The Million Pound Note (1954)

The Million Pound Note (1954)

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"My Grud... it's a blank piece of A5 paper! And it's 80gsm! My favourite"
“My Grud… it’s a blank piece of A5 paper! And it’s 80gsm! My favourite!”

Twitter Plot Summary: A penniless American is offered a £1 million loan in a single bank note and tasked with living off it for a month without spending a penny.

Genre: Comedy/Romance

Director: Ronald Neame

Key Cast: Gregory Peck, Jane Griffiths, Ronald Squire, Joyce Grenfell, Maurice Denham,

Five Point Summary:

1. Two servings of steak with all the trimmings? You wild man.
2. Oh no, a sharp gust of wind! And a doomsayer with a bundle of leaflets!
3. She wants to meet him on the balcony. Alone. To discuss charity. Of course.
4. Stock market gag. Hilarious.
5. People are stupid. Really, really stupid. Mob mentality never wins.

Based on a short story by Mark Twain, The Million Pound Note is a tale of perceived wealth and either getting everything you desire despite being otherwise penniless, or that the extreme value of the note would render it worthless as nobody would be in a position to offer you change should it be cashed. Typical of the era there’s very little preamble before Gregory Peck’s Henry Adams, a penniless American stuck in London, is pulled off the streets by a pair of rich brothers and handed, in a sealed envelope which he is to open at 2pm, a bank note for £1 million. They set him a challenge of living off the note and returning it to them undamaged after 30 days, unspent. Now, a million is a lot of money today, but in the early 20th century it would have been worth much, much more in comparison to today’s prices. As such, it’s not hard to believe that people would react the way they do in the film, albeit compressed into a shorter time frame than would occur in reality for the sake of telling the story as succinctly as possible. By just showing people the note it opens up a vast number of doors and, as expected by one of the rich brothers, he doesn’t have to spend a penny. Before he knows it, Adams has food in his belly, a plethora of suits, an expensive hotel suite and the ear of every well-off family or businessman in the city.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a 1950s comedy without introducing a romantic element. As the rich and upper classes of Britain are drawn in by his money and, to a lesser extent, his engaging personality, Adams is drawn in by Portia Landsdowne (Griffiths) who is not only interested in him and his wealth, but specifically in his ability to make charitable donations to the good causes close to her heart. It later transpires that she’s interested in him, money or not. Nice sentiment, but quite unlikely in the real world in my opinion. I also find it amusing that this eligible bachelor type is given the bridal suite in the hotel. A sign of things to come, or a commentary on attitudes towards relationships? By hiring out the bridal suite to single men, it’s complicit that having excessive amounts of money is detrimental to the possibility of maintaining a relationship, that it becomes a greater focus than trying to impress the opposite sex. Or the same sex, depends on the person I suppose… Either way, you decide if that’s an intentional point or not.

"I'm a dandy, and don't you forget about it!"
“I’m a dandy, and don’t you forget about it!”

Despite the humorous setup, the real message underlying the film is that whilst money can be a force for good, it can also cause its own fair share of problems. Money can be useful but it’s not a pre-requisite for happiness. Just as quickly as he gains all the privileges of wealth, they’re just as quickly taken away and through exactly the same superficial means he acquired them. And then given back again, almost arbitrarily. People put so much emphasis on the perceived value of money that it can make or break an economy if the slightest thing changes. Case in point, Adams’ name is linked to a gold mine deal, to which people hastily invest, then when Adams temporarily misplaces the note (a joke played by the former resident in Adams’ hotel suite – also male, and elderly to boot) the value of the stock plummets. It’s a valuable lesson to take away from the film, one that is as relevant to our economy now as it was in 1954.

I would assume that it was a nightmare trying to frame Gregory Peck with other actors and actresses seeing as he was so stupendously tall, comparatively. There are clearly moments where the supporting cast are either on a step so they’re near his eye level, or the decision was made to sit him down at a desk or similar so the perspective doesn’t look off. If they hadn’t done so he would have looked incredibly out of place at least a handful of times. There’s one scene also where he wears a long coat and, due to the style of the era, it looks ridiculous on him, like a big bed sheet with buttons. Better leaving him in a tailored suit, it just works better.

It’s a silly idea for a film, but a tradition that was followed by the likes of Brewsters Millions and Life Stinks, and as I’ve previously enjoyed both of those films it stands to reason that I would enjoy this one too. And yes, I did enjoy it, very much so. It’s a simple story told with the usual style of 1950s cinema, all whimsy and well spoken acting.

Favourite scene: Adams is thrown out of the stock exchange. Physically.

Quote: “Serve him Horace, but don’t spare the gristle!”

Silly Moment: A circus strong man is mistaken for Henry Adams, despite being squat and mute.

Score: 3/5

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