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The Cheaters

The Cheaters(1945)

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teaser The Cheaters (1945)

You wouldn't expect an almost forgotten Christmas classic to come from Republic Pictures unless it included a scene of cowboys singing carols on the lone prairie. The low-budget studio was more associated with Westerns and serials than sophisticated comedies about broken-down society types using the Christmas holidays to secure a rich uncle's inheritance. Screwball comedy was not typical studio fare for Republic either or even in vogue at the time. Nonetheless, there are echoes in The Cheaters (1945) of the classic My Man Godfrey (1936) due to the central character Mr. M. (Joseph Schildkraut), "the forgotten man" brought home for the holidays by the family's daughter, and by the casting of Eugene Pallette as the father trying to cope with this, a role similar to the one he had played in the earlier film.

Republic had picked up Frances Hyland and Albert Ray's original story in 1941 as a vehicle for Binnie Barnes, a beautiful actress and sophisticated comedienne who played supporting roles at major studios and leading roles for lesser studios, including Republic. By the time The Cheaters went into production, however, Ona Munson had inherited the role of an aging actress left a fortune by a wealthy eccentric who had seen her as a child actress in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The former musical star (she had starred in the original production of No, No, Nanette) was best known for playing Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind (1939). In fact, she was haunted by the role, so identified with it that she had trouble landing other good parts. Her consolation was radio, where she became CBS' first female producer, shepherding 17 young women through a weekly show in support of the war effort Victory Belles. That left her little time for film work. The Cheaters was her first picture in two years, following a supporting role in Republic's 1943 Roy Rogers Western Idaho.

That earlier film may have created the connection that won Munson her role in The Cheaters. Director Joseph Kane, who spent most of his career directing Westerns and serials, was an unlikely choice to helm the studio's out-of-character Christmas picture. The only other connection with Republic's more typical offerings was ingnue Ruth Terry, cast as the daughter. The former vaudeville and nightclub star had worked briefly at 20th-Century-Fox before signing a contract with Howard Hughes in 1940. With few productions on his slate at the time, Hughes soon sold her to Republic, where she first appeared in the musical Sing, Dance, Plenty Hot (1940) before becoming a leading lady opposite such cowboy stars as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.

With such an atypical project on its hands, Republic had to look outside its contract ranks for most of the leading roles. Schildkraut, a stage star in the U.S. since he starred in the first production of Ferenc Molnar's Liliom (later the inspiration for Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Carousel) was primarily a supporting player by the 1940s. Yet it was his wit and sophistication that made him the perfect choice for the forgotten man who turns out to be a faded stage star. Like Munson, he had largely been absent from the screen previously, though his work was mostly on Broadway, where he recently had starred opposite Eva La Galliene in a revival of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.

Just as perfect was the casting of the rich eccentrics who, in a very un-Christmas-like mood, plot to swindle Munson out of her inheritance. In the hands of Billie Burke and Eugene Pallette, however, it was all good scatter-brained fun. Burke, best known today as Glinda the Good in The Wizard of Oz (1939), had virtually trademarked the role of the dizzy society matron after a long career as a stage star. She had established herself in such roles at MGM, where she had been under contract until 1941. Since then she had been working freelance and trying unsuccessfully to reestablish herself as a Broadway star. As her husband, Pallette drew on his talent for exasperation and one of the screen's deepest voices. Although one of the most successful character actors of the decade, he was only two films away from retirement. Plagued by ill health, he finished his career at low-budget studios like Republic and Monogram. Then, driven by right wing paranoia, he responded to the start of the Cold War by moving to a bombproof home in Oregon.

The Cheaters enjoyed two lives at the box office. Republic re-edited the film and re-released it in 1949 under a new title, The Castaway. When the studio sold its library to television in the 1950s, it became a Christmas staple, fondly remembered by fans even after it was supplanted by more recent holiday films.

Producer-Director: Joseph Kane
Screenplay: Frances Hyland
Based on a story by Hyland and Albert RayCinematography: Reggie Lanning
Music: Walter Scharf
Art Direction: Russell Kimball, James W. Sullivan
Cast: Joseph Schildkraut (Mr. M), Billie Burke (Mrs. Pidgeon), Eugene Pallette (Mr. Pidgeon), Ona Munson (Florie), Raymond Walburn (Willie), Ann Gillis (Angela), Ruth Terry (Theresa), Norma Varden (Mattie, Mr. Pidgeon's Secretary).

by Frank Miller

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