Millionaires in Prison (1940) DVD Review: The Club Fed of the '40s

The Warner Archive paroles a corny prison yarn featuring Shemp Howard and the voice of Jiminy Cricket as inmates.
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Despite the slightly uplifting title, RKO's Millionaires in Prison is exactly the sort of thing you'd expect to happen today were the system ‒ which, as we all know, knows better ‒ to incarcerate a deserving fraudster or two: a lighthearted romp where no one gets hurt. This wouldn't necessarily a bad thing if the film was intended to be a comedy. Alas, Millionaires in Prison appears as if it is supposed to be taken seriously ‒ something which becomes all the more difficult to fathom when you stop to consider the film was directed by a man who mostly helmed comedy shorts with Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, and The Three Stooges.

Thankfully, director Ray McCarey had the good common sense to cast Shemp Howard as an inmate. Sure, Shemp's presence pretty much removes just about any seriousness Millionaires in Prison may have (which is none, just to reiterate), but it also makes the movie much more enjoyable at the same time. Likewise, one of the other happy convicts in the unbelievably silly drama ‒ and who is conveniently named Happy at that ‒ is Cliff Edwards, the weird-looking Ernest Borgnine/Peter Lorre hybrid who is best known as having provided the speaking and singing voice for Jiminy Cricket (and many other animated Disney characters).

Millionaires in Prison, which recently found its way to home video thanks to the Warner Archive Collection, finds five different men from decidedly more privileged walks of life. Con artists Morgan Conway and Chester Clute, hapless fall guys Thurston Hall and Raymond Walburn, and disgraced doctor Truman Bradley have received an all-expenses paid vacation from day-to-day duties after they are caught and convicted for whatever it is they did. Per the advice of their respective lawyers, they seek out the prison's resident "go-to guy" (be it for goods, services, or protection), who is played as effectively as possible by top-billed star Mr. Lee Tracy.

And so, as the team of Conway & Clute schemes how to rob their fellow inmates of their dough (within the inescapable walls of thieves and murderers, mind you), and the comedy relief team of Hall & Walburn plan a fanciful dinner for the latter's nephew (a cameo by the great Grady Sutton), Dr. Bradley gets a chance to not only form an early bromance with Tracy ‒ who, as it turns out, is the most absolute nicest guy in the great big whole wide world (which would explain why he's in prison) ‒ but to even continue work on his previously postponed plight to eradicate humanity of Malta Fever (which is known as Brucellosis today, when it actually proposes a problem, that is).

Yes, it's a very corny 64-minute quickie. But of course, like many B-unit pictures from this era, Millionaires in Prison can be quite entertaining if you're not looking for something relevant, redeeming, or reflective. And since I rarely am looking for a movie that is relevant, redeeming, or reflective, I can only recommend Millionaires in Prison as a fine way to spend an hour. Linda Hayes, Virginia Vale, the other Paul Guilfoyle, Charlie Hall, and Charles C. Wilson are among the familiar faces who pop up here (cameos or otherwise), and this barebones release from the Warner Archive Collection sports a rather lovely 1.33:1 transfer to boot.

In short: Go for it. What have you got to lose? It's not like you're going to go to prison for it or anything.

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