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Millionaires in Prison

Millionaires in Prison(1940)

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teaser Millionaires in Prison (1940)

A strange B-list RKO dramedy released just days after the beginning of the Battle of Britain, Ray McCarey's Millionaires in Prison (1940) is touted as a Lee Tracy vehicle, but in actuality it's a busy ensemble, with a Depression-era premise that's loaded with resonance and potential. It might actually have worked as a '60s TV sitcom: five millionaires are convicted of felonies simultaneously and sent to the same penitentiary to serve their time. Associative thoughts of buy-anything moneybags Thurston Howell III stuck on a desert island come to mind, and McCarey's film plows that field: the wealthy aristos stumble around prison routine trying to order lobsters in the cafeteria and complaining about the prison uniforms not having cuffs. The ensemble, explained helpfully to us in a news office preface that has no bearing on the action, consists of two well-meaning millionaire oafs (Raymond Walburn, Thurston Hall) used exclusively as comedy relief, two out-&-out millionaire crooks (Morgan Conway, Chester Clute), and one hard-luck doctor (Truman Bradley), whose sentence is steering him away from important disease-remedy research. Tracy, it turns out, is the bullgoose con inside, conniving and connecting everyone, while the millionaires' bunk mates are a motley crew of low-class ne'er-do-wells, played by Shemp Howard, Horace McMahon, and Paul Guilfoyle.

Pile on two threadbare romantic subplots, a rumored prison break, and the evil pair of millionaires' decision to scam the cons out of their stashed dough with a fake copper mine investment scheme, and you've got more than any one 64-minute movie can handle. But that's not all: all other considerations, including the comedic variety, get sidelined before the film's half through the mission of Bradley's doctor (looking quite like a rugged Josh Brolin), whose pining for a research opportunity to cure an exotic infection in the penitentiary infirmary gets both the staff doctor (Selmer Jackson) and Tracy's schemer (who has wheedled his way into a cushy infirmary work detail) motivated to make it happen. Stunningly, this entails testing a new serum on humans, which means infecting four hapless convicts and hoping they don't die. Funding is squeezed from the comic-relief millionaires, Tracy's character imperceptibly morphs from a wiseass criminal into a righteous do-gooder, and the whole prison eagerly awaits news of the guinea pigs' fate...

This cockeyed narrative was concocted by three screenwriting contract B-listers (including Martin Mooney, who helped on Edgar G. Ulmer's Poverty Row classic Detour six years later), and directed by Leo McCarey's younger brother, generating exactly the kind of low-bar, fast-and-loose program-filler that audiences in 1940 ate up by the truckload. Moviegoing was like television then, and a double bill with newsreels and cartoons could last four hours, during which there was little impetus to conceive of any one movie, seen during one of two or three moviegoing jaunts that week, as needing to be an epochal, live-changing masterpiece. As Jean-Luc Godard would attest in his homage-twisty New Wave films of the '60s, movies weren't high-pressure, alternate-reality "events," but part of daily life, and most moviegoers saw them that way.

But a movie called Millionaires in Prison produced at the tail end of the Great Depression must've seemed like a slam-dunk idea - satisfying the sublimated bloodlust of America's beaten working class by hypothetically punishing the banking and finance 1% responsible for the economic collapse. (Unemployment was still around 15% in 1940.) The resonance of the title alone promises so much. But of course McCarey's movie detours away from even the mildest political-economic critique; as throughout the '30s, because Hollywood was not made up of unemployed workers unable to pay their rent, the wealthy are alternately objects of whimsy or aspiration. Socialism was ascendant in the '30s; labor unions and the hundreds of newspapers they published, as well as the Spanish Civil War, kept that ideology burning, even as the reality of Stalinism began to reveal its dark side. But in Hollywood, matters of wealth and poverty were simply dynamics for escapist storytelling, and a millionaire was usually only a model for the life we'd all like to live, and may some day.

Millionaires in Prison - the title still screams for an updated version - is a trifle, fastidiously devoid of potential resonance, and so its comedy rests with the actors. Tracy, capable of such high-powered sass, is kept to a low boil here, on the downward slope of his odd career, but McMahon and Howard are their inimitable low-IQ selves, while as the silliest of the millionaires Walburn is a hilarious fool, with the huge eyes and face of someone who's already been animated by Tex Avery. Hollywood was an engine fueled by personality, not justice or ideology, or even raw spectacle and sensation as it is today. Here, as with nearly all Golden Age product, you look to your fellow humans, or you go elsewhere.

By Michael Atkinson

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