50 Million Frenchmen (1931) Review

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The Particulars of the Picture

50MillionFrenchmen Cast 6 50MillionFrenchmen Cast 2 50MillionFrenchmen Cast 4
Simon Johanssen …
Ole Olsen
Peter Swanson …
Chic Johnson
Jack Forbes …
William Gaxton
50MillionFrenchmen Cast 1 50MillionFrenchmen Cast 5 50MillionFrenchmen Cast 3
Lulu Carroll …
Claudia Dell
Michael Cummins …
John Halliday
Violet …
Helen Broderick

50 Million Frenchmen: Sometimes Quite Wrong

Bad comedies. I hate bad comedies.

50 Million Frenchmen, unfortunately, is just such a beast. Starring the mostly forgotten Olsen and Johnson, the movie is an adaption of a then-popular stage musical that featured songs by Cole Porter. Since this was released in 1931 (after the musical deluge of 1930), all of those songs have been cut. All we have left is a start and go comedy that doesn’t shy away from the corniest gags it can manage.

The plot, as it is, involves a bet between Jack and Michael, two rich men who are vacationing in Paris. Both are in love with Lulu, a dim blonde who is also vacationing in Paris. Jack makes a bet that he can get her to marry him without the use of his wealth, and Michael employs a pair of bumbling detectives, Simon and Peter, to make sure Jack doesn’t cheat.

Party time! Excellent!

Party time! Excellent!

The plot is threadbare, an excuse for a series of extended sketches. A few work, but most drag on while punchline after punchline flies overhead. I have a number of roommates who will sometimes watch Pre-Code films with me, and this is the first time I’ve had one get up and leave the room after about ten minutes. Utterly hopeless.

Olsen and Johnson as the star attractions falter here since their schtick is that they don’t really have much of one. Johnson has a high pitched goofy sort of squeal and Olsen has a stick up his rear, but that’s the most of it. Their personalities melt in the face of a joke, as well, making their interplay seem fairly generic. This came up in the other film of theirs I reviewed, Gold Dust Gertie, which was much looser and benefited greatly from the charms of Winnie Lightner as the titular gold digger. Olsen and Johnson work better as background players, and here just flounder.

Oddly enough, romantic lead Jack actually gets some better sequences. Having to earn some cash, he takes a job as a French tour guide. Here he meets Violet, the film’s most interesting character. She demands to be taken on a tour of France that will leave her ‘insulted’. I won’t elaborate on this here because it very much fits into the ‘Proof That It’s Pre-Code down below.

Good times.

Good times.

The sad part about Violet, though, is that while she keeps popping up through the film, but Jack still chooses to continue to pursue Lulu. Violet is abrasive, saucy and funny. Lulu, meanwhile, is as interesting as a piece of cardboard, flirting with Jack even though he does nothing but come across as an enormous creep. She is a pure creation of the screenplay; when she learns that her courtship was the object of a bet, she’s so neutered she doesn’t even react. She just marries Jack; happy ending.

To make a romantic comedy where the dirty old woman is a better screen presence than the female lead is baffling. To make a movie where Lulu is the romantic lead, period, is insulting.

The weirdest thing I noticed about 50 Million Frenchmen is that its structure is much closer to that of silent comedies than most musical comedies of the era. No personality for the heroine, the heroes are all goofballs who keep going through short sketches, and the movie climaxes in a big action finale.

She got my watch, I got her bracelet.

She got my watch, I got her bracelet.

Here it’s a chase through the streets of Paris. Michael has Jack kidnapped, so Simon and Peter race after him. Along the way they pick up an army of gendarmes, who follow over car tops, tiptoeing through tar, and even sprinting past what appears to be a Parisian harem. But, unlike those silent comedies, it’s neither thrilling nor funny, since it’s all back lots and with no sense of urgency behind it. It’s a bad silent film, only everyone speaks their bad jokes aloud.

One might initially suppose 50 Million Frenchmen got a poor reception because the film was a poor imitation of a popular Broadway play, but it’s hard to imagine that even the restored connective tissue could have improved the mess of a film that’s left.

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • Jack’s attempts to ‘insult’ Violet include showing her dirty postcards, offering to take her to ‘dark theaters with little holes in the walls you can look in’, and a tiny picture of a muscleman in a thong kept inside a knife.

French postcards thong

  • Violet gets Olsen and Johnson to go for the old standby of ending up in women’s lingerie in an odd scene. I can’t explain why they end up in lingerie, but they do.
  • Violet also explains her take on the antiquated concept of women’s underwear:

Violet: “Well, well, well. Curios.”
Simon: “You’re wrong, lady. This is female underwear!”
Violet: “I was right. Curios. You know, I promised the folks back in America I’d come back with some underwear.”
Simon: “Oh, lady. You should have started out with some.”
Violet: “I meant for the folks back home!”

  • “This is the best break I’ve had since I got hurt in the market!”
    “Yeah, he got hit on the head by some bananas.”
  • At one point, a man kills himself for cheaper postal rate. Stone cold.
  • In one amusing bit, Olsen and Johnson get picked up by escorts, and that involves a lot of kissing and canoodling. Johnson becomes so excited at one point he kisses both of the girls and Olsen:
50 Million Frenchmen Pre-Code two men kissing Olsen Johnson

Yeah. Sorry, we don’t get a whole lot more Pre-Code than this around here.

Trivia & Links

  • Helen Broderick, who is the bright spot of the film as Violet, would have her most famous roles as the wisecracking sidekick in the Rogers/Astaire films Swing Time and Top Hat.
  • Besides originally having musical numbers, the film was also originally released in technicolor. That version is considered lost.
I'd like to think the material hamstrung Bacon here. ... see what I did there? Ham and bacon? ... there's no making you people happy.

I’d like to think the material hamstrung Bacon here. … see what I did there? Ham and bacon? … there’s no making you people happy.

  • I thought this movie put me off, but I’ve got nothing on the reaction of Mordaunt Hall for the New York Times. Besides calling it “unfortunate” and “poorly lighted”, he slams Oleon and Johnson, saying they’re, “a trifle too boisterous to be funny.” For once, I understand Mordaunt’s weird double talk and agree.
  • Alex Udvary at Critic’s Picks is on the other side of the spectrum on this one, calling the movie enjoyable. He also runs down a history of Olsen and Johnson’s screen appearances, and talks about this film’s structure a bit as well.
  • This week’s ‘weirdest thing I’m linking to’ goes to these screener notes for a showing of the film in 1970. They’re considerably more excited by the then-new Carry On Up The Jungle. The Carry On series, for those not in the know, is a a collection of thinly plotted British comedies about stuffy men and scantily clad women. It, too, has not aged well.
  • Bela Lugosi makes a short, virtually pointless cameo as a magician that Jack ends up impersonating:
Bela Lugosi 50 Million Frenchmen

“Blah! … no, that wasn’t me doing Dracula, that was my take on the movie!”

Awards, Accolades & Availability

50MillionFrenchmen16

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