Cheaters, The (1945): Christmas Screwball Comedy, Starring Joseph Schildkraut

Actors associated with playing secondary roles, such as Supporting Actor Oscar winner Joseph Schildkraut, play major roles in Joseph Kane’s The Cheaters, a Christmas “screwball comedy” about a has-been actor invited to dinner by a rich family.

The Cheaters
Poster of the movie The Cheaters.jpg

The film was atypical of the Republic Pictures studio, directed by Joseph Kane and starring Joseph Schildkraut.

The film was re-released in 1949 under a new title, The Castaway.

When the Republic film catalogue was sold in the 1950s, it began showing as late night TV fodder during the Christmas season.

The movie aka MR. M. and the Pigeons, The Amazing MR. M., The Magnificent Mr. M. and The Magnificent Rogue.

Frances Hyland and Albert Ray’s story was written in 1941 as vehicle for comedienne Binnie Barnes. Later, The Cheaters was bought by Paramount as comeback vehicle for John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, but it was shelved and recast after their respective deaths. The story was then sold to Republic, a studio better known for its low-budget westerns.

Eugene Pallette plays New York City businessman James C. Pidgeon on the verge of bankruptcy, hoping that rich uncle Henry, who’s on deathbed, would help.

J. C.’s daughter Therese (Ruth Terry) persuades the family to take in a charity case for the holidays, not out of the good intent but to impress her upper-class boyfriend Stephen Bates (Robert Livingston) and his mother.

They pick from a newspaper list Anthony Marchaund (Joseph Schildkraut), a once famous actor injured in a car accident, who is now a broken-down drunk.

J. C.’s son Reggie (David Holt) delivers the bad news: uncle Henry left his $5 million estate to Florie Watson (Ona Munson), a showgirl he had seen as a child in the play Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The will stipulates that, if Florie cannot be found within reasonable time, the estate goes to the Pidgeons.

After bribing the sole executor, J. C. conspires to limit the search for a week without mentioning the inheritance.  He decides to look for Florie (Ona Monsun) in order keep the news from her.

But Marchaund overhears the scheme and suggests he can probably find her easily through Actors’ Equity. Reggie worries about a blackmail attempt, but Marchaund makes a speech about honor and his gratitude to the Pidgeons.

He then eavesdrops and walks away without his customary limp, but is spotted by Angela (Anne Gillis), J. C.’s younger daughter, who is amused by his deception.

Marchaund and Willie Crawford (Raymond Walburn), J. C.’s brother-in-law, locate Florie. Willie tells her that they are cousins and that the family wants her to spend the holidays with them.

But Florie recognizes Marchaund’s name and confides to him that she is not related to the Pidgeons, but being broke, she’s eager to play along.

After the search ends up on the front page of the newspaper, the Pidgeons hastily relocate to an isolated house in the country to keep Florie in the dark. When they arrive, they discover that all of their servants have quit. J. C., having been raised there, refuses to hire new ones, fearing that they may be people he grew up with. The family, with the exception of Angela, pitch in. Soon, even Angela is helping out.

Meanwhile, two private detectives show up at the house. Though lied to, but they are not fooled and set about getting a search warrant.

Marchaund compares the family’s deception to Jacob Marley’s misdeeds in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol before passing out from drinking.

Ashamed of themselves, the Pidgeons confess to Florie, but at the end, she decides to give half the money to them.

Cast
Joseph Schildkraut as Anthony “Mr. M.” Marchand
Billie Burke as Mrs. Pidgeon
Eugene Pallette as James C. Pidgeon
Ona Munson as Florie Watson
Raymond Walburn as Willie Crawford
Anne Gillis as Angela Pidgeon
Ruth Terry as Therese Pidgeon
Robert Livingston as Stephen Bates
David Holt as Reggie Pidgeon
Robert Greig as MacFarland

Credits

Directed by Joseph Kane
Screenplay by Frances Hyland, based on story by Frances Hyland and Albert Ray
Music by Walter Scharf
Cinematography Reggie Lanning
Edited by Richard L. Van Enger

Production and distribution: Republic Pictures

Release date: July 14, 1945

Running time: 87 minutes

Note:

TCM showed the movie on December 23, 2020.