Joseph Schildkraut was a popular actor who enjoyed a long career spread over several decades, a romantic lead in the silent era who later transitioned into memorable character roles from the fawning, vain Vadas in the Christmas classic, The Shop Around the Corner, to King Louis XIII in the 1939 version of The Three Musketeers, to his Oscar-winning role as Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola.
After the advent of sound, though, Schildkraut rarely played the lead. The Cheaters is a happy exception.
It’s Christmastime (of course, otherwise this wouldn’t be much of a Holidaze review), but J.C. Pidgeon (Eugene Pallette) isn’t full of holiday cheer. In fact, he’s flat broke and on the verge of bankruptcy, with process servers hovering in his office lobby. J.C .hasn’t told his wife (Billie Burke) yet, though, so she’s spending on the holiday like the family is still wealthy.
Back at the Pidgeon home, preparations for Christmas are well under way, but youngest daughter Therese (Ruth Terry) is fretting that her fiancé Stephen (not “Steve”) Bates (Robert Livingston) won’t understand her family’s eccentricities when he meets them. Her suggestion: Bring in a “charity case” just like her fiancé’s mom does every holiday season. Where can they find one? Uncle Willie (Raymond Walburn), jovial but otherwise useless, suggests randomly picking one out of the newspaper.
Enter Anthony Marchand (Schildkraut), formerly a famous stage actor before an accident rendered him lame and, most recently, watchman at a mattress factory, which subsequently burned down. (It is hinted that Marchand set the fire himself—perhaps as a suicide attempt.) Marchand is a study in contradictions: Handsome, suave and eloquent; but also bitter, self-defeating and more than slightly alcoholic.
Marchand limps into the Pidgeon household, accepts their charity and hospitality, and, when given a wad of cash by J.C., gets thoroughly plastered.
While recovering in the library, Marchand overhears a scheme being cooked up by the family: Turns out that a wealthy uncle has died in Denver, but his will leaves $5 million to a stage actress he admired ages ago. The family decides to find the actress, hide her out until the period to find her has passed (about one week), and keep the cash for themselves. Marchand pipes up and helpfully suggests how they can find the actress—search through Actors’ Equity—and leaves the room, only to listen at the door to the plot he has set into motion. He then walks toward his room—without the slightest hint of a limp!
The actress, Florie Watson (Ona Munson), is found rather easily, and Uncle Willie tells her that she’s a long-lost relation and invites her to spend Christmas with the Pidgeons. Will she find out the family’s plan to cheat her? Will the private detectives searching for Florie find her once the whole family has fled to a house in the country? And what of Mr. Marchand’s manipulations? Will things come out the way he wants them to?
If this sounds like a lot of plot for a little movie, it is. However, even though The Cheaters is overstuffed with story threads, things never become confusing, mostly because the focus here is more on character than on plot. Each member of the Pidgeon clan is defined early on (mostly as unlikable, greedy beasts)—then, as the movie progresses, each is redefined through their interactions with the enigmatic Mr. M and Florie, who knows she’s not related to this clan of weirdoes, but accepts their hospitality just the same.
The supporting cast is top notch, with screwball comedy vets Burke and Pallette on hand to keep the one-liners flying, and Munson makes Florie’s destitute actress into a warm, salt-of-the-earth sweetheart to be admired, not pitied.
Mostly, though, this is a showcase for Schildkraut, who underplays much of his dialog to great effect, and whose bombastic flourishes are strictly within character—especially a wonderful scene in which Mr. M reminds the gathered family that before the three spirits who haunt Scrooge in A Christmas Carol get to work, it’s Jacob Marley, fettered with chains and money boxes, who sends Scrooge on the path to redemption. The Pidgeons are riveted in a way they wouldn’t have been at the beginning of the movie—Mr. M has been subtly sending them on their own redemption journey.
The Cheaters has been largely forgotten, as has Schildkraut, even though he continued working for another couple of decades after this movie (most famously in The Diary of Anne Frank). Both of those oversights should be rectified: The Cheaters is sincere, sweet and smart holiday fare, and Schildkraut gives one of his greatest performances in it.