One of the most fascinating plots of the past century was created by George Barr McCutcheon, who in 1902 published a novel entitled Brewster`s Millions. The hero of this novel receives an inheritance of seven million dollars from a wealthy and deceased great-uncle, on the condition that he first spends a whole million dollars before his birthday. In the 1945 film version we will be discussing, this unusual condition is designed to teach him the benefits of thrift and prudent living by inculcating a distaste for lavish spending; and in order to make the lesson as lasting as possible, the nephew is forbidden to give more than 5% of the initial million to charity. In other words, he has to spend or give away the million in such a way that he is poorer after he has spent it than before–thus he has to be very careful that he does not invest or spend it in such a way that he has any assets remaining to him on his birthday. And if any of these conditions are not met, then he forfeits the seven million that he would otherwise gain.
Obviously, this plot boasts a universal appeal that many of the Greek tragedies cannot offer. Every person, at some point of their life, has spent a few wonderful minutes planning a life enriched and facilitated by the prospect of endless wealth–and every person ever faced with the necessity of supporting themselves understands the importance of money and the bliss that would ensue were they to receive seven million on such a wonderful condition as the swift spending of another million. Thus the story comes with a suspense and an excitement that are keenly felt by the audience on a very personal level. The average person may not take a very intimate interest in the dilemmas of Antigone or Oedipus, but whether artistic or not, most people will be enthralled with the situation and central problem of Brewster`s Millions. And for proof of that claim, we have only to look at the story`s popularity in many forms. The novel was turned into a play in 1906, and filmed seven times in English alone; there seem to have been three Indian versions as well.
The 1945 film version, which starred Dennis O`Keefe, Helen Walker, and Eddie “Rochester“ Anderson, was directed by Allan Dwan and slightly updated to make the plot more contemporary. In this version, Monty Brewster (Dennis O`Keefe) is returning to his fiancee Peggy (Helen Walker) after being honorably discharged from the army due to a head wound. Upon learning of his new inheritance and its strange conditions, he of course sets to work to spend the million (with only sixty days to do so), but since it involves delaying his wedding and throwing money wildly away, Peggy and Monty`s two army pals are understandably concerned.
Although the plotline is very simple, the film itself was a wonderful surprise. The main premise is ingenious, the characters are likable, the jokes are plentiful, and the lines whiz by each other at top speed, as though there was a budget of words that had to be spent by the end of the movie along with the million dollars.
The updating of the story to the WWII era works quite well, and even provides a few additional jokes; for instance, Monty`s extravagance is sometimes credited to his head wound. It`s a very swiftly-paced movie, coming in at 76 minutes, and one wishes that it had been a little longer in certain places, especially after a rich society girl (Gail Patrick) and a brassy, highly untalented actress (June Havoc) enter the picture. In order to waste his money more effectively, Monty asks Patrick to plan lavish parties and backs a show starring Havoc in the hopes that it will be a huge flop (it is). It would have been enjoyable to see the extravagance of the parties and the thespian horrors of the show, but the movie`s stage origins may explain the reasons that the action is largely confined to three or four localities.
Although the argument could be made that the characters are somewhat underdeveloped and the central romantic situation passed over quite lightly, this kind of criticism would not be relevant to the film`s genre, since Brewster`s Millions makes no pretense of being a weighty character study; it`s a brisk, snappy little comedy centered around a basic situation, and it`s interested in being entertaining and funny all the way to the end–and it certainly meets its goals. In fact, it`s something of a relief that the problem of the confused and jealous fiancee, for example, is treated in such a peripheral manner; we`ve seen that situation in many films, and it never leads to much except boredom on the part of the audience and relief at the final explanation. Again, it`s largely a light, funny film, and there are a few lovely moments of sheer light-heartedness, such as a scene when the main characters start singing “We`re in the Money.“
The film has many similarities with the screwball comedies of the 1930s and early 40s, and at its best it even seems to belong to the genre; that impression is helped by the appearance of such character actors as Gail Patrick and Mischa Auer, whose most memorable roles were in such comedies. But this is one of those few and all too rare films when even the hardened film critic can suspend his doubts and enjoy the movie and the rapid-fire repartee. Maybe it`s because even film critics can understand the supreme importance of gaining a seven million dollar inheritance!