I’ve heard some people say that they aren’t a fan of “The Cheaters”— a 1945 Christmas screwball comedy from Republic Pictures, a studio known at the time primarily for making B westerns starring the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers— because the characters in it can be pretty insufferable. The review that ran in The New York Times on its release brutally summed up this sentiment, calling it a “vapid little film” and “trashy— just a compound of witless platitudes.” But the characters being greedy members of the upper class is kind of the point of the movie, as they undergo an almost Dickensian change of heart by the film’s conclusion.
Directed by Joseph Kane from a story originally written by Frances Hyland and Albert Ray in 1941 first as a vehicle for comedian Binnie Barnes, and later as a potential project for Carole Lombard and John Barrymore before both of their untimely deaths, “The Cheaters” stars Eugene Pallette as J.C. Pidgeon, a wealthy New York City businessman. Or at least, he used to be wealthy, and his family, which consists of wife Clara (Billie Burke, playing the sort of frivolous society woman role she was most known for) and children Reggie (David Holt), Therese (Ruth Terry), and Angela (Anne Gillis) have become accustomed to the lavish lifestyle that comes with money. But the Pidgeons are actually teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, and J.C. is counting on a multi-million dollar inheritance from his Uncle Henry, who is currently on his deathbed, to pull them out of debt.
But it turns out that Henry has seen through the self-centered family’s ways, leaving them only $1, and the rest of his inheritance to Florie Watson (Ona Munson), a showgirl he saw in a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin when she was a child 30 years ago. Henry’s will stipulates that if Florie cannot be located within a certain amount of time, his estate will go to the Pidgeons, so the family starts scheming to find Florie and keep her in the dark about her inheritance for as long as they need to. But someone else is on to their game: Anthony Marchand (former silent film star Joseph Schlidkraut), a once-successful actor who’s now a meandering drunk thanks to an accident he suffered years earlier, and who Therese invited to stay with the family for Christmas as a charity case to impress her upper-crust boyfriend (Robert Livingston) and his snobby mother.
“The Cheaters” packs a lot of characters and story threads into just under 90 minutes, and as a result, the conclusion feels a bit rushed and not fully earned. But sometimes it’s fun to watch despicable people do despicable things, even (or especially) at Christmas. And the bratty Pidgeon family are balanced out by Schlidkraut’s observant alcoholic and Munson’s warm performance; neither of them are fooled by the family’s shenanigans, but they are both so down-on-their-luck themselves that they’re willing to play along for a bit. Munson never fully escaped the shadow of her role as Belle Watling in 1939’s “Gone with the Wind,” but this was a solid supporting role for her, her first one in two years. Munson did find success in other mediums, however, and between “Gone with the Wind” and “The Cheaters,” Munson became the first female producer at CBS, working on a radio program in support of the war effort.
“The Cheaters” isn’t satisfying on the same level as Scrooge finally seeing the light at the end of “A Christmas Carol” is satisfying, but the true spirit of the holidays, the Pidgeon family gets their comeuppance, learns their lesson, and everyone ends up in a little bit of a better place than where they were at the start of the film. “The Cheaters” was rereleased in theaters in 1949 under the title “The Castaway,” and found further longevity in television reruns in the 1950s. Despite becoming a beloved holiday classic for many people at the time, it hasn’t endured the way other Christmas movies from that era have, but “The Cheaters” is still well-worth discovering all over again.