I interrupt my consideration of The Magnificent
Ambersons for this entry in the Classic Movie
Blog Association’s Comedy Classics Blogathon.
For other posts in the blogathon, click on the
link; you’ll find my colleagues at CMBA holding
forth on comedies from City Lights to Pillow
Talk, from Ball of Fire to The Producers,
and on stars from Jean Harlow to Gene
Tierney. There are a lot of famous names
and revered titles on the agenda; trust
me to pick one you never heard of.
Miss Tatlock’s Millions
(1948) is another one of those pre-1950 Paramounts now owned by Universal that I used to see regularly in late-night TV syndication, like Night Has a Thousand Eyes
and Alias Nick Beal
. That’s where I discovered it in the late 1960s — our local CBS affiliate dipped freely into the Paramount package, and after local news signed off at 11:30 p.m. it was movies every weeknight until the wee hours. Tatlock
was one of the titles I used to search for every week in the Late Late Show listings as soon as we got the TV Guide
home from the supermarket.
If (as it’s sometimes said) Charade and Witness for the Prosecution are the best Hitchcock movies Hitchcock never made, then Miss Tatlock’s Millions is one of the best Preston Sturges movies Preston Sturges never made. Of course Sturges (like Hitchcock) remains peerless, and I wouldn’t necessarily rank Miss Tatlock’s Millions up there with The Lady Eve or Sullivan’s Travels. But The Great McGinty? Christmas in July? Definitely. (And for that matter, miles ahead of The Sin of Harold Diddlebock or The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend.)
For starters, just take a gander at — feast your eyes upon — the roster of names on this poster. That’s what I call a pretty deep bench. I’ll get to all of them in time, but let’s begin with the fine print way down there at the bottom.
Charles Brackett’s name probably rings a bell, and well it should. He was Billy Wilder’s writing partner for 13 years; they turned out scripts for other directors (Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife
, Hold Back the Dawn
) and, once Billy turned director, for Wilder himself (The Major and the Minor
, Five Graves to Cairo
, The Lost Weekend
, and their mutual masterpiece Sunset Blvd.
) Brackett teamed almost as often with young Richard Breen (Breen was 30 in 1948, Brackett 56), and five years later they would share an Oscar (with Walter Reisch) for writing the first Titanic
with Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck. Brackett and Breen came to Miss Tatlock’s Millions
fresh from collaborating with Wilder on A Foreign Affair
. (And by the way, for info on another Brackett-Breen collaboration, hop over to Tales of the Easily Distracted
and read DorianTB on Henry Hathaway’s Niagara
, another terrific Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock didn’t make. But I digress.)
Miss Tatlock’s Millions begins, like Sullivan’s Travels, with a midnight brawl between two men, this time in a seedy room rather than on a speeding train. Also like Sullivan’s Travels, the opener turns out to be a movie-within-the-movie tease. Not on the screen, but on the set: One of the two men crashes through a window, rolls across an overhang, falls on his back in the street below, and a voice shouts, “Okay, cut!” The director is Paramount ace Mitchell Leisen (“I had hoped he’d hit his head on the chimney coming down, but I guess that’s the best we can get.”), and the man who took the tumble is stuntman Tim Burke (John Lund), doubling for star Ray Milland. Leisen and Milland here make in-joke cameos, a favor to Brackett in return for ones he’s done them: scripts for Leisen (Midnight, Hold Back the Dawn, To Each His Own), roles — and an Oscar — for Milland (The Major and the Minor; Arise, My Love; The Uninvited; The Lost Weekend). (And say, check out that nameless script girl standing between them; eager to make an impression, or what?)
As he leaves the set, Burke is approached by Denno Noonan (Barry Fitzgerald), who found him through a picture file at Central Casting. Noonan is the social secretary (i.e., “keeper”) for one Schuyler Tatlock, the eccentric (i.e., “barking mad”) scion of the wealthy Santa Barbara Tatlocks, shipped off by his concerned (i.e., “embarrassed”) family to the safe distance of the Hawaiian Islands. That is, he was Schuyler’s keeper — until two years ago, when Schuyler, indulging his weakness for matches, burned himself to death while Noonan was in the village indulging his own weakness for Irish whisky. Noonan never told the family, just stayed there enjoying the sunshine, tropical breezes, and $500-a-month allowance checks. But now Schuyler’s grandparents have both died, and Noonan must produce him for the reading of the will; he wants to hire Burke to impersonate Schuyler, “a thousand dollars in 48 hours and no physical discomfort whatsoever.” Noonan insists the family won’t know the difference — “They haven’t seen him in ten years and they didn’t look at him then.” Looking at a snapshot, Burke admits there is a strong resemblance. Of course, he’ll have to darken his blonde hair, adopt the glasses Schuyler always wore…
…and put the proper expression on his face.
