In this era of movie remakes, reboots, sequels and franchises, it is hardly shocking to hear that Hollywood is adapting a property into a film for the sixth time. The only surprise is that it’s not a superhero. Last week, Variety reported that Brewster’s Millions would once again be coming to a theater near you. Based on a 1902 book by George Barr McCutcheon, Brewster’s Millions was adapted into an American film in 1914, 1921, 1926, 1945 and, most recently, 1985. It has also been a Broadway play, as well as a foreign film; two English movies have been made from the premise, and India got into the act with a 1988 version called Maalamaal.
Why does Brewster’s Millions never go out of style? Its story is an irresistible capitalist fable. Here is the basic plot: Monty Brewster is a working-class stiff who learns that he stands to inherit an ungodly sum of money ($300 million in the 1985 version) from a rich, long-lost uncle. But the gift comes with a delightful catch: Brewster must spend a certain amount ($30 million) in 30 days without accruing any assets. If he can do it, he inherits the entire sum. If he fails, he gets nothing.
The details change from year to year. In 1945, Brewster (played by B-movie star Dennis O’Keefe) was a soldier just back from World War II. The 1985 version starred Richard Pryor as an aging minor-league baseball player. In 1926, it was Miss Brewster’s Millions starring Bebe Daniels (who later played Miss Ruth Wonderly in The Maltese Falcon). Despite these differences, each version of the film relies on the same adolescent wish fulfillment, asking the question: Wouldn’t it be fun to be obscenely wealthy? In 1985, Pryor’s Brewster uses his newfound wealth to ride in limos and helicopters, and throw lavish parties. He even manages to convince the Yankees to play an exhibition game against his minor league team. Standing on the mound and facing down the New York Yankees? That is every baseball fan’s childhood fantasy.
But the politics of this fantasy are more complex. Consider the turning point of each film, when Brewster has his first significant setback. One of the rules of the arrangement is that Brewster cannot tell anyone why he has to spend money at such a breakneck pace: not his friends, his girlfriend, or even his accountant, all of whom think he has lost his mind and are determined to prevent him from going broke. At one point, his friends deliver a crushing blow: They have secretly invested his money (in 1985, it’s in the stock market; in 1945, the ponies), and earned back every bit he had previously spent. Brewster is essentially back to where he started with less time to go.
Plotwise, the twist is depicted as a crushing blow to his efforts to win the entire fortune, but it can also be read as a grandly reassuring economic statement. The film is essentially showing us an economic system (albeit in a very small microcosm) in which it is impossible to go broke, even if you’re trying to. It is easy to see why the film would have been a hit in 1945, when the post-war boom was just beginning. The situation in that version of Brewster’s Millions, in which wealth was abundant and seemingly everlasting, may have been an exaggeration, but it was generally reflective of the national economic mood.
In 1985, it made even more sense. Many films of this era were based on simply showing viewers how much fun it was to be rich. They practically formed their own subgenre: Arthur, Trading Places, The Secret of my Success, The Toy, and even Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. To some, the 1985 Brewster’s Millions was simply capitalizing on this trend, which itself reflected the culture of individual wealth so prominent in the 1980s that Wall Street would it define two years later with its simple proclamation that “greed is good.”
The political elements of the Pryor version also seem right for today. After his friends win back all his money, Brewster comes up with a new plan to blow it all: an expensive political campaign that urges voters in the New York City mayoral race to vote for “None of the Above.” Brewster spends money on campaign ads, buttons, hats and billboards, and uses the soapbox that his wealth affords him to point out how corrupt his opponents are. The campaign is predicated on the notion that politics are corrupt and ineffectual, and while that’s not exactly a new idea, it would play particularly well today, with Congressional approval rating at sustained all-time lows and voter turnout remaining dismal.
If there is one area where the next iteration of Brewster’s Millions could improve, it is on the issue of race. The 1985 version was one of several Pryor films that refused to include the type of groundbreaking racial comedy that he perfected as a stand-up. In fact, race is only mentioned during a single scene, a video created by his long-lost uncle (Hume Cronyn) before his death in which he asks, “Didn’t ya know your grandfather was a honky?” The latest remake will be directed by Robert Townsend, who is best known for 1987’s Hollywood Shuffle, a racially-progressive satire that commented on the dearth of roles available to black actors at the time. Obviously, very little has changed. Despite the success of the film, Townsend’s career never quite took off, and this will be his highest-profile project in twenty years. Hiring Townsend implies that the producers see this as a racial story, and combining the politics of race and economic sounds like a winning combination that could make the best and most incisive Brewster’s Millions to date.
On the other hand, remaking this story in our age of income inequality comes with certain risks. What are the consequences of celebrating the “one percent” lifestyle when most of us have no path towards actually achieving it? It’s a persistent problem. These days, the hopes of the working class and unemployed are systematically buoyed by an endless stream of reality TV shows that pluck regular people out of obscurity to promise them fortune and (15 minutes of) fame. Brewster’s case is no different, except his story promises another fortune, even after the first one has gone. Hollywood continues to sell this dream, with little thought to what happens when it is perpetually deferred.
Lead photo: Bebe Daniels and Clarence G. Badger in Miss Brewster’s Millions, 1926
Noah Gittell is a film critic and essayist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, Washington City Paper, Esquire, LA Review of Books, and others.