George Raft, George Brent and Randolph Scott are top-billed as the three ne'er-do-well adopted sons of Ann Harding's Wall Street heiress and eccentric grande dame. Although she hasn't seen them for years, she loves them still, she proclaims, because all three decided to make their respective ways and not live off her money. Her nephew, Reginald Denny's Philip, is a different story. He's been bilking her and milking her for years. Then he succumbs to a massive attack of greed. Why steal bit by bit, he reasons, when he could have the old lady declared incompetent and glom onto her entire (and still considerable) fortune?
Her eccentricities are charmingly idiosyncratic and not as senseless as they seem. When she serves tea, the cream and sugar are carried around the table on a model railroad one of the sons loved as a boy. Before she enters her drawing room, a fire bell rings. But, she explains, that's only to give visitors a chance to stop gossiping about her before she embarrasses them by walking in on some indiscreet remark. When Philip complains to a judge and doctor he has called to her Manhattan mansion to rubber-stamp her commitment that she spent $1.6 million for dead rats, she points out that she paid poor boys a dollar each for every dead rat they turned in, thus promoting public health and slum clearance.
She gets the judge and doc to hold off until Christmas Eve, by which time, she fervently believes, her three sons will materialize and extricate her from the mess. Brent's high-living playboy son has been in Manhattan all the time, running up bills he can't pay. His plight is the springboard for a bubbly performance by Joan Blondell as a screwball comedy paragon who inexplicably wants to marry him, and sabotages his plan to marry his way out of debt by snagging a rich society fiancée. But the giddy abandon with which she throws herself at him, and throws a diamond bracelet off an apartment balcony, reminds us that the energy level here comes and goes.
The characters from the story by Laurence Stallings and Richard H. Landau often have a warmed-over feel. Their superficial raffishness seems borrowed from Damon Runyon's universe. This means the actors have to work hard to get past the script's inadequacies. Often they do, starting with Raft's tough Mario, who skipped to South America where he runs a nightclub after he took a rap for Philip in New Orleans and fled the country to spare the old lady's feelings. In his white dinner jacket and cool, in-control exterior, he seems a parody of Humphrey Bogart's Rick in Casablanca (1942). His complications include a girlfriend (Virginia Field) who has stashed $10 million in stolen war loot from her former boyfriend, an escaped Nazi. Also, while Bogart's Rick had Conrad Veidt's Nazi to play against in Casablanca, Raft is stuck playing against Konstantin Shayne's laughably clichéd travesty of Nazi evil.
Randolph Scott, on the other hand, seems to have sidled over from his latest B-Western on a nearby lot to play the third son, a broken-down but happy-go-lucky rodeo rider. While it doesn't exactly represent a stretch for Scott, it enables him to inhabit the role with relaxed good will and even a bit of welcome goofiness when his story wanders into screwball comedy territory. This happens when he's snagged at Grand Central Station by Dolores Moran's social worker who needs a man in a hurry to pose as her husband so she can penetrate and expose an illegal baby adoption racket. He misses a couple of the nuances of the situation, but doesn't seem to mind sharing three infant daughters with Moran before they've even had their first date.
Do they make it to the mansion in time to keep their mother from being railroaded to an asylum? Does Santa wear red? And while things are conveniently being tied up in a neat package, including Raft chasing Philip out of town gangster-style, let it be said that Harding trumps them all as the gentle old lady who's foxier than she seems. Channeling her inner Ethel Barrymore, Harding faces down the camera even when she's asked to stare right into it, and shows that she has a trick or two up her mutton-chop sleeve, to say nothing of a capacity for shrewd observations kept to herself until the right moment. Beneath her dithery exterior is a granite interior. She's the prize in this otherwise often lukewarm Christmas pudding of a movie.
By Jay Carr