Film in Focus
By Ed Garea
The Millionaire (WB, 1931) – Director: John G. Adolphi. Writers: Maude T. Howell & Julian Josephson (s/p). Booth Tarkington (dialogue). Earl Derr Biggers (short story “Idle Hands”). Stars: George Arliss, Florence Arliss, David Manners, Evelyn Knapp, James Cagney, Bramwell Fletcher, Noah Beery, Ivan F. Simpson, J.C. Nugent, Sam Hardy, J. Farrell MacDonald, Charley Grapewin, Charles E. Evans, Tully Marshall, & Ben Hall. B&W, 80 minutes.
When George Arliss wasn’t busy impersonating famous men such as Disraeli, Alexander Hamilton, and Voltaire on the screen, he occupied himself by starring in cute, fluffy domestic comedies. The Millionaire is one such example.
Arliss had a unique position at Warner Brothers as their most prestigious actor. While other actors were at the complete beck and call of Jack Warner and production head Darryl Zanuck, Arliss worked independently of the studio brass. He had earned his independence after his 1929 film, Disraeli, which Warners made as a prestige project, not expecting much in the way of box office returns, became a huge hit with the public.
For this upcoming film, Arliss chose to remake his silent hit The Ruling Passion (1922). Taking full advantage of his independence, he not only chose the writers and director, but also the cast and much of the crew. Most of his later films would employ a familiar technical cast, including writers Maude T. Howell and Julien Josephson, who had helped shape such films as Disraeli, The Green Goddess, and Old English. (Howell would even go with him when he moved to 20th Century Pictures in 1934, providing screenplays for films such as The House of Rothschild and Cardinal Richelieu.)
Other Arliss regulars included cinematographer James Van Trees and editor Owen Marks, who also enjoyed long careers at Warner Bros. John Adolfi was chosen to direct, beginning an association that saw him at the helm of all Arliss's remaining pictures at the studio while also serving as producer.
As for the cast, Arliss chose his wife Florence as his on-screen wife and his friend and protege David Manners in the major role of his young partner. Reading the script, Arliss realized that one minor role had a substantial impact on the film, and he decided to cast it himself, personally interviewing prospective young actors. One young actor’s audition floored Arliss, for of all those who tried out, he was the only one who didn’t come across as merely acting.
That young actor was James Cagney, whose natural inclinations and cockiness were exactly what Arliss wanted in the part. When they rehearsed the scene on the set, according to the TCM essay on the film, Cagney asked if it would be all right to adjust Arliss’ shawl if it were to fall during shooting. Arliss replied, “Young man, you do anything you like. I trust your judgment implicitly.” The result was not only a charming scene, but one that set the tone for later as Cagney’s youthful enthusiasm and advice provided the tonic for Arliss to break out of his slump and go back to work.
As also noted in TCM’s essay, Arliss controlled his working hours, only working from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. To make sure those hours were strictly enforced, Arliss’ valet, Jenner, would show up promptly at 4 p.m. If Arliss was still at work on a scene, even if it was being filmed, Jenner would walk up to Arliss, remove his hat or coat, and carry it to the dressing room with the actor following.
In The Millionaire, Arliss is James Alden, founder and head of Alden Motors. He works a very hectic day as he’s called upon for almost every decision the firm makes, and the pace is beginning to play havoc with his health. After a meeting with his assistants McCoy (Hardy) and Powers (Grapewin) where they show him a new and cheaper engine they had developed (over his objections that the engine has quality, which is what Alden Motors is all about), Alden feels so faint that he calls his physician, Dr. Harvey (Nugent), to examine him.
Harvey lays it straight on the line: unless Alden retires immediately he risks serious problems down the line. The doctor suggests Alden move to California to get the rest he so desperately needs. It’s difficult for Alden to accept retirement, but out of consideration for his wife Laura and his daughter Babs (Knapp), he reluctantly agrees. As he says goodbye to his employees, the scene where he looks over his office for the last time is milked by Adolfi and Arliss for all it’s worth.
Once out west, it’s clear to see that Arliss is slowly dying of boredom, sitting in a garden under a shawl. Davis (Simpson), his butler, announces that a Mr. Schofield (Cagney) has requested an appointment. Alden reluctantly agrees. Talking with the young man, Alden quickly realizes he’s an insurance salesman. But once Schofield discovers that Alden is retired, he tells him that retired men are bad risks because they look forward to death. Alden asks Schofield what he would do were he in Alden’s place. Schofield quickly picks up the newspaper and points out the business opportunity section, telling Alden he needs to get involved with something like a small business venture as a hobby to keep him busy. Judging by the look on Alden’s face after Schofield leaves, the moral of the story becomes clear: even though he doesn’t get the big sale he came for, even a stranger can change a life for the better in a few minutes time.
Inspired, Alden peruses the paper after Schofield leaves and discovers an opportunity: a gas station in the area is for sale. Given his background, this would be the perfect opportunity to keep busy, and Alden visits the place to negotiate with the seller, Mr. Peterson (Beery). Using the alias “Charles Miller,” Alden negotiates the price from Peterson’s original down to $2,500. The bill of sale is signed and notarized by Mr. Briggs (Marshall). Peterson then tells Alden he has a partner, a young man who bought a half share in the enterprise. His name is Bill Merrick (Manners), and Alden is happy to be sharing the load with him.
