We’re feeling all smug because we just learned two Big Things.*
(*You’re probably familiar with these things already, but please humour us.)
Big Thing #1 Did you know The New York Times publishes a list of people in need over the holidays, and has done so for 105 years?
Big Thing #2 We learned about #1 from a new-to-us holiday film, The Cheaters (1945), a comedy we’d never heard of before. It focuses on a once-wealthy family who are facing bankruptcy and are scrambling to restore their Rightful Place in the Universe.
As you might have guessed from the title, there’s some deception involved.
Scratch that. There’s A LOT of deception going on. This film is a study in artifice: Nearly everyone has something to gain, whether it’s a place to hide from an angry landlord or the chance to score $5 million.
Schildkraut is invited into Pallette’s home for the holidays because Pallette’s daughter (Ruth Terry) has selected him from the aforementioned NYT Neediest Cases list. She’s suddenly developed a Social Conscience because her fiancé’s mother always takes in a “charity case” for Christmas and expects Terry to do the same.
Added to this bunch is a former showgirl (Ona Munson) who doesn’t realize she has the means to save Pallette’s family from bankruptcy – if she chooses to do so.
The Cheaters has a witty and cynical script. In one scene, detectives are at Pallette’s office, grilling the secretary who feels such inquiries are inappropriate on Christmas Eve. “It may be Christmas Eve to you,” the detective says, “but to us it’s just Tuesday.”
In another scene, Schildkraut gets into an argument that launches him into a magnificent speech about how insulted he is; he’ll not stay in this house a minute longer! Then he leaves the room (with grand flourish), and runs into Pallette’s youngest daughter. She winks at him. “You kill me,” she teases.
Although the conclusion is a bit sanctimonious, there is a dark undercurrent in this film. Schildkraut is an embittered man, whose theatre career was ruined by a car accident. Before he is sent to Pallette’s house, he is told by a charity representative to be thankful towards Pallette’s family. Schildkraut is unimpressed. “Gratitude in most men is usually a secret desire to receive greater benefits,” he says.
There’s also the fab Billie Burke, who plays Pallette’s wife. She’s the spinny society matron we’ve seen before, but her performance here is more layered. She knows her family is trying to cheat Munson out of millions, and the guilt is starting to rattle her.
It’s Schildkraut who delivers the most chilling line. In a conversation with the butler, he lists his greatest stage accomplishments – Hamlet, Richard III, MacBeth…
Schildkraut: “But there was one part I’ve never played.”
Butler: “What was that, sir?”
Ultimately, The Cheaters asks two questions:
To an outsider, Pallette’s family looks like the most benevolent clan in the neighbourhood. Terry gives shelter to Schildkraut, but it’s to showcase her moral superiority. Pallette brings Munson into the family because he’s determined to profit from her. Meanwhile, Burke is forever organizing stacks of Christmas gifts to remind everyone of her wealth.
Giving to others masks this family’s motives and, they hope, lends respectability to their fraud. Yet, in spite of their fumbling selfishness, a satisfying outcome is achieved.
We are thrilled to discover The Cheaters. It’s a smart, funny movie, and we hope it will become part of your holiday viewing.
According to IMDB: “Paramount originally acquired the rights to The Cheaters as a vehicle for Carole Lombard and John Barrymore. After Lombard’s tragic death [in 1942] the property was sold to Republic.”
The Cheaters: starring Joseph Schildkraut, Billie Burke, Eugene Pallette. Directed by Joseph Kane. Written by Frances Hyland. Republic Pictures, 1945, B&W, 87 mins.