George Barr McCutcheon’s comic novel of 1902 possesses next to nothing in the way of critical reputation, though in this case the lack of literary esteem gets easily usurped by the book’s stature as a pop culture warhorse; first adapted for Broadway in 1906 by Winchell Smith and Byron Ongley, in ‘51 McCutcheon’s story skipped over to Britain and became the stage musical Zip Goes a Million.
More importantly it was filmed no less than 11 times, first in 1914 by Cecil B. DeMille and Oscar Apfel (a movie currently considered lost), then in ‘21 starring Fatty Arbuckle and again five years later with Bebe Daniels in the lead as Miss Brewster’s Millions. UK versions emerged in ‘36 and ‘61, the latter directed by Sidney J. Furie as Three on a Spree; McCutcheon’s source also met Indian celluloid in ‘54, ‘85, ‘88 and ‘97.
But the most famous adaptations remain the ‘85 Walter Hill-directed entry starring Richard Pryor and John Candy (which simultaneously functioned as a pretty brazen Trading Places-knockoff) and the treatment under consideration here, a screwball locomotive from ‘45 starring Dennis O’Keefe as returning WWII veteran Montague L. Brewster and Helen Walker as his fiancée Peggy Gray.
The story is quite simple if, appropriately for a farce, implausible. Brewster has inherited eight million smackers from an uncle, but with a dual catch; to receive seven million he must first spend one million in a two month span while acquiring no assets along the way, and crucial to the ensuing hilarity he can let nobody else in on the specifics of the stipulation.
This Brewster’s Millions was directed by Allan Dwan. Insanely prolific by any standard, he presided over 130 features and more than 300 shorts between 1911 and 1961; across that half century this model of constant activity benefited from a lack of self-consciousness (at least post-silent era) in an Old Hollywood milieu concerned foremost with harvesting profits from pure entertainment.
In terms of casual film history Dwan’s probably best known for the ‘49 John Wayne vehicle Sands of Iwo Jima, but amongst a sect of heavy-duty cinephiles he’s celebrated as a paragon of endurance and versatility. The great film critic Andrew Sarris proposed in his ‘68 Auteurist bible The American Cinema that Dwan may “turn out to be the last of the old masters.”
Film noir, comedy, drama, historical works and especially westerns, his final directorial credit is the low budget ‘61 sci-fi flick The Most Dangerous Man Alive. In 2013 the Museum of Modern Art mounted a month long retrospective of his work coinciding with the publication of Frederic Lombardi’s book Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios.
Far from a prestige director, Dwan’s level of output basically guaranteed a certain percentage of unpromising and/or silly scenarios, e.g. The Gorilla, a ‘39 exercise in comedy-horror utilizing The Ritz Brothers and Bela Lugosi on the precipice of decline, and the ‘41 Fibber McGee and Molly-installment Look Who’s Laughing with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his puppet Charlie McCarthy in tow.
Due to its screwball nature Brewster’s Millions wields silliness as a virtue rather than a hindrance and therefore escapes the thornier (though in reality vital) patches populating Dwan’s filmography. Bounding forth with rapidity, the outlandishness of the premise goes down quite smoothly; indeed, a month and a day prior to the end of WWII the farcical template was likely a tonic for heavy times.
The solid cast includes Mischa Auer, from screwball cornerstone My Man Godfrey and the utterly bonkers Hellzapoppin’, and veteran African-American comic actor Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, his nickname referencing the butler he played for decades opposite Jack Benny; here he inhabits a roughly comparable servant character.
Humor based in stereotyping unsurprisingly and unfortunately surfaces; on the grand scale of Hollywood racism (this instance paradoxically banned by the Memphis Board of Motion Picture Censors for promoting “social equality” and “racial mixture”) Anderson’s role is fairly tame, though obviously individual responses to the performance will vary.
Even as Dwan eschews directorial flash he’s ultimately the movie’s greatest asset, capturing his cast in setups that avoid overabundant editing. Much of the film’s energy derives from the ensemble’s exchanges within the frame; as the group watches a horse-race Brewster’s money losing objective unwinds differently than he’d planned.
At a trim 79 minutes and lacking in iconic stars or sentimental overtones, Brewster’s Millions hasn’t ascended to the top of the screwball heap, yet its efficiency, commitment and overall competence persist as a highly engaging experience. Over a century after his career began the individuality in Allan Dwan’s oeuvre has only increased.