On May 22, 1985 the 7th big screen adaptation of the 1902 book Brewster’s Millions hit theatres. Released by Universal the comedy is based on the life of a has-been ballplayer, played by Richard Pryor, and his best friend catcher, depicted by John Candy. This was the only film the two ever did together and it was the first film greenlit by Frank Price when he took over as head of production for Universal.
Film producer Walter Hill told The Philadelphia Inquirer on its release, “My idea of a good movie is to take very clearly defined characters and put them in the highest possible jeopardy and then see what happens.” This is a perfect synopsis of Brewster’s Millions.
We meet Candy and Pryor on a ball field in the bush leagues, patiently waiting for a train to clear the outfield. As they scan the crowd the RHP remarks, “I’m telling you, I think he’s a scout in the big leagues.” The better half of his battery replies, “Come on. This is Hackensack New Jersey. No scout comes here. You understand that? There’s a train going through the outfield right now. But if you strike this guy out, I’ll take you with me and tonight we’ll get you drunk. That’s a promise.”
Candy plays the catcher role true to form throughout, blending a bit of antagonist along with the everyman leader to a perfect balance of believability. He’s a true blue friend often playing the part above all sense of reason for the circumstances. What are those circumstances exactly you ask? Well, it seems Brewster (Pryor) is about to come into a great deal of money but first, he has to do some things that will seem insane to the casual observer. Of course he mustn’t reveal his motives, not even to his best pal.
Naturally comedy ensues in that purely innocent entertainment way that only films in the 80s seemed to magically capture. It was a decade when excess was not yet basterdized and decadence was an expectation on the cutting room floor. It was the era that brought two of the greatest Johns in film history, Hughes and Candy, into our lives and it was a heyday for the black comedian in American movies with both Pryor and Murphy enjoying the fruits of their labor at a level only previously obtained by brat pack member Sammy Davis Jr.
The film was produced by Walter Hill, the man responsible for the 1982 cop comedy 48 hours starring Eddie Murphy. Those familiar with that film will recognize a few things because Hill used many of the same shooting locations and props in both films.
If you find yourself feeling like you’re about to watch a remake of Trading Places don’t be surprise. The same writers penned both screenplays. Between the writing and the props, it can seem as if Murphy is about to jump onto the screen at any moment. Thankfully, the similarities soon part ways allowing you to enjoy each film on its own merits. Though neither was a true blockbuster, in the economic sense of the word, both have offered generations of viewers unlimited entertainment over the years.
As with most 80s films this one forces you to leave your limits at the door, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off style, for two hours you can only enjoy if you walk in ready to buying into the impossible. It is this, perhaps more than anything else that enables you to walk away from this film feeling like everything is possible.
The book, penned in 1902, was based on a conversation the author had with his publisher. That chat resulted in a friendly wager between them upon which the theme of the book was derived. Brewster’s Millions sold 150,000 copies in its first three months on the shelves and remains in print today. In total, the book has been adapted for film ten times including three versions done in India.
In the book Brewster was a stockbroker but his life has changed drastically with each new film. The first adaptation came out in 1914, the second in 1921. By the 1926 version Brewster is an out of work Hollywood movie extra. In the 1945 and 1954 film versions he was a war hero, WWI and WWII respectively. The 1961 version went by the name Three On A Spree and, aside from the 1926 version named Miss Brewster’s Millions, because Brewster was a woman, all the adaptations have carried the book’s name.
By 1984, Brewster had undergone another career change to reflect the “it” hero of the time. During the height of the baseball card era, he was a minor league ball player who spent 15 years squeezing out a career, never earning more than $11,000 in a season. With each adaptation the details of the movie were updated to reflect the time in history, as well as the modern expectations of what constitutes a great deal of wealth.
There is also a royal connection to this particular film version. Princess Anne, daughter of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip of Great Britain, visited the set of Brewster’s Millions as part of her 1984 US Tour. The scene she was initially scheduled to see wrapped ahead of schedule so she met with John Candy but missed Pryor.
There is one fun little trivia note that only occurred to me as I re-watched the film for what had to be the 20th time for this review. One scene may be considered a rules violation within the film. It took me until this viewing before it stood out to me though it has gnawed at my subconscious in the past. See if you can find it too. If you think you have it, send us your guess!
Brewster’s Millions is definitely not academy-worthy but what great comedies are? If you’re looking for a rainy day distraction or it’s just too hot to move outside, it’s a great way to whittle away a few hours and come out smiling and hopeful. What more can someone ask of entertainment?