THE CHEATERS

The Cheaters
d. Joseph Kane / USA / 1945 / 87 mins
Viewed on: Turner Classic Movies (UK)

Emerging from ‘poverty row’ as a bit of a ‘B’ player, Hollywood minor studio Republic Pictures occasionally took a break from Westerns and serial dramas by venturing into ‘A’ territory with an inflated budget, some lavish sets, a few snazzy costumes and a bit of fancy music. This not very Christmassy, not particularly funny, Christmas comedy/mystery is a rather intriguing film, a lively tale of the corruption of society manners and the existential yearnings of a fallen star of stage and screen.

When the Pidgeon family, on the brink of bankruptcy, pin their hopes on an inheritance from a rich uncle, they discover that the money will only go to them if executors are unable to locate a child actor whom the uncle had seen performing thirty years earlier. Having welcomed a ‘charity case’ into their home for the holidays, a down-at-heel former actor named Anthony Marchaund (Joseph Schildkraut), the family enlist his help to find this actress and ensure she doesn’t hear about the money until the executors call off their search.

With relative ease, Marchaund identifies the actress as Florie Watson (Ona Munson), and tracks her down to an address in New York City. Posing as her long lost cousin, he convinces her to spend Christmas with the Pidgeon family at their Aunt’s cabin in the country, which is actually one of Mr Pidgeon’s rental properties. While the Pidgeon family are happy to cheat Watson out of her fortune, Marchaund plays out a conscience-ridden one-man performance of A Christmas Carol, which finally convinces the family to come clean.

The most curious aspect of The Cheaters is its overriding sense of complete and utter moral ambivalence: none of the characters here are inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, they’re simply flawed. Marchaund – or ‘Mr. M.’ as the Pidgeon family largely address him – is particularly unorthodox as a dark, contemplative Eastern European character who remains mysterious throughout, yet doesn’t constitute the ‘baddie’ an audience might expect. It seems a rarity that classical Hollywood might offer up a character as morally ambiguous as this, but at no point are the audience given any idea as to his actual motives or any clue to what he might do.

The Pidgeon family, especially in light of their attempts to swindle Florie Watson, could be interpreted as the villains of the piece, but they too remain decidedly ambivalent. On the verge of bankruptcy, the Pidgeon’s might be expected to appear evil, greedy and status-obsessed, and yet they come across as pretty ordinary. They display some extravagance, sure, but nothing seems outrageous and little of what they do makes them inherently ‘bad’.

Make no mistake, this is a wonderfully curious film that deserves its status as a minor Christmas classic (albeit severely underseen). It is defiantly imperfect, and one does have to wonder (and some have) what it might have become in the hands of a larger studio such as MGM. And yet, as always, watching the prestige pictures of the minor Hollywood studios remains a fascinating exercise.

{Clips are available on TCM.com.}

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