Burke is still dubious, but as Noonan wisely points out, it beats falling off buildings for 150 bucks a pop, so before long they’re motoring up the Coast Highway toward Santa Barbara. That’s where Burke gets his first glimpse of the Tatlock estate. “Just a sweet little family cottage,” Noonan explains, “with 22 bathrooms.” “How come they didn’t buy the Pacific Ocean too?” asks Burke. “They would’ve,” Noonan says, “only they couldn’t landscape the other side.”
In that sweet little cottage up there, the heirs of Grandfather and Grandmother Tatlock have started to gather. Already there is Schuyler’s younger sister Nancy (Wanda Hendrix), who lived with her grandparents, joined by her uncles Gifford (Dan Tobin) and Miles (Monty Woolley) and Miles’s wife Emily (Dorothy Stickney). Emily is sweetly engrossed in her embroidery, but the two brothers are already licking their chops. Miles calculates that after all the assorted taxes and fees, their parents’ estate will come to “only” about $6 million. “As a practicing communist, you should be pleased.” “Gifford’s not a communist, Miles dear,” Emily says; “he just likes to see his name on letterheads.” “Oh, I admit you’re not one by conviction,” says Miles. “You just haven’t the guts to face being a rich man.” Nancy is appalled at their naked greed and goes for a walk in the vast garden (with its $900-a-month watering bill).
Noonan comes in with the ersatz
Schuyler, announcing that Schuyler
is “a turtle” today, and he refuses
to talk to anybody but
…so Miles, Gifford and Emily have
no choice but to follow suit — only
to have “Schuyler” change the game
and guffaw at their silly poses.
Next to arrive is Nicky Van Alen
(Robert Stack), Schuyler and Nancy’s
cousin. He’s a shallow, conceited Polo
Lounge Lothario who’s never given a
second’s thought to anything but himself
— but he’s the first one to notice that
there’s something different about
Finally, Burke/Schuyler meets 19-year-old Nancy, who greets him affectionately and remembers how he was “so sweet to me when I was little.” Burke is speechless, not sure how to respond, and Nancy turns dolefully to Noonan. “He’s worse, isn’t he?” Nancy is beautiful, fetching and open-hearted, and it’s a real effort for Burke to maintain Schuyler’s idiot grin. This job is getting more complicated by the minute.
The last relative to arrive is imperious Cassie Van Alen
(Ilka Chase), Nicky’s mother and Miles and Gifford’s
sister. But when the will is finally opened and read,
there are a couple of surprises in store for the
acquisitive branches of the Tatlock-Van Alen clan.
Grandfather Tatlock, after a few small bequests to
the servants, left his entire estate to “my beloved
wife Annette Tatlock, for distribution to our heirs”
— never suspecting that she would outlive him by
only an hour. And what nobody suspected until
now is that Grandmother Annette left a hand-written
holographic will leaving “everything I possess” to her
unfortunate grandson Schuyler — and as things turned
out, everything she possessed at her death consisted
of the entire Tatlock estate, lock, stock and barrel.
Schuyler gets absolutely everything.
The next morning at breakfast, Miles, Cassie and Gifford fawn over their new favorite nephew, then ignore him as he climbs under the patio table, complacently sure that their conversation will go over his head — literally and figuratively. From his perch at their feet, Burke hears the three siblings cut a deal: Miles and Gifford will have themselves made Schuyler’s trustees, and will then settle a generous allowance — “Say, $100,000 a year for life” — on Nancy, which Cassie will gain control of by marrying Nancy off to Nicky.
Once Cassie has explained the facts of life to Nicky, he turns on the oily charm to Nancy, nurturing the crush she has had on him since childhood. “It just hit me all of a sudden,” he preens, “I haven’t been giving you a break. Did a miracle happen overnight? You’ve stepped right up into my class. I could show you around with a lot of pleasure.”
That night after dinner, Nicky turns up the heat over candlelight and cocktails in the greenhouse. Meanwhile, Burke prowls protectively (and jealously) in the trees overhead, keeping an eye on the snake Nicky’s progress. Suddenly he slips and falls through the glass roof, landing flat on his back at Nicky and Nancy’s feet, in a real-life reprise of the stunt that opens the picture. This time, however, he’s injured and momentarily stunned. Before his head can clear, he speaks to Nancy, forgetting to keep up the babbling Schuyler act. Nancy is thrilled, convinced that the shock has knocked Schuyler into his right mind, and that she has “a real brother” at last.
