Sunday, October 16, 2011

Grey Market Cinema: Thanks a Million (1935)


A troupe of ragtag performers are traveling on a bus during a torrential downpour as our film opens; the aggregation is headed for a fictional state and its capital, “New City”…where as movie coincidences would have it, is the birthplace of one of its members, crooner Eric Land (Dick Powell).  The driver lets the motley crew out at a bus stop in town and informs them that they will have to wait two hours for the next bus (that will take them to New York), prompting manager Ned Lyman (Fred Allen) to wisecrack: “What are we supposed to do for two hours—tread water?” So Eric and his girlfriend Sally Mason (Ann Dvorak)—along with her sister Phoebe (Patsy Kelly) and the rest of the musicians—hie themselves to a lunch wagon for some grub while Lyman and the group’s bass drummer, Tammany (Benny Baker), duck into a nearby hall to dodge the dampness.

Inside the hall, Ned and Tammany join another group of people who had similar notions of getting out of the rain…but who are unfortunately going to be subjected to a speech by windy politician J. Darius Culliman (Raymond Walburn), a judge and certified political hack running for governor providing he doesn’t bore the electorate first (“Born in a log cabin” appears on all his campaign posters…and in every one of his speeches).  Ned talks Culliman’s campaign manager, Grass (Andrew Toombes), into hiring the troupe to provide warm-up entertainment before Culliman’s sleep-inducing invective; Culliman is running on the “Commonwealth” ticket against the incumbent governor and the party bosses figure if Lyman’s performers can get crowds enthusiastic before Culliman can wind things up with a lull why not give them a shot?

The only problem is—it works too well.  When Eric wows the crowd with his rendition of Pocketful of Sunshine, they want to hear more from him and less of the bloviating Culliman.  Culliman gives Eric his walking papers, and our hero heads back towards New York where unemployment will surely follow.  But the judge ends up getting schnockered one night before he’s to give his speech and Ned talks Eric into substituting in Culliman’s place; Land’s breezy insouciance and tongue-in-cheek wit once again wins over the crowd…particularly Commonwealth Party boss Gilbert Kruger (Alan Dinehart), his wife Kay (Margaret Irving) and ward heelers Maxwell (Paul Harvey) and Casey (Edwin Maxwell).

The party boys try to talk Eric into running for governor, with him being a hometown lad and all…but Eric is completely cold on the idea—he knows nothing about politics, doesn’t think he’s qualified for the job of governor and pretty much refuses to have anything to do with it.  But Sally sells him on the notion that running for governor might be a tremendous publicity boost to his singing career; he doesn’t stand a chance of winning, but why not use the exposure in order to secure a recording or radio contract?  Eric agrees to run, affirming in front of Ned and the party regulars: “And if I’m elected…may the Good Heavens above have mercy on this state.”

Eric’s crooning talents and winning personality make him a far more popular candidate than Culliman ever was (though Eric insists that the judge occupy the bottom part of the ticket as lieutenant governor out of obligation) but his candidacy starts to take a toll on his romance with Sally, who is starting to resent the amount of time he’s away from her and especially the attention given him by Mrs. Kruger, who seems to have designs on Eric that are not of a political nature, if you know what I mean…and I think you do.  When Kay asks Eric to come by the Kruger’s apartment for an important meeting with her husband, Eric tells Sally a teensy fib because he doesn’t want to upset her since he has to leave her in the lurch on the night they planned to be together and have dinner.  Sally learns that Eric wasn’t honest with her at the same time Land learns that Mrs. K has the hots for him; he’s able to give her the brush-off but then learns from Kruger and the rest of the bosses that he’ll be expected to hand out patronage jobs to party backers to reward them for their support.  Realizing that his political career will cost him the only important thing in his life (Sally), Eric uses valuable radio air time to expose the Commonwealth hacks as frauds and endorse his worthy opponent.  A frantic car chase in which Eric, Sally, Ned and Phoebe race to the state line to escape slightly ticked-off Commonwealth Party members results in their capture by the state police…who inform Eric that he’s won the governorship after all.

An entertaining musical satire of small-town politics, Thanks a Million (1935) was one of the last movies produced by Twentieth Century Pictures before it merged with the Fox Film Corporation in 1935 and became the big movie studio behemoth we know today.  Million was directed by veteran Roy Del Ruth and the screenplay was written by Nunnally Johnson, who may or may not have based the story on the real-life election of Lieutenant Governor Victor Meyers, who was an ex-band leader elected to office in Washington state and who sued the studio because Million contains a line (spoken by Allen’s Lyman): “Up in Washington, they elected a jazz band leader Lieutenant Governor…and if people will vote for a jazz band leader, they'll vote for anybody.”  Back then, when someone from the world of entertainment launched a political career it was considered a novelty…with the passage of time, of course, we don’t bat an eyelash—particularly since the two professions have become virtually alike.

