Friday, July 5, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #32: "Money Means Nothing" (1934)

Try telling that to a landlord or a loan shark. See how far it gets you.

The flick: Money Means Nothing (Monogram Pictures, 1934) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.4

Director: Christy Cabanne (The Mummy's Hand; uncredited fill-in director on Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ [1925 version]; known for being prolific rather than talented; directed Life of Villa and The Life of General Villa, both featuring the real-life Pancho Villa)

Ford as "Phroso"
Actors of note:
  • Wallace Ford (Harvey; Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt and Spellbound; was "Phroso the Clown" in Tod Browning's Freaks)
  • Viven Oakland (Mutiny on the Bounty; worked with Laurel & Hardy in Way Out West and A Chump at Oxford)
  • Betty Blythe (The Postman Always Rings Twice, My Fair Lady)
  • Tenen Holtz (Nothing Sacred)
  • Richard Tucker (first official member of the Screen Actors Guild; appeared in Wings, the first-ever Best Picture winner and The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length talkie)
  • Ann Brody (Three on a Match)
  • Douglas Fowley (Singin' in the Rain, The Thin Man, TV credits ranging from Gunsmoke to CHiPs, a great deal more)
  • Maidel Turner (It Happened One Night, The Raven)

The hero, heroine, and comic foil.
The gist of it: Against the wishes of her snooty family, rich party girl Julie (Shea) marries working stiff Kenny (Ford), an employee at an auto parts warehouse whose trucks have been getting hijacked an awful lot lately. Julie and Kenny move into a little Brooklyn apartment, where they are constantly being annoyed by their intrusive, overbearing neighbors, the Greens (Kennedy and Turner). Mr. Green happens to be Kenny's boss, so the couple is obliged to be nice to him.

One night, Julie's wealthy relatives show up for her birthday, and the Greens invite themselves over for dinner, only to be offended by the way the rich folks treat them. In retaliation, Mr. Green fires innocent Kenny and tells the police he thinks Kenny is the one who's been tipping off the hijackers. His professional reputation ruined, Kenny cannot find employment, and soon the newlyweds are nearly destitute and must pawn their few possessions for food and rent.

It's at this dark time when Julie discovers she's pregnant, but she still turns down an offer from her sister (Oakland) to rejoin the family and go to Europe. Kenny takes a job with an ex-coworker, Red Miller (Fowley), who turns out to be the real ringleader of the truck hijackers.

My take: Oh, goddammit. Another truck hijacking movie, Mill Creek? Wasn't The Gang's All Here enough? Money Means Nothing was made by cheapskate Monogram Pictures, so it probably always looked and sounded pretty crummy, but time has been particularly cruel to this thoroughly mediocre film, making the viewing experience even less pleasurable. The DVD version was clearly made from a clumsy VHS transfer, which in turn was mastered from a scratchy, badly faded print. The picture is so faint at times that the actors almost become invisible.

But even if this film were given a meticulous, frame-by-frame restoration, it still wouldn't be any good. Apart from one pretty neat tracking shot (all but ruined by the DVD transfer), Christy Cabanne's direction is very flat-footed and unimaginative. Some poor dubbing adds to the film's technical woes.

The script, which was "suggested" by a stage play, is very contrived and takes an unwelcome turn into melodrama about halfway through before morphing into a half-assed thriller. The leads are merely adequate. There is no reason to believe that Gloria Shea's vivacious character would fall instantly in love with an uninspiring dullard like Wallace Ford's tire salesman, simply because he makes a few limp wisecracks on the night of their first meeting. In all honesty, the rich girl is making a huge mistake by marrying this man and forsaking the family fortune, and the movie miscalculates badly by turning her into a noble martyr when she started the film as a fun-loving free spirit.

In short, this film is a chore to watch. Perhaps the best thing I can say about this movie is that at least the hero and heroine share a double bed. A lot of the married couples in these movies have had separate twin beds... and even separate bedrooms!

The Greens are especially bad neighbors.
Is it funny: Nope. To be fair, Money Means Nothing stops being a comedy for a long, long stretch in the middle of the film and gets all weepy and depressing. Even at its best, though, it never rates any higher than "kind of cute." My favorite scene occurs early on when Julie's brother-in-law (Tucker) discovers that the young lady has spent hundreds of dollars on auto accessories and that one of the family's cars now has about half a dozen horns and all sorts of other unnecessary gizmos. (Further useless car parts are stockpiled in the garage.)

The Greens should be a source of comedy in the film, but the nature of their revenge against Julie and Kenny makes them altogether too unpleasant to be amusing. The movie's best comic asset, beloved hothead Edgar Kennedy, is somewhat squandered here. If I could travel back in time and rewrite the script for this film -- and, believe me, that would be my top priority under such circumstances -- I'd completely ditch the truck hijacking angle along with any hint of melodrama and just turn Money Means Nothing into a comedy of manners.

If there's any fun to be had here, it's from watching the young lovers deal with their tacky, talkative neighbors. My take on this material would emphasize that element of the script, seasoned with a bit of "culture clash"/snobs versus slobs humor. Even then, Money Means Nothing would probably still only rate a B+, but it would at least be more entertaining than the existing version.

My grade: C-

P.S. - No negative African-American stereotypes, but there are some questionable Jewish stereotypes, the first of their kind in this set. The Silvermans (Holtz and Brody) run a pawn shop where Julie goes to pawn the fur coat she got from her family at that fateful birthday party. The film portrays the elderly couple in a (basically) positive light, which is nice, but these characters border on cartoonish in their speech and mannerisms. So this is kind of a gray area.