Friday, April 10, 2015

Double or Nothing (1937)

Paramount’s 1937 Bing Crosby musical Double or Nothing is all froth and bubble but it’s delightful froth and bubble.

Eccentric millionaire Axel Clark dies, having made a rather bizarre will. Alex and his cynical  grasping brother Jonathan had always disagreed on human nature. Axel insisted that most people are fundamentally honest and fairly smart. Jonathan always insisted that most people are crooks and fools. Axel’s will is designed to put this question to the test and settle the matter once and for all. His lawyers are instructed to leave twenty-five wallets lying on the streets, each wallet containing a hundred dollar bill. The wallet contains the address of Axel’s lawyers. Anyone who is honest, on finding one of the wallets, will naturally return it to the lawyers. Out of the twenty-five people who find the wallets four are honest enough to show up at the lawyers’ office. These four are aspiring singer Lefty Boylan (Bing Crosby), small-time shady businessman John Pederson (William Frawley), former burlesque artiste Liza Lou Lane (Martha Raye) and harmless deadbeat Half Pint (Andy Devine).

When they get to the lawyers’ office they are presented with a reward of $5,000 each and a proposal. They have 30 days in which to double the $5,000. The first one of them to do so will inherit the whole of Axel’s estate, amounting to around a million dollars. If none of them succeed in doing so then Jonathan Clark will inherit the estate. The only proviso is that they must double the money honestly.

At this point Pederson comes up with a plan - the four of them should work together and if any of them is able to double their $5,000 the four of them will split the estate evenly. The lawyers agree that there is nothing in the will to prevent their working together in this way.

Needless to say Axel Clark’s greedy relatives are not too pleased by this. Led by Jonathan they plan to sabotage the quartet’s efforts.

Of course there has to be a romance angle, which is provided by Jonathan Clark’s daughter Vicki (Mary Carlisle). Left falls hopelessly in love with Vicki, not knowing that she is working against him and his partners.

Lefty, Half Pint, Liza Lou and Pederson all come up with ingenious if half-baked ideas for doubling their money. Pederson buys a gold mine which naturally tuns out to be worthless. Liza Lou buys a rowing boat concession. Her idea is that people will pay to be rowed about the lake by beautiful girls (her former chums from the burlesque world). he figures this will be very popular with sailors and that when the fleet is in she will clean up. This might have worked except for one weakness of Liza Lou’s - whenever she hears a certain piece of music she has a flashback to her burlesque days and starts doing a strip-tease. In public. Which of course gets her arrested.

Half Pint buys a golf range. His idea is to put up most of his money ($4,000) as prize money. People can buy three shots for a dollar and anyone who gets a hole-in-one wins the $4,000. If he’s unlucky someone will succeed in doing so and he’ll be ruined but if he’s lucky he just might turn his $5,000 into the necessary $10,000. Surprisingly enough Half Pint’s idea looks like it might succeed.

Lefty puts his money into a night-club. All he has to do is to put on a good enough show and showbiz entrepreneur Nick Praxitales will sink $10,000 into the business, which will qualify Lefty to inherit the estate. Lefty will discover that a night-club can be just as risky an investment as gold mines, golf ranges and girl-crewed rowing boats. And such risky investments are even riskier when there is someone as conniving behind the scenes as Jonathan Clark, constantly working on ways to sabotage their efforts.

Musicals can usually get away with rather slight plots. In this case the plot is more than adequate to sustain the movie as long as the other ingredients are there - reasonable musical numbers, likeable characters and a sufficient quantity of laughs. Double or Nothing has no problems in any of these areas.

Bing Crosby deploys his usual effortless cool combined with charm, and of course he was always quite adept at light comedy. Martha Raye can be a bit excessive but here she’s quite funny. Andy Devine plays himself, as likeably as he always did. Crosby, Raye and Devine shoulder most of the load as far as comedy is concerned and they are more than equal to the challenge. Mary Carlisle is a little on the bland side but perfectly adequate. William Frawley is solid although he doesn’t get much to do. Samuel S. Hinds as Jonathan is a villain the audience will love to hate.

The songs are generally quite good and Crosby is in fine voice.

The most pleasant surprise is that this movie is really quite funny. Maybe not rolling in the aisles funny but still consistently amusing. 

Double or Nothing is included in Universal’s five-movie Bing Crosby Screen Legend DVD boxed set. There are no extras but the transfer is excellent and the set itself is great value (this set also includes the rather charming Waikiki Wedding).

This is a feelgood movie but it’s feelgood without resorting to sentimentality. The whole thing is executed with a very pleasing lightness of touch. The result is an unassuming but thoroughly delightful movie. Highly recommended.

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