14 October 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Not quite "Brewster's Millions", but...
'$1,000 a Minute' is a movie about the interest charges on my credit cards. No, just kidding. (Not much!) Actually, '$1,000 a Minute' (that dollar sign is in the opening credits) is an above-average B-movie with an ingenious premise, which unfortunately it doesn't quite fulfil.
Roger Pryor was a B-movie version of Clark Gable: they played similar roles, but Pryor lacked Gable's confidence and his raffish rough edges. Also, Pryor was smaller than Gable, with a poncier moustache. Muscular and fit, Pryor was completely believable as a boxer in 'Belle of the Nineties' ... but his small size relegated him to playing a middleweight at best. Gable was the heavyweight, in terms of build and his appeal as a box-office draw.
I viewed a nitrate print of '$1,000 a Minute' that had begun to deteriorate, and had some footage missing. (I viewed as much as I dared of this film through a hand-held Steenbeck viewer, so as not to subject it to the sprockets of a motorised projector.) This movie ingeniously combines two premises that have separately done good service elsewhere. One of these is the one about the eccentric millionaires who make a bet that cruelly exploits some innocent schlub. An early example of this plot line was Mark Twain's story 'The Million-Pound Banknote'. A more recent example was the film 'Trading Places', with *two* schlubs as the millionaires' pawns (one white pawn, one black pawn). The other premise used here in '$1,000 a Minute' is the hardy perennial from 'Brewster's Millions': the one about the man who is legally required to squander a vast fortune.
'$1,000 a Minute' stars Roger Pryor as a cynical newspaperman (Clark Gable subtype) who loses his job and his girlfriend in the same day. Somewhat desperate, he finds himself embroiled in the scheme of two eccentric millionaires. They're conducting a wager to see whether or not it's possible for anyone to spend $1,000 a minute, every minute, for 12 continuous hours. (Nobody in this film does the maths, so I'll do them: that bet would cost $720,000, not counting the stakes of the wager itself.)
Pryor, of course, is the man who gets stuck with the job of spending the dosh. As an incentive, he's promised $10,000 for himself *IF* he can keep up the spending ... if he fails, he gets zilch. A gunman named Benny, with a broad Brooklyn brogue, is assigned to stay on Pryor's heels to make sure he follows the rules and keeps up his spendthrift behaviour.
This premise is ingenious ... at first. In the early reels, the pace picks up speed as Pryor must accelerate his spending. At first, this looks a shop-a-holic's dream gig. But the suspense mounts as Pryor discovers it's getting more difficult to spend the money. When word gets out about Pryor's buying spree, merchants assume he's loony and they don't want to do business with him. The cops assume that Pryor is spending stolen loot, or spreading counterfeit cash: either way, they try to collar him.
There's a fine supporting cast in this film. Herman Bing was a German character actor who exaggerated his Prussian accent to comic effect, with wildly exaggerated rolling R's. Here in '$1,000 a Minute', Bing does a set-piece in which he explains to Pryor that Pryor can't order oysters because oysters aren't in season. Bing trots out the usual myth that oysters are only in season in months that have an 'R' in their names. (This is untrue: oysters are a bit more watery in the non-R months, but perfectly good to eat.) The way Herman Bing twists his 'R's in explaining this concept to Pryor is hilarious! Edgar Kennedy supplies one of his finest examples of his famous slow burn here. The annoying Sterling Holloway is as annoying as usual here; I skipped his big scene in my hand-held viewer. Franklin Pangborn is a bit less nelly than usual. Just a bit.
The real delight of this film is Edward Brophy as Benny, the gunman who supervises Pryor's spending habits. Brophy is typically described as playing dummies, but that's not accurate: on the rare occasions when Edward Brophy played a genuinely stupid man, such as in 'The Last Hurrah', he wasn't very credible. Brophy was brilliant at playing befuddled little tough guys: smart enough to know something was fishy, but who couldn't figure out what to do about it. In '$1,000 a Minute', he gives one of his funniest performances.
SLIGHT SPOILERS. Unfortunately, after setting up such a great premise, '$1,000 a Minute' can't keep up the spendthrift pace of its early reels. I missed some footage in the middle, but the ending loses steam. It's no surprise that Pryor ends up with Leila Hyams ... but her looks in this film disappointed me. In her silent-film roles, Hyams was meltingly beautiful ... then the talkies revealed her coarse Brooklyn accent. Yet, in her early talkie roles, Hyams was still good to look at although painful to hear. In '$1,000 a Minute', Leila has no appeal for me at all. Her long blonde hair is now short and dark. She wears a harsh make-up, with lipstick that looks nearly black on screen. Her eyebrows have been plucked and reshaped to resemble nothing found in nature's realm. Leila, how could you?
Because I viewed a damaged and incomplete print, I shan't rate this film. The production values are VERY low throughout. From what I could see, this movie starts out as a delightful and original comedy ... and then fails to pay off the promise of its premise.