In the days that follow, Nancy appoints herself Schuyler’s personal therapist, moving him into the room next to hers, nursing him back to health, planning to take over his education and ease him into adult society. The aunt and uncles scramble to ingratiate themselves with their newly-competent nephew. And Nicky pouts and fumes that suddenly Nancy has no time for him.
Things quickly get complicated, especially for Burke, who has fallen in love with Nancy. For Nancy too, who can’t imagine why all at once her lifelong crush on Nicky pales beside her affection for her “brother”. (Here the script plays with sexual taboo in much the way Brackett and Wilder did in The Major and the Minor: In the earlier picture, Ray Milland was disturbed by his feelings for the “child” Ginger Rogers, and the movie got away with it because we knew she was really an adult. In the same way, we know here that “Schuyler” isn’t really her brother — but Nancy doesn’t.)
Things begin to tumble out of control, just as Burke did when he fell through the greenhouse roof. Aunt Cassie finds a mysterious bottle of hair dye under the mattress in Noonan’s room, which sets her thinking, and doing a little homework. She still has a few tricks up her sleeve.
Well, I think that’s about as far as I want to go; mustn’t spoil every
thing. Miss Tatlock’s Millions
is one of the forgotten pleasures of 1940s Hollywood. I’m told that it was a moderate success at the box office with a loyal cult following (rather similar, I imagine, to the response to the original Peter Cook-Dudley Moore Bedazzled
in 1967). A quick glance at the picture’s user reviews (including my own) on the IMDb
testifies to the fondness for it among those who saw it, either in theaters in 1948 or (like me) later in its TV syndication.
Miss Tatlock’s Millions was directed by veteran character actor Richard Haydn, who also appears (under the name “Richard Rancyd”) as the family attorney who breaks the good news to “Schuyler” and the bad news to Miles, Cassie and Gifford. As Lawyer Fergel (accent on the second syllable, please), Haydn uses the patented hyper-nasal, super-enunciated voice for which he was famous, the same voice he used as the Caterpillar in Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (“Ah-whooo…aaaarrrrrre…Ah-yooo?”). Haydn could be just as memorable without the voice, most noticeably as “Uncle” Max Detweiler in The Sound of Music in 1965. (I’ve heard many people bemoan the fact that Christopher Plummer was passed over for an Oscar nomination in that picture, and I agree with them. But even more unjust, I think, was the failure to nominate Haydn as best supporting actor. It should have been the capstone of his career.) For Tatlock — the first of only three pictures he directed — Haydn adopted a style and pace less headlong and frenetic than Preston Sturges at his best, but still sprightly, giving his sterling cast plenty of room to stretch out and enjoy themselves. (Brackett and Breen’s sparkling dialogue gave Monty Woolley one of his signature lines, often quoted by people with no idea of where it came from: “California, the only state in the Union where you can go to sleep under a rosebush in full bloom — and freeze to death.”)
Haydn could take considerable pride in the performance he got from John Lund. Lund’s career never quite fulfilled its early promise; he seems to have spent much of it — certainly at Paramount — being palmed off as a taller version of Alan Ladd. Certainly, he shows here a flair for semi-slapstick comedy that was seldom given rein, and never exploited as fully as Brackett, Breen and Haydn do here. Miss Tatlock’s Millions is, not to mince words, a riot, and it’s largely thanks to John Lund.
Miss Tatlock’s Millions
is harder to find than it was in 1948, or during the 1960s and ’70s on TV, but it hasn’t entirely dropped off the face of the earth. It briefly appeared on VHS during the Video Stone Age. Still, it was rare enough that I considered myself lucky to score a 16mm print on eBay about six years ago. No sooner did I do that than it came out on DVD-R from Hollywood’s Attic (as a general rule of thumb, if you want to ensure that a movie comes out on DVD, talk me into buying a 16mm print of it). That disc appears to have been transferred from a 16mm syndication print, but it’s decent enough; the pictures in this post are frame-caps from it. But even that is out of print now, though you can still (as of this writing) find a few copies on Amazon
. Miss Tatlock’s Millions
is long overdue for a proper DVD transfer from original elements, or at least a 35mm print — a transfer that does justice not only to the performances, but to Victor Young’s music and Charles Lang’s cinematography.
How about it, Universal?