Everybody likes the idea of winning prizes, right? The thrill of being important, the excitement when the prize arrives; and that says nothing about the notoriety of being a genuine winner to everyone in your community. But what happens when your winnings turn into a curse? That is exactly what happens to the Lawrence family, in the comedy film “The Jackpot” (1950), from director Walter Lang.
Bill Lawrence (Jimmy Stewart) is unhappy with what he considers to be a mundane life. He is married to the loving Amy (Barbara Hale), and has two young children (Natalie Wood & Tommy Rettig). He has a solid job working at Woodruff’s department store, and Mr. Woodruff himself (Fred Clark) is considering making Bill vice-president of the store. And then the telephone rings, and the trouble begins. Bill has been selected to take part in a radio trivia game and if he answers their “guess the husband” question, he will receive $24,000 in prizes. Bill and his family are elated when he answers correctly, and even though some of the prizes are ridiculous, they’re just happy to have won. That is, until they hear about the tax implications of winning so many prizes. Because the government considers the prizes as income, the Lawrence family is going to owe about $7,000 in taxes. Obviously a middle America family in 1950 doesn’t have that kind of money, so they have to begin selling their prizes in order to pay the taxes. Of course the added stress from these dealing only takes what was once a quiet, comfortable home and turns it into a three-ring circus, complete with arguments, marital problems, and even a misunderstanding that leads to a night in jail. If only he would have answered that question wrong!
The first half of “The Jackpot” seems like a cute, light-hearted comedy, but then it quickly transitions into a life lesson for all ages. The film is based on the real life events of a Rhode Island man, whose story was written up by John McNulty for The New Yorker, in 1949. This mind-boggling situation actual happened to this poor man and his family, yet you can’t help but sit back and laugh as confusion, bewilderment, and chaos take control of his life.
One of the things that makes this film so easy to enjoy is the cast of professionals, that fill each scene. These aren’t actors that needed to be told what to do, they knew how to make a comedy work. Director Walter Lang seems to be a master at giving his cast the freedom to do things their way. His career is filled with films that prove this, and it enabled him to work in any genre and with any story, as long as the actors knew what they were doing.
“The Jackpot” is not a film that one hears about very often these days, mostly because it has fallen into that dreaded pit of obscurity. I suppose it’s because it’s not a “great” movie, so it is easy to cast it behind all the monumental films from the 50’s, where (quite honestly), it belongs. This does, however, make it a satisfying film for those who give it a chance and are seeking some light-hearted entertainment.