Sunday, November 22, 2009

Film Review: Kid Millions

"Kid Millions" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Kid Millions" (1934) is a great movie for us old-timers. Here is a movie with plenty of song and dance, humor and lots of familiar faces.

The movie stars the legendary comedian Eddie Cantor. I've never discussed Cantor on here before. He is not very well remember (he may very well be completely forgotten) by younger audiences. But in his day he was a major talent having appeared in vaudeville, radio, stage, television and film. He was known for several reasons, first was his musical ability, he was the first to sing the song "Makin' Whoopee" in the Florenz Ziegfeld show "Whoopee" and later the film version in 1930. He was known for his bug eyes, which came to be known as "Banjo Eyes". He was also known for his blackface routines and even his personal life became known to his fans. He was married to the same woman for more than 50 years and together they had five daughters.

Growing up I watched a lot of Eddie Cantor, because as I have explained before, comedy is my favorite genre. So I always wanted to become familiar with all the famous names of the past. The first time I saw Cantor was in "Whoopee". I'm not sure how old I was but I know I wasn't old enough to attend school. Cantor never became a hero of mine. His comedy was firmly based on vaudeville routines in the Jewish tradition. Sometimes his jokes seems a little corny to me, even by a child's standards (!). His biggest appeal was his singing, at least to me. He wasn't a great singer in the sense Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra was but Cantor could sell a song, mostly comical songs.

I haven't watched "Kid Millions" in years. I actually forgot how much fun it is to watch. The movie's delight never seems to end. For me it was impossible not to have a smile on my face and hum along with the songs. The movie's good nature becomes infectious and we end up having as much fun as the characters seem to be having.

Cantor plays Eddie Wilson Jr. an abandon orphan who grew up in a family with three brothers, two of which are played by Edgar Kennedy, a famous comic known for playing a foil to Laurel & Hardy and Stanley Fields, whom I'll always think of as the Sheriff in the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Way Out West" (1937). Eddie is not happy living with his step-father and brothers. They mistreat him as they have never accepted him as one of the family. The brothers rough-house him and Eddie has the bruises to prove it. But everything is about to change in Eddie's life in an almost Cinderella fashion. Eddie's father, a famous archaeologist has passed away. The father was a millionaire and has left his entire fortune of $77 million (imagine what that meant in 1934!) to his son. In order to claim the inheritance Eddie has to go to Egypt.

The death of Eddie Wilson Sr. becomes a front page story and everyone seems to think they are the rightful heirs to the money. One woman, Dot Clark (Ethel Merman) feels she is because once when she met Eddie he went around saying he was married to her (in reality they weren't). But she thinks she can pull a scam and say she was his common law wife, at least that's what her boyfriend Louie (Warren Hymer) thinks. Next there is Colonel Larrabee (Berton Churchill) who is also headed to Egypt. He funded Eddie Wilson's last expedition to Egypt and feels he is entitled to the fortune.

But a lawyer, Jerry Lane (George Murphy, making his screen debut) refutes both men's claim citing Eddie Wilson Jr. is the rightful heir. This puts Jerry in a spot as he is in love with Larrabee's niece, Joan (Ann Sothern).

Events take a comical turn when everyone tries to trick Eddie into giving them the money. Dot and Louie's plan is to pretend Dot is really Eddie's mother and have him sign over the fortune to her. But when that doesn't work Louie tries to kill Eddie.

The film is actually pretty funny for a musical comedy. It could have succeeded as a comedy alone. Dot and Louie's banter is humorous as she throws out wise-cracks questioning Louie's intelligence. Eddie has a child-like innocence, who may known more than he leads others to believe, and calls Dot his "mommy" throughout the picture. He too gets in some good remarks.

And of course no musical can be made without a love story and that's why we have Murphy and Sothern. But that is really a sub-plot, lucky for us. The main emphasis is Cantor and the comedy. So we don't have to sit through mushy, predictable love scenes. But even if we did, Murphy and Sothern are such likable actors we probably wouldn't mind anyway.