Dick Powell and Ann Dvorak were well-known Warner Bros. players—and Patsy Kelly was a familiar face to moviegoers from her two-reel comedies with Thelma Todd, produced at Hal Roach—but Thanks a Million was the feature film debut of former vaudevillian-turned-radio-comedian Fred Allen (he had appeared in a couple of comedy shorts five years earlier), who by the time of Million’s release was headlining NBC’s popular Town Hall Tonight.  Allen even gets special recognition in the credits (his picture and the designation “Radio’s Fred Allen”) and though I’ll be the first to admit that I might be a little partisan, I think he does a first-rate job as the wisecracking comic relief.  (His dry, sarcastic style reminds me a lot of character great Ned Sparks, which is why I find it so amusing that his character’s name is “Ned.”)  Allen was not particularly enamored of the motion picture business (or Hollywood, either, for that matter), which is why his cinematic resume is so spotty (his second film, Sally, Irene and Mary [1938], was always referred to by him as “Sally, Irene and Lousy”) so Million is a wonderful way to familiarize yourself with his work (and with the exception of his starring turn in 1945’s It’s in the Bag is probably his best onscreen outing).  Allen was even allowed to make revisions to the film’s dialogue along with his pal Harry Tugend, James Gow and Edmund Gross.

Not only was this Fred’s feature film debut but it also served as the full-length introduction (they had also appeared in a few shorts before Million) to Charles Adler, George Kelly, Billy Mann and Jimmie Kern—collectively known as the Yacht Club Boys.  Considered by some to be a sort of musical Ritz Brothers, the YCB enlivened many a musical in the 1930s, including The Singing Kid, Pigskin Parade, Artists and Models and its 1938 “sequel,” Artists and Models Abroad.  The group disbanded in 1939, and member Jimmie Kern later billed himself as James V. Kern, becoming a writer and director on TV sitcoms like I Love Lucy, My Three Sons and My Favorite Martian.  The Yacht Club Boys are really in top form here, performing entertaining numbers like Square Deal Party and the engaging Sittin’ on a Hilltop, which they do with star Powell.

The King of Jazz hisself, Paul Whiteman, appears in Million as well (he’s the subject of a rib at the beginning of the film and then later he performs with an unbilled The King’s Men and billed singer-pianist Ramona on New O’leans)…not to mention another OTR veteran in violinist David Rubinoff (billed throughout most of his career as just “Rubinoff”).  Rubinoff was a regular on Eddie Cantor’s program in the early 1930s but because he suffered from severe mike fright you never heard him speak (his “voice” was provided by The Man Who Would Be Fred Flintstone, Alan Reed).  In fact, according to legend, Cantor once bet Rubinoff one hundred dollars that he couldn’t say one word on the air…and the violinist supposedly approached the microphone during one broadcast and declared into it, “Eddie Cantor…you owe me a $100.”

You’ve got comedy relief from Allen and Kelly (not to mention Raymond Walburn, who seems to be channeling Charles Winninger as the soused Culliman); fine support from a veteran character cast including Margaret Irving—who appeared in such films as San Francisco, Charlie Chan at the Opera and Mr. Moto’s Last Warning but is fondly remembered by us here at Rancho Yesteryear as “Aunt Gus” on the 1950s sitcom The People’s Choice; and the charming vocals of Powell, whose rendition of the title tune would become one of his signature songs.  But what also insures that Million is a delight is the participation of longtime TDOY fave Ann Dvorak, who not only makes a wonderful love interest for Dick but also does some delightful singing and dancing with Kelly in a number called Sugar Plum.

The first time I ever saw Thanks a Million was—you might want to make room on the fainting couch for this—during the halcyon days of American Movie Classics…I remember wanting to see it because my comedy idol Fred Allen was in the cast but was delighted that it’s really an unpretentious, entertaining musical.  I was finally able to track down a copy at the now-defunct Vintage Film Buff.com, and though the quality of the movie is a little iffy at times (you can probably tell by the screen captures of the Yacht Club Boys, Rubinoff and Dvorak/Kelly) I got the movie gratis for writing a review of another title I purchased from them, so I can’t complain too much.  I must admit that I don’t have a solid familiarity with what movies have turned up on the Fox Movie Channel but if Million hasn’t made the rounds there before it would seem the most likely place for it to make an appearance.  (Update: Lou Lumenick tweeted me after I posted this review to tell me that the movie did play on FMC a few years back...and he also reminded me that the movie's not-so-good remake, If I'm Lucky [1946] is on DVD, starring Perry Como, Phil Silvers and Carmen Miranda.) When it does, make an appointment to see this wonderful little gem.

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