Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Millionaire (1931)

TCM is running a bunch of James Cagney movies tomorrow morning and afternoon. Most of them are fairly early in his career, and in some he's only got a small role. A good example of this is The Millionaire, which is on at 8:15 AM.

The star here is George Arliss. He plays James Alden, an industrialist who has been forced into retirement for health reasons. Not that he's happy about it, as he finds retirement frightfully boring. So, being bored silly, he decides to do something about it, and go back into business, only without telling anybody. He finds an ad in the paper to buy a half share of a service station, and takes it. The other half is owned by Bill Merrick (David Manners), an aspiring architect who is running the gas station so he can raise the money to go into business as an architect. While in college, he met Alden's daughter Barbara (Evalyn Knapp) briefly, not knowing that Barbara's father is his business partner in disguise.

As for the business itself, it's not going so well. That's because the man who sold it, Mr. Peterson, had a good reason for selling it. He knew that a new highway was going to be built and that this new bypass road would make the station he sold obsolete. Indeed, Peterson is opening a new service station alongside that bypass road. Poor Bill.

Except of course that Bill's business partner isn't poor. James decides to use some of his fortune to buy a service station across from Peterson's new station, and go into competition with Peterson, helping Bill along the way. James certainly has enough of a fortune to undercut poor Peterson, who doesn't know what's hitting him. But will James be discovered for who he really is before he can succeed in all his plans?

The Millionaire may not be the first thing you think of when you think of George Arliss, but then again, it's a film with a similar tone to something like A Successful Calamity, which coincidentally also has Evalyn Knapp as George Arliss' daughter. (The part of James Alden's wife is played by Arliss' real-life wife Florence.) Anyway, in The Millionaire, Arliss once again looks like he's having a blast as he puts one over on his opponents and does a good deed for those around him. He's marvelously entertaining, to the point that you half expect him to be a bit of an imp or something.

As for James Cagney, whom I mentioned at the beginning of the post, he plays an insurance salesman from whom Alden wants to buy some life insurance. It's the agent's suggestion that retired people are a bad insurance risk that gives Alden the idea to go back into business. Cagney is the one person who isn't overshadowed by Arliss, but then Cagney had a way of overshadowing his screen partners himself. It was seeing this and the first days' rushes of The Public Enemy that gave director William Wellman the idea of giving Cagney the starring role in the latter movie instead of the supporting role. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Millionaire is, as far as I know, not available on DVD, not even from the Warner Archive. So you'll have to catch the rare TCM showing.

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