incognito among the town’s homeless who will give the first kind person he encounters a million francs. Afterward the town’s residents begin treating the homeless population (which includes Lorre as well as John Carradine) like kings in an effort to get their hands on the money but everyone ends up getting more than they bargained for. Some hobos are unremitting criminals who steal from their benefactors while others find romance amid the wealthy and lonely middleclass women. As for Tony, the disguised tycoon eventually meets a pretty circus performer named Jean (Marjorie Weaver) and her hard-drinking, cigarette smoking, jujutsu practicing chimpanzee with the clever name of Darwin. Love blossoms between Tony and Jean with the encouragement of a kindly clown (Jean Hersholt).

20th Century Fox produced the film and the studio originally wanted Vittorio De Sica for the starring role but they eventually settled on Warner Baxter and asked Walter Lang to direct. Today Walter Lang is probably best remembered by classic film fans as the director of many popular musicals produced by 20th Century Fox including three Shirley Temple vehicles as well as STATE FAIR (1945), WITH A SONG IN MY HEART (1952), CALL ME MADAM (1953), THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (1954) and THE KING AND I (1956). But Lang (distant nephew of Fritz Lang) was also adept at making straightforward comedies such as LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST (1936) and CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN (1950). I’LL GIVE A MILLION falls into the later category and although it might not be as lauded as the previously mentioned films I had a lot of fun watching this enjoyable romp through a fictional French town that benefits from a solid cast and some memorable gags.

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Warner Baxter is surprisingly sympathetic as the wealthy tycoon looking for love and I was particularly impressed with Peter Lorre’s comical performance as the simple-minded Louie ‘The Dope’ Monteau. At the time Lorre was in the middle of his successful run of MR. MOTO movies and working on this film provided him with the rare opportunity to appear in a comedy. He’s obviously having a blast here and attempts to steal just about every scene he’s in. Coincidentally, many of the actors in I’LL GIVE A MILLION appeared in the Mr. Moto movies with Lorre including costars John Carradine, Jean Hersholt and J. Edward Bromberg who plays the editor of the local newspaper.

This lighthearted comedy of errors should appeal to fans of similar depression-era comedies such as HAPPINESS AHEAD (1934), THE GAY DECEPTION (1935) MY MAN GODFREY (1936), IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), MERRILY WE LIVE (1938) WISE GIRL (1937) and SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941) that thoughtfully used humor to illustrate the disparity between the wealthy and the less fortune at the time. It’s also just a real treat for fans of Lorre and Carradine who should enjoy watching these two young and charismatic performers playing a couple of hapless hobos who get into trouble with the law. They make a very funny and endlessly entertaining duo as they bumble their way through a series of silly situations. I only wish they’d had the opportunity to appear in more comedies together but at least we can enjoy them in this forgotten farce.

3 Responses Laugh Riot: I’LL GIVE A MILLION (1938)
Posted By Susan Doll : February 7, 2015 3:00 am

I am a Warner Baxter fan. I am so sorry that I missed this one, but my week flew by in a blur. Before I knew it, it was Friday. I will have to dig in to my collection of DVDs from my old friend to see if this one is there.

Posted By swac44 : February 13, 2015 3:53 pm

Lorre always seemed to relish the chance to play something other than his typical villain roles or a stock character like Mr. Moto (although he’s still great in that part). I haven’t had a chance to see I’ll Give a Million, hopefully it shows up as a Fox MOD title, if it hasn’t already, but I immediately thought of Lorre singing about Siberia in the musical remake of Ninotchka, Silk Stockings.

Posted By Cheryl : February 17, 2015 11:45 pm

Thanks for the nice article on “I’ll Give a Million” — one of my favorite Peter Lorre movies. I first saw this film on a flat-bed editor at the UCLA remote film archive, because they had only a nitrate print.

Since then, I’ve wished it would be available on commercial DVD.

I love Peter’s character Louie. And yes, Peter loved getting away from his typical “bad guy” character type and playing someone who was sweet, charming, and very funny.

Thanks again!

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