The Millionaire

Gasoline price wars aren’t new, although gas stations today seem to compete only to charge the highest price, not the lowest. Anyway, imagine a millionaire – in today’s money, a gazillionaire – who buys an interest in a little gas station as a hobby. His partner is a young man of modest means who has no idea that the elder mechanic is the Warren Buffet of his day. When they are swindled by their competitor, a hilarious case of economic warfare breaks out in the best capitalist tradition.

George Arliss plays James Alden, a Henry Ford-type auto tycoon, who is more or less forced into retirement by his doctor. Florence Arliss plays Alden’s wife:

Alden is doted on to such an extent that he’s in danger of becoming an invalid. The ever-reliable Ivan Simpson plays Davis, the butler:

A then-unknown James Cagney is a fast-talking life insurance salesman who drops his sales pitch on learning that Alden is retired – a “bad risk” for insurance purposes. The salesman helpfully suggests that Alden should look for business opportunities to stay active:

Arliss personally cast Cagney in the role, observing that Cagney had the perfect personality that seemed to say, “Here I am, take me or leave me, and hurry up.”

Alden keeps secret his doctor-defying plan to buy a half-interest in a gas station incognito as a simple mechanic he names Charlie Miller. But the owner, Peterson, played by Noah Beery, Sr., is a crook and sells the other half interest to young Bill Merrick, played by David Manners

The ink on the sale is barely dry when Alden and Merrick realize they’ve been swindled – the road going past their gas station is being closed due to the new highway opening up, and Peterson has the only gas station there!

David Manners, Arliss, Noah Berry. Sr., and Tully Marshall

Alden/”Miller” uses his wits, not his money, and persuades Bill Merrick to obtain a loan from a relative to open a new gas station right across the highway from Peterson’s. Romance also blossoms between Merrick and Alden’s daughter Barbara, played by Evalyn Knapp, and Alden takes Barbara into his confidence:

A lobby card from the lost silent film version, THE RULING PASSION (1922). Here, Alden’s daughter is played by Doris Kenyon. A decade later, Arliss and Kenyon would portray Mr. and Mrs. ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931) and still later, as VOLTAIRE (1933) and Mme. De Pompadour, respectively:

“Miller” and Merrick battle Peterson head-on by slashing their price for gasoline – seeing how little gasoline cost in 1931 may bring tears to your eyes:

Peterson admits defeat and ends up buying out Alden & Merrick for three times what they paid him. Alden explains to his wife that the only thing wrong with him was boredom and his secret project was the right cure:

Here’s a nice f/x photo of Alden and his alter ego, Charlie Miller:

Here’s something we don’t see every day – an actual movie ticket to THE MILLIONAIRE from 1931:

Notes: The Millionaire was George Arliss’s fourth talkie but his first modern dress sound film, following three costume films DISRAELI, THE GREEN GODDESS, and OLD ENGLISH, which were based on his stage successes. The story was adopted from one written by Earl Derr Biggers, the creator of “Charlie Chan,” and the naturalistic dialogue was supplied by Booth Tarkington. Cinematographer James Van Trees filmed much of the action outdoors in the breezy sunshine that gave the film an almost lyrical quality at times.

Published in: on March 13, 2011 at 8:40 AM  Leave a Comment  
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