50 Million Frenchmen (Lloyd Bacon, 1931)
[note: review originally published 12Jul2010]
50 Million Frenchmen is kind of the story of the little men that couldn’t. First off, there’s director Lloyd Bacon, a man who made one hundred thirty films in his career and managed to get a single award nomination. (In Venice, not Hollywood. And he didn’t win.) Then there were Olsen and Johnson, Vaudeville comedy team par excellence who, unlike a number of other Vaudeville stars (George Burns comes immediately to mind), never really made the jump to film successfully (with the arguable exception of Hellzapoppin’, which is a great film, but didn’t garner nearly as much commercial success as the stage play). While Olsen and Johnson were top-billed, the actual central character of the flick is played by William Gaxton—who, in contrast to Bacon, made just ten films in his career, and this at a time when actors were still on studio payrolls, and often showed up in a dozen films a year. (Especially character actors.) Like Olsen and Johnson, Gaxton was a vaudeville man trying to break into film, with the results we see on his IMDB page. Then there’s the female lead, Claudia Dell, stunning but couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag. She was one of those dozen-films-a-year character actors for about a decade before vanishing in 1939. (She would eventually appear in a few movies in the mid-forties before getting out of the business entirely and taking a job in a beauty salon.) They didn’t even manage to credit the film’s biggest star (Bela Lugosi, who does a hilarious turn as a magician.) It has all the hallmarks of a spectacular failure. Was it? I will cede the floor, briefly, to the Wikipedia article on Chic Johnson: “[Olsen and Johnson] were given contracts by Warner Bros. in 1930 to appear as the comic relief in a number of musicals including Oh, Sailor Behave (1930), Gold Dust Gertie (1931) and a lavish Technicolor version of Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931). Unfortunately, 1931 saw a backlash against musicals, and their last two pictures were released sans music. It didn’t help.” I should note in passing that the cut I viewed was in black and white.
It’s the old story: boy (Gaxton) meets girl (Dell). Boy is still involved with other girl (Helen Broderick), but dumps her to pursue girl. Boy is bet that he can’t get girl to accept marriage proposal in two weeks, with an added stricture: he is not allowed to draw on any of his cash reserves. Cummings (Registered Nurse‘s Jack Halliday), who makes the bet with him, then hires freelance private investigators (Olsen and Johnson) to make sure he doesn’t cheat on the bet.
It’s your basic thirties comedy flick, with less a plot than a bunch of comic set pieces loosely tied together with a frame. It’s the same problem I have with so many thirties comedies, especially when I think about the fact that coherent comic films were already being made by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and other folks like that. It’s also hard not to apply hindsight, because later on, the two types of comedy would be combined in some phenomenally successful films (the two obvious examples being It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Airplane!; for that matter, even Hellzapoppin’ does it better, though not as well as those two); I realize pretty much everyone working on this flick was a Warner Brothers hack attempting to churn this thing out as fast as possible, but seriously, one more rewrite and it might have been gold. Still, if you’re a fan of any of the principals, it’s worth checking out. ***