The Rich Are Always With Us

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My first thought on reading the title of RKO’s 1940 B-flick Millionaires in Prison was that it sounds like a damn good idea.  I’m sure it struck a chord then, as I’m sure it does now.  Though the idea behind the title, of actually sending millionaires to prison, may right away frame the film as a fantasy, a Saturday-matinee second-feature entertainment for the juvenile crowd (long ago, when Sat mats and second features still counted).  The fantasy sense only deepened when I saw Van Nest Polglase’s name pop up in the credits as art director.  What, Van Nest, that guy credited with all those ultra-glam Big White Sets in the Astaire-Rogers films—designing a prison?  Though, to be accurate, Polglase, the head of RKO’s art department, never designed an actual set himself, instead leaving it to a design team.  Still, seeing that first shot of the prison façade, like Fascist architecture done à la Art Deco, you do sense a clash of priorities here…

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The film sets up its premise, of five millionaires simultaneously going to the same prison, on which the story sets up an expectation—“when a millionaire goes to prison, that’s news,” says a newspaper editor to his reporter, “but when five of ‘em go, that’s almost a social revolution”—on which it doesn’t deliver.  Aside from a few jeers, the five rich dudes generate surprisingly little resentment, or even interest, among the other cons.  Instead of an uprising we get lots of fish-out-of-water jokes, such as complaints about non-tailored uniforms or grumblings over a lack of lobster for lunch.  As Michael Atkinson wryly notes in his TCM review, the film is harmless enough to have worked as a 1960s sitcom (hey, they did it with Hogan’s Heroes).  The weekly episodes (and accompanying jokes) could have practically written themselves.

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The tycoons are types:  Truman Bradley is a drunk-driving playboy doctor ashamed of his behavior; Morgan Conway and Chester Clute are partnered stock swindlers (and, hard as I find it to believe that darling little, squinch-faced Chester, whom I wrote about here, could play a hardened miscreant, I’ll accept it for plot’s sake); while Raymond Walburn and Thurston Hall are a pair of saps hauled into poky for tax evasion.  “Now don’t you worry, Harold,” says Walburn to Hall, as he reassuringly pats the latter’s hand, “my lawyer is speaking to the warden personally.”  These guys are the most interesting of the bunch, a clear, if coded, gay couple (notice how they feed each other sticks of gum when handcuffed), which the film managed to slip past the post-Code watchdogs.  The two fuss over each other like biddy hens; they’re sweet and adorable, kinda like those old married couples who address each other as Mother and Father.  Is it any surprise when, in a visiting-day scene, Grady Sutton ambles in as Walburn’s nephew, seeking advice from Uncle Ray on what to serve for his Bachelor Club’s annual dinner?

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The star of the film, however, is Lee Tracy, as the prison’s most feared and respected inmate, and he brings a different energy to all concerned.  Tracy’s probably not known today; golden-age-film viewers might dimly recall him as one of the most manic, and expert performers in pre-Code cinema, a raspy-voiced, walnut-faced dynamo equipped with a technique, speed, and sense of timing that could set a film spinning on two wheels round hairpin curves, then slam it through to a breathless finish.  But by 1940 Tracy was on a film career downslide (starting with a 1933 contretemps involving Viva Villa!, MGM, and the Mexican government; details of what happened are in dispute), and his onscreen force was also tamped down.  His character is meant to be a smart-ass, yet the plot reins him in, turning him into a Big House version of combined Fairy Godfather and Dear Abby:  Watching out for the other cons’ best interests, while dishing out advice on whether it’s a good idea to make that jail break just yet.

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Yet Tracy’s still a standout in this film, his suppressed energy seeping past its blunted edges.  He prowls through the plot like a feral cat, his skittish eyes darting to and fro as if looking for a fence hole to squeeze through (maybe into another movie).  His performance is made up of quick, spiky gestures—shrugs, grins, hand waves, finger snaps, head nods—he’s aware of his space, aware of how he moves in it.  It’s if his skin is a surface of microsensors, alive to every touch, sound, and action.  Tracy doesn’t play scenes in isolation, he’s always coming from somewhere and going somewhere, and he’s dynamic within the shot (while also stealing it).  Even his exits are different—when he leaves the prison library, for instance, Tracy’s last gesture is to flip the cover of the book he’s been reading; it closes the scene like a final chord in music, snapping it shut.

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In a way, I wish the film had been made pre-Code (and could have starred Tracy then), or had come out some years later, post-WW2.  It might not only have addressed those socio-economic-justice issues implicit in its title, it might have been more like a real Men In Prison film—tough, mean, dirty.  Millionaires in Prison does deliver on the surface standards; there must be a form book or field guide on how to make this genre type.  We get the regulation tracking shot—a must in a prison movie—of convicts eating in the cafeteria, the camera panning along their faces as they react (with dismay, anger, resignation) to the muck dumped on their tin plates.  We also get those bashed-mug shots, all those wonderful ugly-scruffy faces, Tracy’s among them; as well as the milling-around-the-prison-yard shots, bodies in aimless motion, with nothing to do and no place to go.  The look is there, but only as a facsimile of the real thing.  Beneath the pseudo-grungy veneer it’s particle board.

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Basically, the film is sweet-natured, benign in its look at men behind bars.  Most of the cons are good eggs (especially as played by such comic character actors as Walburn, Clute, Cliff Edwards, and—Shemp Howard!).  Oh, there are a few bad ones among the lot, with a bit of larceny in their souls, but, honest, they’re mostly a swell bunch of guys.  Although a lot of story is stuffed into its hour-long length (worried wives and girlfriends, a stock-swindling scheme, a lifesaving medical experiment), the film, like the prisoners, doesn’t go anywhere; and there’s no development of such essential genre themes as violence, boredom, loneliness, or rage against confinement.  It’s a view of prison as Time Out, a chance for the criminally inclined to pay for their transgressions while reconsidering their options.  Everyone’s gonna go straight when released and everyone’s gonna get a second chance; and then the reformed rich doctor saves the day and gets to be a hero by finding a cure for a made-up disease.  Or something.  Gee, and to think it was a nice stretch in the Clink that done gave Doc his chance.

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The innocence, or maybe willful ignorance, of such an attitude may curdle when watching today, it’s so sadly, blindly naïve—a stint in jail was never, has never been like this.  Pre-Code prison movies like The Big House, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, and The Mayor of Hell (about a boys’ reform school) at least didn’t flinch in questioning the system, of the brutal conditions of confined men and the sadism of those in power.  But with the Code clampdown, films like Each Dawn I Die or Hell’s Kitchen (a watered-down remake of Mayor of Hell), and, yes, Millionaires in Prison, back off questions raised earlier.  It took post-WW2 cinema to return to some gritty, deep-down pessimism and the harsh reality of jail in such films as Brute Force, Big House U.S.A. (which I wrote about here), Caged, or the great Riot in Cell Block 11, in which wardens and bulls are sanctimonious bullies, and prisoners are mad, mean, frustrated, violence-seething, and itching for revenge on a society that, they feel, has somehow cheated them and in which they don’t fit in—and probably never will.  No one’s a swell guy anymore; they’re as smooth as rawhide and as sweet as arsenic, and advice columnists are not welcome.

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So, despite that title, Millionaires in Prison has little to do with what’s implied therein.  Its view is one that soothes to amuse.  As I noted earlier, its purpose seems more to keep children entertained.  Like Babe Ruth supposedly said about his biography:  There’s a version for the kiddies and another for the adults.  And with Millionaires in Prison we know, as we watch, into which category it falls.

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