The Cheaters (1945)

I stumbled upon this film on YouTube while searching for some classic TV Christmas episodes.  Considering the array of fine and famous character actors who appear in the film and its distinct Christmas focus, I was surprised I had never heard of the movie.  It was made by Republic Studios, which specialized in B Westerns and apparently received negative reviews when first released in 1945.  To call it a quirky film is an understatement.  It bears some similarity to It Happened on Fifth Avenue, with the story of a bum (Joseph Skildkraut) who comes into contact with a troubled wealthy family and eventually transforms them, but it has a much greater dose of irony, since everyone in this film is a cheater.  The plot seems a bit stretched, but Skildkraut’s performance is intriguing, especially his re-telling of the Jacob Marley portion of A Christmas Carol, which initiates the transformation of all the cheaters into honest people.

PLOT SUMMARY

An apparently wealthy Fifth Avenue family, the Pidgeons, are actually on the brink of bankruptcy and depending on an inheritance from a wealthy Colorado uncle, but he has left his $5 million estate to an unknown actress, Florie Watson, he saw on stage when she was a child. As a stunt to impress a fiancé, the Pidgeons have taken in a down-on-his-luck former actor, Anthony Marchand, who suggests a way the Pidgeons can cheat Watson out of her inheritance.  She is a struggling vaudeville performer, who doesn’t know about the inheritance.  When the Pidgeons invite her to their home for Christmas claiming her as a relative, she pretends to be the cousin and thinks she is the one doing the cheating.  She recognizes Marchand, who had once been a successful Shakespearean actor, and becomes attracted to him. Marchand begins to regret his cheating and in a dramatic re-telling of A Christmas Carol convinces the Pidgeons to reveal the truth about the inheritance.  Watson reveals her own cheating and agrees to share the inheritance with the Pidgeons, so all ends happily.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The film is set throughout the Christmas season.  There is a grand tree at the Fifth Avenue mansion, and then an intimate Christmas at an isolated country home.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Joseph Schildkraut (Anthony Marchand) has been seen as the two-faced Vadas in The Shop Around the Corner (1940).   Check out the blog post for that film for more details.

Billie Burke (Clara Pidgeon) will be seen soon in another Christmas classic, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).  The wife of Florenz Ziegfeld, she was a top star on Broadway in the 1910s and 1920s but is best known today as the good witch Glinda in Wizard of Oz (1939).  She had delightfully ditzy roles in Dinner at Eight (1933) and Topper (1937).

Eugene Pallette (J.C. Pidgeon) is one of my favorite character actors.  His long film career began in the silent era with small roles in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).  In the sound era he had roles in two of the best screwball comedies ever, My Man Godfrey (1936) and The Lady Eve (1941). He also appeared in The Kennel Murder Case (1933), The Ghost Goes West (1935), Topper (1937) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).  He even appeared in two classic swashbucklers: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Mark of Zorro (1940).

Ona Munson (Florie Watson) is best known for her role as Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind (1939).  Two years later she appeared as Mother Gin Sling in The Shanghai Gesture (1941) — speaking of quirky films.

Raymond Walburn (Willie Crawford) had roles in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), but he is best known as a member of the Preston Sturges stock company, appearing in  Christmas in July (1940), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947).

Robert Greig (MacFarland) also was a frequent member of the Sturges stock company, appearing in The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Great Moment (1944), The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) and  Unfaithfully Yours (1948).  Grieg also had roles, often as a butler, in Animal Crackers (1930), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Easy Living (1937) and You Can’t Take It with You (1938).  One of his finest non-butler roles is as the reprobate Uncle John in the wonderful screwball comedy Theodora Goes Wild (1936).

Byron Foulger (process server) had a small role in In Name Only (1939).  He also appears in Capra’s  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), but he is best remembered for his extended role as Mr. Gibbs in Petticoat Junction (1969).

Cyril Ring (private detective) was seen as the movie director in Holiday Inn (1942), and was also seen in Beyond Tomorrow (1940) and Meet John Doe (1941).  We will see him soon in Holiday (1938) and Lady on a Train (1945).  His other classic films include The Great Ziegfeld (1936), After the Thin Man (1936), Topper (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937),  My Favorite Wife (1940), Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) and Woman of the Year (1942).

Norma Varden (Mattie) appeared in a variety of classic films: the screwball comedy The Major and the Minor (1942), Casablanca (1942), the thriller Strangers on a Train (1951) and the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) opposite Charles Coburn.

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Billie Burke appeared with Fred Astaire in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), the last film he did with Ginger Rogers.  Burke appeared with Fred and Adele Astaire at a Junior League Benefit in Manhattan on January 19, 1928.

Cyril Ring appeared with Astaire in Holiday Inn (1942) and Broadway Melody of 1940.

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

I am not sure that we love it, though we were thoroughly intrigued by it and will probably try it again.  We wish the quality of the print was better.

This is the third film on our holiday watch list with a reference to the Tom and Jerry holiday drink.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

The full film is available on YouTube.