As they open their station, Merrick wonder why there’s so little traffic coming in. Al (Hall), the helper they inherited with the station, tells them that a new highway has opened a mile away and is taking all the traffic. In fact, he adds, that’s where Peterson has built his new station. Alden and Merrick realize they’ve been swindled, but there’s nothing they can do about it. Alden then gets the idea that the best course is to fight fire with fire and open a competing station near Peterson. They pick the site, an abandoned building across the highway from their swindler, but the problem is raising the money to fix it up. Merrick mentions that Peterson told him that his new partner knows Alden, but “Miller” tells him that Alden will not help financially. He urges Merrick to borrow $1,000 from his favorite aunt.
Merrick raises the capital and the two refurbish the old building. Merrick designs the place as he turns out to have a degree in architecture, but wants to experience life on his own before seating himself behind a drifting board. The new, glitzy station opens, and soon even Peterson’s customers are buying their gasoline there, much to Peterson’s annoyance. When he tries to retaliate by lowering his prices, Alden counters by touting the quality of his product, insinuating that Peterson is selling cut-rate petrol.
The cat almost gets out of the bag when Babs drops by one day to fuel up. Alden had been telling Babs and Laura that he was spending his day with an old business associate. Merrick and Babs remember each other from college. When Alden unexpectedly comes out to help with the gas, Babs spots him. “Dad!” she cries out. Alden quickly tells her of his ruse, that he is Charles Miller, and she agrees to play along. When Merrick inquires as to why Babs should refer to Mr. Miller as “Dad,” it’s explained by Babs and Alden that Mr. Miller is a longtime friend of the family and Babs used to refer to him as “Dad.”
Soon, Babs is dropping by regularly to gas up. Alden chides her for seeing someone not of their lofty social rank, but secretly, having gotten to know Merrick and sizing up his character, he’s pleased to see Barbara moving on from former beau Carter Andrews (Fletcher), whom he sees as a rich idler.
As we realize that Alden cannot keep up his ruse indefinitely, he finally reveals himself to Laura when her chauffeur takes her to the station for a refill. Laura is nonplussed, but Alden tells her he’ll explain everything at home. Meanwhile, Peterson, feeling the heat of competition, makes an offer to buy the station that neither partner can refuse, enough money for Merrick to go out on his own as an architect.
Once at home, James smoothes everything out with Laura, even the issue of Babs seeing Merrick, whom James tells Laura is of good character and a working man. Unexpectedly, Dr. Harvey drops in for a visit to see how James is faring. After examining him in the study, he tells James how surprised he is at his patient’s return to good health. While the doctor goes to tell Laura the good news, Babs comes in to tell her father that Merrick is on his way to get permission to marry her. As Merrick does not know that Charles Miller and James Alden are one and the same, he sits at his desk with the newspaper open in front of him and Babs kneeling behind his chair. As Merrick makes his case, James pretends to be gruff, but finally lowers the paper and gives his consent to an astonished Merrick.
Finally, James is visited by McCoy and Powers who tell him that their new motor, the one he opposed, has proven to be a flop and he is badly needed back at the plant. With his doctor’s enthusiastic backing, Alden announces to the family his intention to return to the factory.
The Millionaire is the ultimate feel-good Depression comedy. At no time is anyone ever in serious danger. There is also a notable lack of any real anger, grief, or even a violent thought. Everyone comes out okay, there’s a big happy ending. and a big smile to close things. The moral of the story is that everyone needs a driving force in their lives, and if it’s strong enough, the Depression doesn’t stand a chance. In fact, we hardly see the Depression: everyone seems to have money, in stark contrast to Warners’ usual style, where the Depression is like the wolf at the door.
The movie also continued a plot trend for Arliss, playing a sort of puppeteer who manipulates those around him and events to the ultimate happy ending.
That seems to be the difference between Arliss’ vision and that of his studio. Had the studio made it with, say. Edward G. Robinson as James Alden, and someone like William Wellman or Roy Del Ruth directing, his cost-conscious subordinates would have conjured up a false doctor to dupe Alden into retiring.
As for the cast, Manners and Knapp make for a charming, albeit somewhat goofy, couple. Noah Berry comes off as a good-natured clone of his more famous younger brother. And Cagney almost walks away with the film in his brief scene. Had the writers made good on his character’s promise to Alden that he’ll be around again to see him, given the extra screen time and Cagney’s dynamic performance, he would have stolen the movie. Cagney’s performance was so good that after William Wellman saw the rushes, he moved Cagney into the lead role as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy and demoted Edward Woods to the secondary role of Matt Doyle.
We can say what we want about the movie, but there’s no denying its power to entertain. The film, opening to a sea of good reviews, was yet another Arliss winner at the box-office. Arliss also continued to demonstrate his sharp eye for talent as a year later he cast the young Bette Davis to play his fiancee, Grace Blair, in the sound remake of his 1922 silent hit, The Man Who Played God.
Novelist Booth Tarkington, who wrote such popular American novels as Alice Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons, was brought in by Arliss to help with the dialogue.