Aga Baranowska reports on Ronald Neame’s The Million Pound Note (1954), a screening programmed to coincide with London Collections: Men and Huntsman's in-store exhibition dedicated to their five decade sartorial relationship with actor Gregory Peck.
The Million Pound Note (1954) is based on Mark Twain's 1893 story 'The £1,000,000 Bank-Note.' Written by Jill Craigie and directed by Ronald Neame, the former cinematographer and screenwriter for director David Lean, the film is an entertaining satirical comedy about wealth and happiness.
Two brothers, Oliver and Roderick Montpelier, have differing opinions on how people respond to wealth. Oliver insists that by just possessing money a person is considered wealthy, while Roderick insists that by only spending money is a person truly rich. Not being able to settle the argument with words, they choose penniless American Henry Adams (Gregory Peck) to take part in their experiment. They offer him a one million pound note with one condition: if he returns the note to them unspent, they will offer him a well-paid job. Initially, the note appears to accomplish wonders as Adams is offered a new wardrobe and accommodation in the best hotel without spending a penny. He is invited to splendid dinners and introduced to wealthy aristocrats who are keen to accept Adams as one of their own.
However, Adams soon realizes that his new fortune brings him as many problems as blessings. The Million Pound Note is an amusing comedy, but doesn't shy away from providing commentary on the precarious relationship between wealth and happiness. Sixty years have passed since the film’s release but its universal message remains relevant today.
The film features great British actors, including A.E. Matthews, who reportedly provided a turn-of-the-century riding outfit needed in the film out of his own closet, Reginald Beckwith, who plays Adams’ butler, and Jane Griffiths, Adams’ love interest; the true star of the film however is Gregory Peck, who delivers a convincing performance both as a poor American and a paper millionaire.
Born Eldred Gregory Peck, he dropped his first name at the beginning of his career; he often joked that the name was picked out of a phone book by his mother. While a pre-med student at the University of California, Berkeley he was asked by a drama professor to take part in a university play. Honest about his lack of acting experience, Peck was told that he was chosen for the role only because of his height. A one time acting gig turned into a lifelong vocation as Peck soon realised that his true passion lay within acting.
After finishing school, he moved to New York to establish himself as an actor, but his beginnings were almost as humble as the character Henry Adams. While struggling to make a name for himself on Broadway he worked as a barker at the 1939 World's Fair, an usher at Radio City Music Hall, a tour guide at the NBC studios and a model for the Montgomery Ward catalogue. Two years and a couple of roles on Broadway later, he was finally noticed by Hollywood talent scouts and moved west. Once in California, his career skyrocketed. His second film brought him an Academy Award nomination, and during his first five years in Hollywood Peck scored a remarkable four Academy Award nods. He eventually received the Oscar for his fifth nomination: the role of Southern lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).
Over a career that spanned half a century, Gregory Peck starred in approximately 55 motion pictures. Not only is the number of films impressive, but the range of roles that he played is truly astonishing. He portrayed a journalist, alongside Audrey Hepburn, in the romantic comedy Roman Holiday (1953), a priest in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) and a lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird. He worked with some of the mid-20th century’s greatest directors including Alfred Hitchcock, Vincente Minnelli, John Huston and William Wyler.
Peck once remarked that an actor’s role is to entertain, never to bore, and to perform with precision, professionalism and charm. That is exactly what he delivers in The Million Pound Note. Together with Roman Holiday, which immediately followed The Million Pound Note, Peck showed his more light-hearted and fun side, while maintaining his characteristic gracefulness, charm and integrity. Peck himself commented that his role in The Million Pound Note gave him the opportunity to wear the most elegant wardrobe he had ever been given in a film. With this screening of The Million Pound Note, the ICA invites you to see Gregory Peck, one of Hollywood's most enduring stars, in this delightful and entertaining British comedy. ■
Aga Baranowska is part of the ICA student placement scheme, assisting the ICA Curatorial Team with research for forthcoming film and cinema programme. She is currently undertaking an MA in Film, Television and Screen Media at Birkbeck, University of London – one of the ICA’s university partners.