Saturday, December 27, 2008

THE CHEATERS (1945)

This odd little film plays out like a Christmas spin on MY MAN GODFREY. The family of rich businessman Eugene Pallette (at left) is in financial trouble, partly due to the spendthrift ways of his wife (Billie Burke). They're hoping Pallette's even richer sick uncle will die soon and leave them his money. Well, he does die, but instead he leaves his five million dollars to a woman he doesn't even know: a former child actress named Watson whom he saw back in 1915 play the part of Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin. If she can't be found "in a reasonable amount of time," the money will go to Pallette, so he bribes the attorney into allowing only one week for the search. Meanwhile, to impress the visiting fiancé of one of the daughters, the family decides to take a charity case into their home over Christmas week: a homeless man (Joseph Schildkraut) who was once a well-known actor. He overhears their scheme and offers to use his theatre connections to find Watson so that the family can keep her out of the way during the search. They find her (Ona Munson) and take her into their home, pretending that they've discovered she's a long-lost cousin. When news of the search hits the papers, the family retreats to an isolated mountain lodge to wait out the holiday week, but eventually the truth comes out. Will the family do the right thing?

The best thing about this film is its physical production; it's a A-looking movie produced by B-studio Republic Pictures and the elaborate sets give it a big-studio gloss. The actors are also bigger names than Republic typically had at its beck and call, though most of them were aging actors who had seen better days (Schildkraut would have a comeback a decade later as Otto Frank in stage and screen versions of The Diary of Anne Frank). The problem is the writing; the screenplay could have used another draft or two, especially in character development. One daughter (Ann Gillis) is built up as a kind of sly, whimsical type in contrast to the engaged daughter (Ruth Terry) who is more cold-blooded, but nothing is done with that potentially interesting tension. Old pros Pallette (who was the father in GODFREY) and Burke are fine, though their choice to underplay their underwritten parts takes some of the fun out of the proceedings. Schildkraut is good, but his character remains a cipher, not in a mysterious angel/ghost way, but in a way that suggests the writers didn't know what to do with him. There is solid support from Raymond Walborn, Norma Varden, and eternal butler Robert Grieg who unfortunately vanishes halfway through the film. There is some nice holiday atmosphere throughout, from the opening snowfall to Schildkraut's brief reenactment of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at the climax. TCM host Robert Osborne introduced this as "the best Christmas movie you've never heard of," and as I am familiar with almost every Christmas-themed Hollywood feature film ever made, he may be right, and I am grateful for the chance to have seen it, but it's not a gem I'll want to revisit often. [TCM]

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