2 December 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Excellent second feature
'Millionaires in Prison' is an excellent example of something that doesn't exist anymore, but which was commonplace in the days of the big Hollywood studios: the second feature. In the 1930s and '40s, Americans went to the movies expecting to receive a full evening's worth of entertainment: a double feature plus short subjects and a newsreel. The second feature (which was actually **first**, as it was screened **before** the main feature) typically had a shorter running time, lower budget and more obscure actors and director than the more prestigious main feature ... but, at their best, the second features were always well-made and solidly entertaining in their own right. 'Millionaires in Prison' is one of the very best examples of that tradition.
The movie opens with a brisk but heavy-handed expository scene, featuring a newspaper editor named R.J. Reynolds. (Could this be a plug for the tobacco company?) Reynolds is giving his reporters an assignment to do a story on four millionaire financiers who have recently been sent to prison for financial shenanigans. Interestingly, the editor tells his reporters in advance precisely how they're supposed to slant their reportage. (This sort of thing happens all the time in the real world, but I've never seen it depicted in any other movie: in Movieland, reporters are always objective truth-seekers.)
Two of the millionaires, well-played by veteran actors Raymond Walburn and Thurston Hall, are befuddled fall guys who somehow took the rap for someone else's embezzlement. Reynolds tells his reporters (and us) that these lads are innocent, and he adds: 'Go easy on them, boys.' On the other hand, the other two millionaires are outright crooks who are guilty as hell, and Reynolds gleefully tells his newshounds to pull all the stops out on them.
Walburn and Hall give enjoyable performances, but the characters they're playing aren't very credible. It's difficult to believe that these two dimwits could ever have been successful financiers. They're in a fairly conventional prison (not a Club Fed), doing hard time, yet they seem to think they're in some sort of country club.
There's a nice complement of veteran film faces here, with Lee Tracy and Morgan Conway at their cynical best, and a welcome turn by Shemp Howard. Even the annoying Chester Clute, one of my most un-favourite actors, manages to be less annoying than usual here. I kept hoping there'd be a cellblock riot and Clute would get taken hostage. (Or maybe a scene in the prison showers where Clute drops the soap...)
'Millionaires in Prison' is very ably directed by Ray McCarey, who was much less talented than his brother Leo McCarey but who was nonetheless a reliable director in his own right. Ray McCarey's work is long overdue for reappraisal, and 'Millionaires in Prison' is a good place to start. I'll rate this film 8 points out of 10.