Perhaps if I told you that Robert Greig played the butler to a wealthy screwball family in The Cheaters that would be enough for you to agree with my December choice. However, if I then told you that halfway through the movie Greig disappears (he does leave a note), you might decide to forego the pleasure, and that would be a shame.
Directed by Joseph Kane, a name pleasantly associated with many westerns, this 1945 holiday feature from Republic Studios stands out in that gentleman's career. The story for The Cheaters is by Albert Ray (Charlie Chan in Reno) whose wife Frances Hyland (The Sin of Nora Moran) completed the screenplay following his untimely passing in 1944.
Joseph Schildkraut as Anthony Marchand
Mr. M: "Gratitude in most men is usually a secret desire to receive greater benefits."
Wealthy Uncle Henry has died in Colorado leaving his $5 million estate to an actress he saw as Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin 30 years ago. His relatives, the Pidgeons of NYC could use that money. James Pidgeon played by Eugene Pallette is successful, but cash flow at present is dripping. His family, however, lives life large as if the coffers were full.
The Pidgeon family includes scatterbrained wife Clara played by Billie Burke, stuffy daughter Therese played by Ruth Terry, bratty daughter Angela played by Ann Gillis, smart alec son Reggie played by David Holt, and Clara's brother Willie the souse, who will not leave, played by Raymond Walburn.
Eugene Pallette as James C. Pidgeon
Pidgeon: "I don't think I'm being too callous when I think of what the girls and Clara and Reggie can do with that money."
Therese wants to impress her boyfriend Captain Stephen Bates played by Robert Livingston. Stephen is from a wealthy family whose mother accepts charity cases into the home at Christmas. Therese wants to do the same. Through an agency, enter "Mr. M," former noted stage actor Anthony Marchand played by Joseph Schildkraut. Mr. M is a charming scoundrel who is not above taking advantage of his sudden good luck. Robert Greig as the butler MacFarland has seen Mr. Marchand during his heyday and has a particular soft spot for that gentleman. Mr. Marchand opportunely overhears secrets and observes behaviors that place him in the role of a puppeteer to the Pidgeons.
Marchand eavesdrops on the Pidgeon's scheme to keep Uncle Henry's money in the family. All they have to do is beat Uncle Henry's lawyer's to the identity and whereabouts of the unaware heiress and keep her under wraps and in the dark about her good fortune. In a necessary and most gentlemanly agreement, the Pidgeons agree to cut Mr. Marchand in on the deal. The conspiracy to cheat Miss Watson is tight on all sides.
Billie Burke as Clara Pidgeon
Clara: "I haven't the faintest idea."
Assuming the little girl remained in the show business as an adult, it was easy enough to track down Miss Florie Watson who is flat broke. She knows she is not a long-lost relative of the Pidgeons but when a gal is about to find herself out on the sidewalk without a penny, she'll play along. Florie feels genuine guilt at "cheating" the rich family while she is surrounded by those who would swindle her. It will not surprise you to learn that a conversation reveals that this Miss Watson is indeed the genuine heir.
When the newspapers get wind of the whole bequest and search business, the Pidgeons and their guests high-tail it to a Connecticut farm owned by Pidgeon's company. It is there, without servants and with the spirit of Christmas around them that hearts and minds are changed. Florie Watson has a lot to do with the redemption of the family as her sincerity and "regular" personality wins their hearts. Mr. M has a lot to do with it, for filled with brandy he is filled with remorse. After all, when you set out to be a cheater, you must be careful not to cheat yourself.
Ona Munson as Florie Watson
Florie: "Oh, that's the trouble with me, I talk too much."
Note 1: When the St. Luke's Episcopal Church Choristers arrive on a sleigh and sing Silent Night, and if you are drinking a nice Riesling, there is the chance that you may get a tad verklempt. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Note 2: If you are still skeptical about this selection, let Ruth at Silver Screenings convince you to watch The Cheaters.
The story and its telling, and the cast and their skill make The Cheaters an unexpected Christmas story that will sneak up on you. Give it a couple of years and you and it will become old holiday companions.
TCM is screening The Cheaters on Wednesday, December 23rd. Take a quiet moment during Christmas week to share the studio snow, the bravura Schildkraut performance, and renew your acquaintance with the redemptive quality of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Perhaps you could double it up with The Shop Around the Corner for a Schildkraut double bill.
Joseph Schildkraut, Ann Dvorak, John Wayne
Flame of the Barbary Coast
It might surprise you to know that The Cheaters was the second of five Kane films featuring Oscar-winner (The Life of Emile Zola) Joseph Schildkraut. Their other collaborations are Flame of the Barbary Coast, 1945, Plainsman and the Lady, 1945, Old Los Angeles, 1948, and The Gallant Legion, 1948.
The decision at the TCM website to block users from the future schedule after all these years, has put this blog feature since 2011 in a precarious position. Thankfully, in late December I found access through some helpful online sources. Here's hoping the "new and improved" website is still undergoing its improvements.