Though the sub-genre of screwball comedy was essentially over after Preston Sturges’ inspired 1944 pair of wartime Americana, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and the even better Hail the Conquering Hero (featured in my book Screen Savers), there was a delightful screwball holdover in 1948, Miss Tatlock’s Millions, an underrated charmer that’s clever and involving and completely “screwy.” It probably would have been a smash, and possibly a classic, had it been made in 1938 instead of 1948. Its director, Richard Haydn, better known as a character actor (Max in The Sound of Music), was no Sturges, but he did a fine full-out job. The picture’s star is John Lund, a barely remembered leading man, tall and blond and handsome, best known as the male lead in the female-dominated To Each His Own (starring Olivia de Havilland) and A Foreign Affair (starring Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich). In the best role he ever got, Lund walks away with Miss Tatlock’s Millions.
He plays a Hollywood stunt man (and Ray Milland’s stunt double) hired by Barry Fitzgerald to impersonate a rich, crazy fellow for whom he is a lookalike. Fitzgerald knows that the actual guy is dead but the family hasn’t received this news, nor have they seen their relative in ten years. The two men arrive just in time for the reading of the grandparents’ wills. The family is full of awful, greedy characters, including Monty Woolley, Robert Stack, and Ilka Chase. The exception is sweet Wanda Hendrix, Lund’s new “sister.” Playing insane, Lund evokes Jerry Lewis (one year before Lewis’ screen debut in My Friend Irma, which starred Lund!). He may also remind you of Steve Martin’s Ruprecht in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. With eyeglasses, a high-pitched voice, spastic body language, and a mad grin, Lund is a joy. It’s a completely unexpected performance, a wacky delight.
An “accident,” a fall, leads to Lund’s cured insanity and emergence as a strong, likable, and studly fellow. In a daring twist, not only does Lund fall for his “sister” but she starts to fall for him, and she really thinks he is her brother, bringing a naughty undercurrent of incest to a slapstick comedy. There’s a sexy scene of Hendrix innocently writing the alphabet on Lund’s bare chest, teaching the newly sane Lund to read and write but driving him crazy, a forerunner to Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe’s train-berth scene in Some Like It Hot.
Miss Tatlock’s Millions is an offbeat, appealing post-screwball find, one that deserves far greater attention and at the very least a DVD release!