The Periodic Circulation of Brewster’s Millions
There have apparently been rumors afoot for the past several years that there is an umpteenth remake of Brewster’s Millions in development. Nothing is more depressing than googling such a thing nowadays and seeing how it is covered in the media. Not to put too fine a point on it, the knowledge most supposed movie writers have about cinema history is about an inch deep. Most write with the voices, the perspective, and apparently the education of twelve year old children. Plenty seem to evince an awareness of what’s in cinemas at the moment, and perhaps what was happening ten minutes ago. Some have a fairly decent background in what might be called “Hollywood 101”. They’ve seen Casablanca and City Lights and The French Connection — but, truth be known, so have most reasonably well educated people. But really very few film writers seem to go anywhere beyond that, as one might think a professional critic who has any self-respect really ought to. Thus, most of the coverage (perhaps 95% of it) on the Brewster’s Millions revival story is along the order of, “Dilberti and Sullivan are remaking the 1985 Richard Pryor movie Brewster’s Millions“. A tiny percentage of the others demonstrate a glancing knowledge that there have been previous versions; although most do so with the attitude than anyone who has actually SEEN one of the previous versions is “insane” (I read one that actually said that).
Well, no, let’s spin that around shall we? Because, see, I’m more of the opinion that if you’re going to write an article, and you’re not already competent in the craft of a critic, and if you don’t already have a thorough grounding in cinematic history let alone cultural history (which apparently is just science fiction to expect), I repeat, if you don’t have all that in place and you can’t even be bothered to fucking GOOGLE the thing you’re supposed to be writing about, you really are the scourge of the universe, beneath the nits that live in the shit that a performing chimp scrapes off his shoe. Okay? So let’s just say that people who watch old movies are insane; however, people who have no idea what they’re writing about are stupid. And I’d much rather be insane than stupid. The mad have occasional moments of clarity, whereas the stupid remain stupid every moment of their lives.
At any rate, five minutes of online research reveals that there have been countless versions of Brewster’s Millions over the past 111 years in nearly every medium known to man. A half hour or so of research uncovers enough to make a passable article. A few hours more might provide one with some entertainment and a better grasp of one’s craft and the history of popular entertainment. Unless you’re too busy playing with your PlayStation.
The original novel, by George Barr McCutcheon (1902). This book came to my notice because it’s on an old list of “classics” and “great books” taken from one of those old, fat dictionaries which I periodically use as a guide for my reading. The list was made no later than the 1950s. (McCutcheon’s brother was a famous cartoonist, and his college room-mate was George Ade) Were I sitting on one of those committees that diversify canons, this is a book I would happily exchange for a much worthier one by a minority or a woman. Doesn’t belong on this list at all. It’s too strong to say it has nothing to commend it, but I’m not far from dismissing it that completely. It’s not terrible, like some famous works of literature (Trilby, Dracula) are. But neither is it any great literature. It’s just a light comic novel, one that seems like it might be coming close to having some sort of moral message, but upon minute examination, doesn’t even offer that. One imagines that it’s on the list, much like the similarly weak Charleys Aunt purely because it was once popular.
The novel concerns a decent but somewhat conventional young man named Montgomery Brewster who comes into a million dollars from his grandfather and then a prospective seven million from an uncle, but only if he will spend every penny of the grandfather’s million within the period of one year. The contract comes with all sorts of conditions, so that spending that million will not be easy, and he is not allowed to tell anyone. A lot of humor is mined from the predicament of needing to shed rather than make money, and everything is turned topsy turvy as he goes into risky ventures, tries to pick losing stocks, has a lot of parties and vacations, etc. If a satire about conspicuous consumption is intended, I don’t see it. All the spending is of course sickening, in this and every version. And every other character in the story tries to correct him as he does so. But still…I dunno. I don’t feel that this premise has ever been solved, in this or any subsequent version, or that it either makes a good story or a good point. A point might be….”I’ve just spent a million dollars. It was sickening; I have nothing to show for it. I’m not a happier person. Therefore what am I going to do with seven million dollars? Keep it!” But that’s not what happens. He does all this to receive more wealth, and then he does receive more wealth. Presumably he will use these resources more prudently, but so what? What’s the lesson of that? In the unlikely event you have millions of dollars, don’t waste it all? Not that all stories need to be didactic, although true satire generally is. But if it’s just a comic story, it doesn’t work for me either because it’s just a nauseating chronicle of this man’s stressful waste of a lot of money, with all his friends thinking he is crazy or a jerk.
Broadway Play (1906) Already a successful novel, the book was adapted for the Broadway stage by Winchell Smith and Byron Ongley (those are playwright names from central casting if I ever heard them). It was produced by Thompson and Dundy (of Luna Park fame) at the New Amsterdam Theatre and it ran six months, and then went on to an international tour. The stage adaptation would form the basis of later versions. The photo above, from the original production, is from a scene where Monty takes all his friends sailing around the world on his yacht, suffering foul weather and a pirate attack along the way. A century ago, a million dollars was a great deal of money. To spend that much the character needed to go to extraordinary lengths. It is interesting to track how the amounts and the time periods change in subsequent versions as the currency has inflated over time.
First Film Version (1914). Cecil B. Demille and Oscar Apfel first adapted and co-directed the story for the screen in 1914, featuring the star of the Broadway production Edward Abeles. This was right on the heels of The Squaw Man, making it one of the first original feature films to be produced in the United States. The film has long been lost.
