4 October 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Comes the revolution, comrade...
In the mid-1930s, Paramount Pictures sponsored an early experiment in auteurism when Adolph Zukor permitted Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur to write, direct and produce several films at Paramount's east coast studio in Astoria, New York. I'm a front-row fan of Hecht and MacArthur, but their scripts need the discipline of a tight-fisted producer and an experienced director. (The Hecht-MacArthur stage play 'The Front Page' is justifiably a classic ... but it owes much of its success to George S Kaufman, who directed the original Broadway production and supervised the final version of the script.)
Of all the Hecht-MacArthur 'auteur' films, their best is probably 'Crime Without Passion' (for its bravura opening sequence and its twist ending), while their worst is definitely 'Once in a Blue Moon'. 'Soak the Rich' falls just below midway between these two points. This film has glimmerings of interest, but overall I must consider it a failed opportunity.
Walter Connolly plays Humphrey Craig, an apoplectic tycoon who has endowed a university. His idealistic daughter Belinda enrols there, hoping to get some idea of the 'real world' (good luck). When Professor Popper lectures his students on the merits of a 'soak-the-rich' tax bill, Craig (who opposes the bill) gets Popper fired. Meanwhile, Joe Muglia is the leader of a band of radicals on campus. When the radicals protest the dismissal of Popper, Belinda falls in love with Buzz Jones, a radical who is also a clear-eyed, handsome idealist (aren't they all?).
This movie stinks. It wants credit for being politically aware, but it can't sort out its own politics. The dialogue defends radical protest, but it also indicates that young radicals are radical because their hormones are acting up, as opposed to any political agenda. 'Soak the Rich' is clearly meant to be a 'serious' comedy, but it isn't funny enough to be a comedy ... and not deep enough to be serious. Here's the one good line in the movie: "I'm a firm believer in democracy, provided it lets me alone."
Walter Connolly has never impressed me, in any of his roles. His voice is too high-pitched, his manner indecisive. Watch Edward Arnold in the title role of 'Meet Nero Wolfe', and then compare his performance to Walter Connolly attempting the same role in the sequel, 'The League of Frightened Men': Arnold is brilliant, while Connolly is awful. As the head radical in 'Soak the Rich', Lionel Stander is brilliant and hilarious, as always. In real life, Stander was eventually blacklisted for alleged communist sympathies: I wonder if his role in this film was a factor in that event.
John Howard (no relation to Australia's former prime minister) is dull and insipid as the juvenile lead, but so handsome he nearly makes up for his lack of talent. (Ben Hecht later chose Howard to play the male lead -- the Fredric March role -- in the Broadway musical 'Hazel Flagg', based on Hecht's 'Nothing Sacred'.) When I interviewed John Howard shortly before his death, he described the bizarre method that Hecht and MacArthur employed for co-directing this movie: they took it in turns, with Hecht directing for two days while MacArthur heckled him from the sidelines ... then they switched places, with MacArthur directing while Hecht heckled MacArthur.
Ilka Chase is wonderfully acerbic here in a small role. In a supporting role, Alice Miller shows no dramatic talent but does display the interesting facial bone structure she inherited from her mother, the novelist Alice Duer Miller. In a small role here is John Call: years later and several stone heavier, he played Santa Claus in 'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians' ... which is arguably a better movie than 'Soak the Rich'. I'll rate this movie 2 points out of 10.