The Cheaters (1945)

It has taken a few viewings and a better print than what was available on YouTube, but we have started to appreciate this movie more and more. It features some of the best character actors from classic Hollywood and perhaps the best reading of Dickens’s Christmas Carol in any film. The tag line on the poster (“The Picture That Can Change Your Life”) is a wild exaggeration, but we’ve learned to like this film.


A pretentious upper-class family (headed by Billie Burke and Eugene Pallette) adopts one of the city’s neediest cases (Joseph Schildkraut), but they’re cheating because they are doing it to impress a potential fiancé for one of their children. Schildkraut is also cheating, as the ignominious end of his career as a Broadway actor and director came more from his alcoholism than from an accident that left him with a pronounced limp. Expecting an inheritance from a wealthy uncle, the wealthy family learns that the uncle has left his millions to an unknown actress he saw on a vaudeville stage as a child. If the actress can’t be found, Burke and Pallette stand to inherit the money. They locate the actress (Ona Munson) and cheat her by telling her nothing about the inheritance but instead claiming she is a distant cousin they would like to invite to their home for the holidays. The down-on-her-luck actress is in turn cheating the family, because she knows she is not a cousin but would enjoy staying in their home for the holiday. Thus the title — “The Cheaters” — because everyone is cheating everyone else. But a miraculous transformation on Christmas Eve changes everyone.


The film begins in New York City, but other than a few establishing shots at the beginning, there isn’t much that makes this a true NYC movie. What is supposed to be a swank Fifth Avenue mansion, looks far more like a 1930s home in Hollywood. The second half of the film moves to a dilapidated 18th century home in rural Long Island.


The movie centers on Christmas and has its culmination on Christmas Eve. There are, of course, Christmas trees, gifts, carol singers, snow, and a bowl full of Tom & Jerries.


Eugene Pallette is one of our favorite character actors, for his roles in My Man Godfrey and The Lady Eve plus many others. Billie Burke plays her usually ditzy wealthy matron role, similar to Topper. She is, of course, far better known for Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Joseph Schildkraut has a deliciously wicked role in The Shop Around the Corner. Raymond Walburn was a frequent member of the Preston Sturges company of character actors, appearing most notably in Hail the Conquering Hero and Christmas in July. He played Gary Cooper’s valet in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.


Joseph Schildkraut attended a famous fashionable party at Conde Nast’s home in 1925 where the Astaires were also present. The Astaires likely knew Billie Burke, as she was the wife of Florenz Ziegfeld, who produced the musical Smiles, which starred the Astaires in 1930. She also appeared on a benefit bill with the Astaires for the New York Junior League in 1928.


Love is a little strong, but we enjoy all of the character actors, and it’s good to see the numerous talents of Joseph Schildkraut on display in a sympathetic role, after despising him so much in The Shop Around the Corner.