Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live


Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we embed free, fun films for you to watch right here!

These days, the last thing you might want to see on your screen is another family of grifters.  But fear not: these folks are smart, funny, charming and have nothing to do with Russia. And deep down—okay way deep down—they’re decent.

We first meet the Carletons in Monte Carlo (“Coney Island with a monocle”), where son Richard (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is trying to snooker a dumpy American heiress, pulling snippets of classic poetry out of his pocket and passing it off as his own. His sister George-Anne (Janet Gaynor) is throwing over her beloved Duncan (Richard Carlson), an adorable Scotsman, after learning—by way of a comically modest engagement ring—that he’s broke. Their father “Sahib” (Roland Young, one of my movie husbands) is fleecing a few suckers at cards. And in the midst of all this, Marmy (Billie Burke at her Billie Burke-est) is bragging about her brood (“‘Sahib’ is Indian for genteel!”).

But alas, before long, they’re literally run out of town on a rail. After one of their scams blows up, a local gendarme presses train tickets into their greasy palms and tells them not to darken his sunny shores again.

Convinced she’s not as shallow as she seems, the persistent Duncan high-tails it onto the train after George-Anne, and as she pulls away from him, she literally falls into the car of Miss Fortune, a lonely—and wealthy—old woman (Minnie Dupree, who’s kind of an elderly Marian Marsh). Even before she can catch her breath, she’s spinning a sob story. When Miss Fortune says she seems troubled, she sputters, “Yes, it’s my mother… she needs to have an operation…”

Later that night, when the train derails, Richard and George-Anne pull Miss Fortune from the wreckage, saving her life—and giving us a glimpse of who they really are. Richard tenderly rests the old woman on a soft patch of grass, and George-Anne swaddles her in her last luxe possession, her fur coat. Grateful and eager for company, she invites the family to share her mansion. They leap at the chance—but George-Anne reminds them that simply lolling around the fabulous old house would give the game away: “All we have to do is keep being what she thinks we are: decent, honest, sober and hard-working.” Yikes.

Richard and Sahib reluctantly trundle out in search of jobs—only to discover they enjoy them. Richard falls in love with his boss (Paulette Goddard) at an engineering firm, and Sahib finally puts his charm to semi-honest use selling the futuristic Flying Wombat, “the car that thinks for you.” Meanwhile, all of them have fallen in love with Miss Fortune. And none of them could be more ashamed of their newfound morality.

That’s all I’ll tell you, except to add that this was Carlson’s first credited role and Gaynor’s last before retiring at the height of her fame (she returned just once, decades later, for Bernadine).

The film also looks and sounds gorgeous, earning Franz Waxman his first Oscar nods, for Scoring and Original Score (which were separate categories back then), and cinematographer Leon Shamroy one of his 18 nominations (tying him with Charles Lane for the record in that category). The legendary William Cameron Menzies, fresh off a little number called Gone with the Wind, was the production designer.

Oh, and the Flying Wombat, which cost $24,000 to build, was played by the stunning 1938 Phantom Corsair, a six-passenger coupe designed by Rust Heinz of ketchup-family fame. He planned to put it into limited production priced at roughly $12,000, but was killed in a road accident in July 1939, and no one followed through on his dream.

STREAMING SATURDAYS is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, bringing you free, fabulous films! You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?

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