“A few days or thereabouts”
It just goes to show how little I know that I found myself utterly perplexed after seeing a Brewster’s Millions film still in black and white and without Richard Pryor. Further than that: I not only didn’t know the comedian’s starring vehicle was a remake, I had no clue just how many adaptations there were of George Barr McCutcheon‘s novel. There’s a ton, all seemingly predating this one from director Allan Dwan that appears to be the second best known behind Pryor’s romp (which I haven’t seen). I shouldn’t have been surprised considering how perfectly suited to comedy the premise is. It’s amazing no one else has remade it in the thirty years since that last iteration. Money is inherently cruel, unusual, and definitely ripe for social commentary.
Unfortunately, Dwan’s version forgets about this last part. He and his trio of screenwriters do a great job setting things up, though: Monty Brewster (Dennis O’Keefe) is a WWII war hero just discharged and ready to marry his sweetheart Peggy Gray (Helen Walker) after two years apart. They aren’t rich and Monty will need to find a job, but they’re so happy that their love reverberates off the screen. So the arrival of a gentleman on behalf of two high-powered lawyers claiming Brewster is set to inherit a million dollars or more from a relative he can’t even think of to have it only makes the reunion more special. The prospect of wealth doesn’t change them yet, but their minds definitely stray from those initial, immediate wedding plans.
The rules set forth do bring change, but not how you’d think. The stipulation for receiving a now declared eight million is that Monty must spend one million of it in the two months before his thirtieth birthday. He can’t simply donate it or gift it or burn it for that matter. He can’t tell loved ones or friends to help either. In fact, he can’t have any assets to his name by the end of those sixty days at all. Failure to follow these terms results in forfeiting the balance of the million received and the seven in waiting. So while he runs around like a chicken with his head cut off spending, spending, and spending, those surrounding him see change despite there not actually being any.
It’s a brilliant situational farce supplying hilarious laughter once we see how hard it is to lose so much money while also procuring the necessary receipts to prove it was all written off as loss. He throws extravagant parties that put his name in the rags, creates a business to employ everyone he can at salaries way beyond their worth, and starts dumping the rest into bad stocks and gambling bets. Call it karma or bad luck, but sometimes it’s when you try your hardest that the opposite of your goals come true. At one point everything he does to the chagrin of Peggy and best buds Hacky Smith (Joe Sawyer) and Nopper Harrison (Herbert Rudley) that should turn his money to ash instead spins it into gold.
O’Keefe delivers a memorably batty performance attempting to play the ostentatious playboy while retaining the relationships with those who know he’s anything but. It’s tough when the leeches loving every minute of his spending spree like “artists” Mikhail Mikhailovich (Mischa Auer) and Trixie Summer (June Havoc) or debutante Barbara Drew (Gail Patrick)—despite their innocent, non-malicious intent—make it impossible to see his true self beneath the cultivated façade. So we revel in the absurdity of his predicament and giggle each time the trust’s lawyer (John Litel‘s Swearengen Jones) hangs-up on Monty’s calls of bewildered frustration at how hard it’s been and how his life is going to shambles. We wait for the moment that sadly never arrives when Brewster must redeem himself in his loved ones’ eyes.
This is Dwan and company supplying all build-up and no pay-off. Maybe this simply proves that the story hasn’t aged well, but I like there to be consequences to actions put onscreen. As is, the whole film serves as a MacGuffin to make us laugh at a reasonably compassionate and generous man in love who risks everything for the promise of wealth. We assume he’s worthy of the spoils by the brief exposition of heroism and kindness, but who’s to say he hasn’t really changed? Why should we, let alone those closest to him in the film, forgive him for what he’s done in the moment? I guess you could chalk it up to showing how we’re all greedy and blind, but that’s too convenient.
If that were the case Peggy, Hacky, and Nopper would have been caricatured with wide-eyes and goofy grins like Gray family butler Jackson (Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson). Here’s a character painted strictly for comic relief. Whether the role is racist or not doesn’t stop him from being the most authentic of the bunch enjoying the ride alongside Monty while caring less about the consequences. He’s less greedy than a junkie following his friend’s live-fast attitude. Jackson therefore fits the story’s slightness to merely end with a clean, unearned slate. Conversely, the others are too preoccupied with Monty’s wellbeing to work within that context. Their hate must increase because of the ruse. Without that Brewster’s Millions is just a light-hearted escape. While hilarious, this attitude squanders its immense potential.