Having acted on the stage for over a decade, Douglas Fairbanks broke into pictures by joining the Triangle Film Corporation in 1915. Audiences immediately took to his handsome looks and lively acting. As a rising star, he quickly outgrew Triangle and left for greener pastures in 1916. Not wanting to lose out on the profits that a film headlined by Fairbanks would bring in, Triangle took one of the last movies he made while he was still under their employ – the 1916 five-reeler The Matrimaniac – and used it along with some outtakes to assemble a new two-reeler that they released under the guise of a completely new Fairbanks picture in 1917: The Missing Millionaire.
If you’ve seen The Matrimaniac, you’ll surely recognize the footage, but not the story, as The Missing Millionaire follows an entirely different plot.
It starts with quite a cold opening – an old man in a bathtub, a couple of people standing around looking suspicious, Douglas Fairbanks slashing somebody’s tires – and it’s actually about five minutes in before we’re given the slightest clue what’s going on, but it turns out that the story isn’t too complex. Jonas Byng (Fred Warren), a seller of patent medicines and a hypochondriac himself, has just inherited a million dollars. His cousin Zeke (Clyde E. Hopkins) is eager to get his hands on the money, which he plans on doing by having Joe declared insane and naming himself the executor of his estate. Jim Lawton (Douglas Fairbanks), a shoe-salesman, is in love with Joe’s daughter Mildred (Constance Talmadge) and very much wants to prevent Zeke from robbing her and her father of their fortune. The bulk of the film (and by bulk, I mean all) is a race to the judge, with Jim and Joe on the one side and Zeke and Mildred (who he’s taken hostage, I guess) on the other.
Fairbanks gives an acrobatic performance as Jim – scaling walls, running on rooftops, tightrope-walking on telephone lines, clinging to the underside of a moving train – and Warren plays the doddering, absent-minded old man convincingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the characters’ actions made a great deal more sense in The Matrimaniac. Even as simple as they’ve tried to keep the plot, the movie still feels like it’s about to come apart at the seams any minute. It’s an obvious cut-and-paste job that only barely stays coherent.
The film ends with an abrupt twist that I’ll admit was unexpected, but it’s the sort of twist that the film treats as a resolution, but when you stop to think about the situation even for a moment, you realize it doesn’t resolve anything at all. At the conclusion of the film, pretty much all of the main characters, with the exception of maybe Mildred, should be in prison given all the laws they’ve broken up to that point.
It has the elements of a good film (and I mean that literally), but The Missing Millionaire isn’t a good film itself. I don’t recommend it, apart from as an oddity owing to its curious creation.
Incidentally, The Missing Millionaire wasn’t the only re-edit of The Matrimaniac: the one-reeler A Telephone Marriage (1926) was also edited from it. All three films survive. It’s interesting watching them back to back to see all the different takes on the same footage.
My rating: I don’t like it.