Two important names in the history of animation are Dave and Max Fleischer of the Fleischer Brothers Studio. They brought to the screen classic short films starring the likes of Betty Boop, Koko the Clown and Popeye. But the Fleischer film legacy doesn’t stop with animation. Max’s son, Richard Fleischer, went on to become a respected director of live-action feature films. Among his credits are films like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage, Soylent Green, Doctor Dolittle, and Tora Tora Tora. Into the 80’s, though, his career was winding down and he was directing films like Red Sonja and Amityville 3-D. Today we look at Fleischer’s final film, known for its tie-in sweepstakes sponsored by GLAD garbage bags…1987’s Million Dollar Mystery.
On a lonely Arizona highway, a group of travelers have each decided to take a short break at a roadside cafe run by Tugger (Royce D. Applegate) and his sister Dotty (Pam Matteson). Among them are newlyweds Rollie (Eddie Deezen) and Lollie (Wendy Sherman), the Briggs family (Rick Overton, Mona Lyden and Douglas Emerson), and music exec Crush (Daniel McDonald) and his trio of hot young models. There is also a man named Sidney Preston (Tom Bosley), who it turns out has embezzled four million dollars from the government. Suddenly, Sidney suffers a heart attack and with his dying words reveals to the others that the money is hidden in four locations (a million in each spot). He tells them to look for the bridges.
Of course, the various groups all zoom off to find the money. Tugger and Dotty try to off-road it but run into trouble. They end up getting rescued by a ranger named Slaughter Buzzard (Rich Hall…the Sniglets guy!) who then joins in the hunt, as well. Of course, everyone reaches the bridge at the same time and the money is found in a hidden briefcase. However, the handle breaks off in Buzzard’s hand, and the money tumbles to the bottom of a canyon. Fear not, there’s still 3 million more out there. So our treasure hunters head off to continue the search which leads them to Bosley’s boat (boats have “bridges” after all) and the famous London Bridge in Lake Havasu City.
If this all sounds a bit familiar, theres a good reason. The film essentially has the same premise as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. That film is a comedy classic, this one…not so much. One of the big differences is that we just don’t get a bunch of well developed comedic characters this time like we did in Mad x4. There are a few glimmers of good characters here, but not enough to carry the film. Rich Hall’s character is kind of a Rambo wannabe and his frequent stories about the way things were in Nam is kind of funny. I did enjoy Eddie Deezen’s character quite a bit. He and his new bride have yet to actually consummate their marriage before they are thrown into this treasure hunt, so they spend much of the film looking for chances to get busy while keeping up the chase for the loot. Given the type of nerdy characters Deezen plays, it’s fun to see him looked at as some sort of stud muffin by his new wife…and Deezen just eats it up! He also has a funny sequence where he tangles with an uncooperative Murphy bed.
Unfortunately, the great majority of the characters are a bit too half-baked to really be funny. Most of them just end up doing a lot of running and screaming as the film progresses. I do have to admit, though, that I got a bit of a kick out of Kevin Pollak’s cop character. Pollak was primarily a stand-up and impressionist at this point in his career…so he’s playing a cop who wants to be an impressionist. Yes, it’s a bit contrived, but you gotta admit Pollak’s impression of Dudley Moore as Arthur is brilliant!
Though I found a few moments mildly amusing, Million Dollar Mystery is really just a weak attempt to copy the formula of a comedy classic. Some interested in the history of movie promotional campaigns will be intrigued by the contest that was connected to the film. In the final scene of the movie, the two FBI agents who have been trailing the treasure hunters stare right into the camera and inform the audience that there have been clues throughout the film to lead them to where the one million dollar prize is. According to Wikipedia, the film didn’t even manage to bring in a million at the US box office. So…that prize thing may not have been such a hot idea.