Three Million Dollars (1911) A Silent Film Review

An early J. Warren Kerrigan vehicle about a rancher whose single daughter will inherit three million dollars if she can produce a marriage certificate. When the daughter refuses to marry, the father resorts to kidnapping. Allan Dwan directs.

Home Media Availability: Released for download.

Worst father ever.

Going through the movie star popularity polls of the 1910s, two names keep cropping up in the men’s division: Francis X. Bushman and J. Warren Kerrigan. Bushman is best remembered today for his role in Ben-Hur but that was a comeback film; pictures from the height of his fame and popularity are very scarce indeed. (To my knowledge, only one of his 1910s films, Under Royal Patronage, has been released on home video.)

J. Warren Kerrigan is in a similar situation. He appeared in The Covered Wagon (1923) and the 1924 version of Captain Blood but those films were made a good decade after his heyday. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to have them but I was dying of curiosity regarding Kerrigan’s early work, the stuff that made him a star in the first place.

Kerrigan provoking laughter.

So, obviously, I leapt at the chance to see this 1911 western-comedy in which Kerrigan plays the romantic lead. Best of all, it is directed by Allan Dwan in the first year of his career while he was in California working for Flying A.

I suspect that the version I viewed is derived from a 9.5mm home print but it seems to be complete based on a synopsis published in Moving Picture World in 1911. However, the characters are not given names in the title cards. I will just use the names given in the synopsis for clarity.

Parents ruin everything.

Estella Close (Pauline Bush) has gone to town with her parents and is immediately taken with Arthur Smith (J. Warren Kerrigan), the local shopkeeper. The pair chat away, oblivious to shoplifters and her irritated parents.

When they get back home, Joseph Close (George Periolat), her father, receives a letter from a lawyer. It seems that Estella has been named the heiress of her uncle’s fortune but only if she can produce a marriage license dated no later than one month after his passing. The sum at stake is enormous: three million dollars. That’s about $75 million in modern lettuce.

The problem is that Estella refuses to marry. Nobody loves her, why should she undertake marriage for a measly three million?

The obvious solution!

Now a normal parent would have recalled Estella’s flirtation with Arthur and perhaps invited him to dinner or something but Close is cut from a crazier cloth and decides that something more drastic is in order. A rancher by trade, Close calls his cowboys and tells them he will pay them $1,000 apiece if they kidnap his daughter and a random handsome man.

The cowboys, who seem far too excited about their mission, soon deliver Estella and Arthur to a remote location and leave them bound and gagged while Close goes for the justice of the peace. The cowboys then make Movie Kidnapper Mistake #1 and wander off, leaving their captives alone.

“Your father’s a nutbird!”
“You’re telling me?”

Arthur breaks free and is surprised to find Estella as his fellow captive. The pair escape on horseback, climbing over the hills and evading capture because, let’s face it, no one involved in the kidnapping is exactly going to split the atom.

We’ll end it here as I don’t want to spoil the ending of this one-reeler, though you’ve probably already guessed where it’s going.

How many millions again?

As is often the case in films of this period, the acting is a mixed bag. Periolat outrageously overacts and overdoes his miming, constantly looking at the camera, holding up three fingers and mouthing, “Three million dollars!” It’s not as bad as the acting in The Copper Beeches but it’s heading that way.

On the other hand, Kerrigan and Bush are both quite natural for the period and are charming in their “What the heck?!?!?” reactions to their predicament. They have great chemistry and quickly win over the audience with their cute flirtations. The audiences weren’t the only ones taken with Bush; Allan Dwan later married her.

Flirtation in “Three Million Dollars”

As for Kerrigan, he comes off very well in this light material. It’s easy to see why he was so popular, especially in contrast to the more strike-a-pose style of Francis X. Bushman. (You can see the appeal of both men but Bushman was definitely the more stylized of the two.)

The story is a little silly and requires the father character to be a perfect nut but Bush, Kerrigan and Dwan manage to sell it. While it doesn’t feature any fancy stunts with the camera, it is generally shot well in comparison to other films of the period and Dwan does make the most of his western scenery.

The wilds of San Diego.

This film was shot in Lakeside, California (the link is a PDF, sorry about that) before the Flying A crew ventured slightly southwest to La Mesa. Both locations are part of the San Diego urban area but the Flying A studio moved shop to Santa Barbara after a year. Still, it’s fun to see the various locations that the early California filmmakers used before Los Angeles was deemed THE spot for movies.

Escaaaaaaape!

(By the way, D.W. Griffith is often credited with shooting the first motion picture in California in 1910. Is it any surprise that this is a lot of hot air? The Edison film company shot an actuality in Los Angeles in 1898, Selig shot scenes for Monte Cristo in La Jolla in 1907 and Bison set up a studio for westerns in Edendale in 1909. Griffith may have been the first person to shoot a fiction film entirely in California that also featured specific Hollywood street but lordy are we getting weirdly specific at this point. Let it go, people. Yes, Griffith is a pretty, pretty princess who sneezes out cotton candy, now please go away.)

Just as cute as a bug.

Three Million Dollars is short but just as cute as can be. It’s also a valuable chance to see a forgotten matinee idol at the top of his game. Highly recommended and at just 13 minutes, what do you have to lose?

Where can I see it?

Three Million Dollars is available to stream or download from Harpodeon. It is accompanied by an electronic piano score.

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4 Replies to “Three Million Dollars (1911) A Silent Film Review”

  1. You dare to dis the great Griffith!! Keep it up, we regard the great man differently today, and the full story of D.W. ‘Klansman’ Griffith has yet to be told. I thought I’d heard of this film before, Mabel Normand claimed to have been in it! I think she meant ‘Dodging a Million’.

    1. Yes, I think it’s likely that Mabel mixed up the title as this film has a super limited cast; Pauline Bush and the actress playing her mom are the only women in the main cast and there’s only one woman cast as an extra. The film doesn’t have closeups but all three are clearly not Mabel. But they were making so many movies then, it would certainly be easy to forget which title is which.

  2. Dustin from Harpodeon here. It’s printed on 16mm diacetate positive stock, edge code dates it to 1935. Brittle, but otherwise in decent shape. Not too shrunken. I’m more than usually familiar with it because I’m actually remastering the title right now for an upcoming collection of the three early Kerrigan films we have prints of: “Three Million Dollars”, “Man’s Calling” (aka “Almost a Friar”), and “The Borrowed Flat”. The title card may or may not be a replacement. There’s nothing about it that immediately stands out as being later than 1911, but it’s a different style to the title seen on “The Borrowed Flat”, which I know is authentic. The end card is definitely a replacement dating to the 1930s. The intertitles are all original. There are splices here and there, but no significant footage seems to be missing.

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