None of the songs have really become part of the classic American songbook and are recognizable however they are all pretty good and get you tapping your feet. The score was written by a variety of composers. The most songs were written by the team Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn, here they wrote "An Earful of Music" sung by Merman and "When My Ship Comes In" sung by Cantor. Listen to the playful innocence of the lyrics. They have a child's imagination and resonate with Depression era audiences. Other songs were by Irving Berlin, his tune "Mandy" is given a nice showcase and Burton Lane has "I Wanna Be A Minstrel Man". Now if you known music pretty well, pay attention to the melody. Lane would re-use it for Fred Astaire in the film "Royal Wedding" (1951) and change the lyrics to "You're All The World To Me". That's the tune Astaire sings when he dances on the walls and ceilings. In "Kid Millions" however it is the Nicholas brothers; Fayard and Harold who dance and sing to the song. And there is one very pretty ballad, "Your Head on My Shoulder" sung by Murphy and Sothern.

I suppose I should say some modern, liberal, PC audiences may become offended by some of the material. Cantor does go into his blackface. He has one funny joke and preparing his make-up a black man is helping him. As Cantor puts the make-up on he looks at the black man as says "you don't know how lucky you are". But will everyone find it funny? Probably not. The introduction to the "Your Head on My Shoulder" will offend some with its Southern theme and mention of "darkies". But you must remember this was a different time. These gestures were seen as playful innocent fun. And don't go thinking Cantor was a racist. He shares the screen with the Nicholas Brothers and doesn't steal the spotlight. He could have because he was a star. But no, he allows them to steal the scene. Years later when he had his television show he gave a young Sammy Davis Jr. a break, which even caused some controversy and threats to end the show. But Cantor stood by Davis. So don't judge him so quickly or the movie.

As I said the cast is filled with faces movie buffs will instantly recognize. Ethel Merman was a major name on Broadway, where she appeared in several musicals and became a favorite of composers Cole Porter and Irving Berlin due to her singing range. She appeared in both the stage play and movie adaption of Porter's "Anything Goes". She was the first to sing "I Get A Kick Out of You". Some younger audiences might know her for her performance in the comedy "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963). She was also in the Irving Berlin musical "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1954) with Marilyn Monroe singing "Heatwave" and in the Ritz Brothers' comedy "Straight Place and Show" (1938).

Ann Sothern had quite a career on television, which is how I know her best. She starred in "Private Secretary" (which ran from 1953-1957), where she was nominated for several Emmy nominations. She even won an Academy Award nomination very late in her career for her performance in "The Whales of August" (1987). And she was in other screen musicals like Cole Porter's "Panama Hattie" (1942).

I've written about George Murphy before. I reviewed two movies he was in; "For Me and My Gal" (1942) and "Step Lively" (1944). He is very good in both. He was also in a couple of the "Broadway Melody" films, "The Broadway Melody of 1938" (1937) and "1940" (1940). He was a very good song and dance man who sadly isn't as well remembered as Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. Here he seems a little uncomfortable to me though. As I said this was his first screen appearance.

In the end though "Kid Millions" is really Eddie Cantor's show. He carries the film from beginning to end. That is usually the case with his films. His energy makes you watch the movie. If you find that you enjoy watching him try "Roman Scandals" (1933) and "Whoopee". You also might get some fun out of "The Kid From Spain" (1932), but that isn't a favorite of mine. Neither is "Strike Me Pink" (1936).

The film was directed by Roy Del Ruth. You'll notice his name attached to a lot of musicals like the now lost "The Gold Diggers of Broadway" (1929) or the Cole Porter musical "Du Barry Was A Lady" (1943) with Lucille Ball and Gene Kelly. He also directed the original "The Maltese Falcon" (1931) with Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. Most people forget about this version and think the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart version is the original.

The script was by Nunnally Johnson who wrote "Thanks A Million" (1935) with Dick Powell and funnyman Fred Allen. He also adapted John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940). The other writers were Nat Perrin, who had a long career in comedy writing. He wrote the Olsen & Johnson comedy "Hellzapoppin' (1941), which I have reviewed, the Marx Brothers' comedy "The Big Store" (1941) and the Abbott & Costello comedy "Pardon My Sarong" (1942). And Arthur Sheekman, who wrote another comedy for Cantor, "Roman Scandals" and the Joe E. Brown picture "The Gladiator" (1938).

I would strongly recommend "Kid Millions". You might have to have a bit of an old-fashion streak in you to really appreciate it and soak in all the film's charms but regardless this is good nature fun. The music and humor should please even some of the most modern minded movie fans.