The Broadway(Bound) Musical (1919): In 1919, the stage play was turned into a musical called Zip! Goes a Million, with music by Jerome Kern and Buddy DeSylva. (Thanks, Richard Galgano, for the tip on this and the other musical version) The show premiered in Worcester but never got as far as Broadway. One of the songs cut from the show was “Look for the Silver Living” which was used the following year in the Marilyn Miller vehicle Sally and of course became a big, big hit.
Fatty Arbuckle Version (1921) The second silent version was rejiggered as a vehicle for comedy star Fatty Arbuckle. It was one of the last films he made before the scandal that temporarily set back his career and has since been lost.
Miss Brewsters Millions (1926). Like the previous two versions, this one was produced by Paramount (formerly Famous Players-Lasky) and is considered lost. It’s main point of interest is that this is one is gender reversed with Bebe Daniels portraying Polly Brewster. Also in the cast are Ford Sterling and Warner Baxter.
The Screen Musical (1935) Interestingly, the first talkie version is not only a musical, but British. This version is the earliest extant cinematic version of the story, as far as anyone knows. A review on IMDB says it is rather bad, clumsily shot and staged, which would only be par for the course for a British musical of the period. It doesn’t seem to be available on DVD.
Jack Benny Radio Version (1937). Frankly, this is the only one of all these versions that seems to me that even has the potential to be funny. Jack Benny’s famous persona as a tight wad adds another comic dimension to the story; if you’re not laughing at the plot, at least you’re laughing at Benny. This version was broadcast for Lux Radio Theatre, and it feels like a sort of merger of the traditional story and Benny’s own radio sit-com The Jack Benny Program. It co-stars his real life wife and comedy partner Mary Livingstone, but not the rest of his usual cast of characters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, or Kenny Baker/ Dennis Day. As it is, if anything Benny cedes too much to the Brewster story. Although the writers have punched it up some with jokes, it’s a bit flatter than a regular Benny episode. Which only goes to say that any weekly episode of Benny’s long-running program is more enjoyable than Brewsters’ Millions, which isn’t saying much for it. But you can listen to it! Here:
World War 2 Version (1945). This is the first American talkie version, and the earliest cinematic version I have been able to see. And a very lacklustre specimen it is. Though directed by Allan Dwan, the script is shoddy and — as in so many movies of the period — the cast is full of boring puppet people. Star Dennis O’Keefe seems likeable, good-looking and All-American, but in a comedy I prefer an actor who is funny. Ironically, though he wasn’t in the Jack Benny version, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson is in THIS version, playing the servant role he would have played to Benny. But even he can’t save this leaden, strained comedy, nor can June Havoc and Mischa Auer in supporting roles.
Old Gold Radio Version (1945). To promote the film, the principle cast members guessed starred in a half hour version for Old Gold Comedy Theatre, hosted (rather stiffly) by none other than Harold Lloyd! Listen to that here:
The West End Musical (1951) A completely different musical called Zip Goes a Million (in which Brewster is now a window washer named Percy Piggot) opened in London in 1951, starring George Formby. It was a smash hit running for over a year and a half and then touring for several months after that.
Cheesy Eighties Comedy Version (1985). As we’ve come to know, “Cheesy 80s Comedy” is a genre. Some have big budgets, some have small budgets, some feature stars, some are full of nobodies, but the common denominator is that they are all crap. This one is a doozy — one wonders if it wasn’t financed by Monty Brewster himself, the way money appears to have been lavished on such a losing proposition. Walter Hill, fresh from the smash success of 48 Hours directed. Brewster’s Millions is really his only comedy, and though there are funny scenes in 48 Hours and Streets of Fire (1984), comedy is really not his forte. The tone of this movie is jerky. No one in the film is likeable (even the stuff Hill gives co-stars Richard Pryor and John Candy to do to be likeable makes me dislike them intensely). The script feels like the screenwriters had a couple of other screenplay ideas sitting around and they sort of sewed them all together to make this movie. In this one, for no good reason at all other than that Pryor looks kind of like Reggie Jackson in a baseball uniform, Brewster is a minor league pitcher. So a portion of the movie is given over to the “winning the big game” plot. Then, as must happen apparently in nearly all modern comedies, there is the “running for office with a populist message” plot, as Brewster decides to spend a portion of his money on a losing campaign with the message that he is representing “None of the Above.” The film treats that like it’s some big, profound political message, but it’s just junk. The entire movie is junk. The soundtrack by Ry Cooder of all people, sounds like someone pushed a button on a Casio and just let it run through the background of the entire movie. Other talents wasted in the film include Jerry Orbach, Pat Hingle, Tovah Feldshuh, Rick Moranis, and Hume Cronyn. Talents that seem about right at home include Stephen Collins and David White (Larry Tate from Bewitched). In short, if you never see this, or really any version of Brewster’s Millions ever in your entire life, you won’t be any the poorer for it.
So one question I have as we wait on this next version is, Why do people keep remaking this? Is it because no one’s ever gotten it right, even from the very beginning?
This entry was posted on March 26, 2013 at 6:59 am and is filed under BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), Radio (Old Time Radio), Silent Film with tags Brewster's Millions, movie reviews, Zip Goes a Million. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.