It’s a tale right out of The Beverly Hillbillies—wildcatter Tim Henessey (Samuel Adams—not the beer guy, by the way) has had a gusher come in, and now the entire Henessey clan is filthy with money! (Though in all honesty…they were filthy without money before this picture started.) The family puts up the “Out of Bidness” sign on their little gas station and heads off to New York …but news of their good fortune comes to the attention of no-goodnik Herbert Marvin (Bryant Washburn), and he’s most anxious to do a little income redistribution by plundering the Henesseys’ newly-acquired wealth and spreading it out…among his skeevy associates and himself.
Marvin’s eevilll scheme is to acquire the Henessey riches by playing on the gullibility of Johnny Henessey—who’s not too entirely bright, since he’s played by Dave O’Brien, an actor who’s taken too many falls and hits to the head in those MGM Pete Smith Specialties. Can anyone stop Marvin and his fellow fiends from taking advantage of a close-knit clan whose only crime is that they got too rich too quickly? Mais oui! (That’s French for “you betcha!”) Wealthy Lawrence “Larry” Duane (Bruce Bennett), a member-in-good-standing of the ‘400,’ is kind of sweet on Johnny’s sister Molly (Joan Barclay) and he’s going to do his gosh-darndest to make sure those scoundrels get their comeuppance, starting with keeping an eye on these “babes in the wood” by allowing the family to rent his stately summer home. For reasons that I never quite fully comprehended, Duane dare not reveal his true identity to Molly and her fam (including her ma [Vane Calvert], who’s a bit of a snobby social climber)—he spends most of the sixty-four-minute running time pretending to be a chauffeur named Nick. (Kind of a twist on the whole Bruce Wayne-Batman thing—only Duane is…CHAUFFEURMAN!)
Before there was Bruce Bennett…there was Herman Brix, an award-winning medalist (silver) in the shot put in the 1928 Olympics. Brix was being considered by MGM to portray Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creation Tarzan in their 1932 production but a shoulder injury from working on another film put him out of the running and the role of the “Lord of the Apes” went to swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. In 1935, Brix’s healed shoulder allowed him to play Tarzan in the independent serial (produced by Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises) The New Adventures of Tarzan…and though the production was unique in that it presented its titular character the way ERB conceived him (an educated nobleman who chooses to live in the wild and not the “Me-Tarzan-You-Jane” doofus of the MGM films) the chapter play was a dud at the box office and Brix found himself typecast as an ex-Tarzan. The actor would eventually drop out of films to take some acting lessons and change his name to the more familiar “Bruce Bennett”; in the 1940s, he appeared in such Warner hits as Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
Million Dollar Racket (1937) stars Bennett-as-Brix at the time he was working for independent Victory Pictures, a small studio that commenced to making “moon pictures” in 1935. According to Don Miller’s “B” Movies: “Victory’s output was no victory for anyone concerned, artistically speaking, but the guiding hand behind the productions was one Sam Katzman, who had learned well the cardinal rule of the indies—keep it moving and the action houses will pay back your expenses, and keep moving yourself and you’ll make a smart target.” Yes, our old pal “Jungle” Sam cast Herm in a series of action programmers that included Two Minutes to Play (1936), Amateur Crook (1937), and Sky Racket (1937—described by one wag at the IMDb as “one of the better death-ray-knocks-planes-out-of-the-sky films”). Miller further notes:
It was good to see all the old-timers rounded up by the producer dutifully repeating their lines, but Brix seemed embarrassed in the lead roles, as well he might be. From a standpoint of quality, they were quickies of another era. Their chief asset was that they kept Brix in front of the cameras long enough for him to take stock of himself, change his name to Brace [sic] Bennett and press onward to a more satisfactory career.
Don’s a bit generous in his assessment of Bruce Bennett’s on-camera gifts because my unsolicited opinion is that he was one of those thesps from the James Craig “How-did-I-luck-into-a-career-again?” School of Acting. (I’ll trot out the blog’s Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™ to state that I thought Bruce was okay in Sierra Madre…but only because that movie is so damn good it would be hard for anyone to screw it up.) I have a bit more of a positive take on Bennett’s co-star, Joan Barclay, who is most engaging as his love interest; Bruce and Joan were also teamed up for Crook and Sky as well as a pair of Victory serials, Shadow of Chinatown (1936—with Bela Lugosi!) and Blake of Scotland Yard (1937—with Ralph “Dick Tracy” Byrd). The supporting cast in Million Dollar is serviceable; I particularly got a chuckle out of seeing comedian Jimmy Aubrey providing a little comic relief as Melton, Duane’s “gentleman’s gentleman.”
Million Dollar Racket is a new Alpha Video release (it came out August 8) that my compadre Brian Krey was kind enough to lob over the walls here at Castle Yesteryear in the form of a DVD screener. It’s paired with a second attraction, 1932’s The Pride of the Legion, which has the distinction of being the first feature film produced by Mascot, the proto-Republic run by Nat Levine whose studio output since its formation in the 1920s was mainly comprised of slam-bang action serials. Legion was also scheduled to be the first sound film starring canine hero Rin Tin Tin…but circumstances dictated that Rinty be sent upstate so he could romp and play on a friend’s farm (okay, the dog snuffed it—happy now?) while being replaced by Rin Tin Tin, Jr.
Legion features, in the words of Don Miller, “a covey of veteran familiar faces hired for their familiarity, by the day for their services.” And Br’er Don does not speak with forked tongue: the movie stars (in addition to Rinty, Jr.) Victor Jory, Barbara Kent, J. Farrell McDonald, Lucien Littlefield, Sally Blane, Glenn Tryon, Matt Moore, Jason Robards, Sr., Ralph Ince, Tom Dugan, Douglas Dumbrille, Bob Kortman, Ernie Adams, Bud Osborne, and Bert Roach. (I think we should have a winner in Character Actor Bingo right now.) What the movie does not feature is its complete entirety; apparently all that survives is a half-hour condensation that made the rounds on television—the copy they sell at Grapevine is humorously advertised as “a nicely edited version of the feature film.” Well, the problem with this is that the cutdown version plays a little incoherent and tough to follow; had I not looked it up at the AFI catalog I would not know that Jory plays an ex-cop turned café waiter who helps a young kid (Tryon) framed by gangsters. There’s more to this story, of course…I just wish the full feature were available. (I kind of felt like William Hurt watching that movie on TV in The Big Chill: “I think the guy in the hat did something terrible.”)