History Makes Movies Better

There are 365 days in a normal non-freaky-leap year. Each of those days marks the anniversary of all sorts of crazy shit. Some of that crazy shit has been made into movies.

January 11

It was a 1381 years ago today that Mohammed, prophet of Islam and hater of caricatures, led an intimidating march of 10,000 Muslim followers to conquer his hometown, Mecca, which was at the time ruled by a pagan Arabic tribe. This victory was ultimately to have a very lasting effect on the western world, and not always a great one. But I want to talk about something that had an equally big impact on western culture – though in a very different way.

442 years ago today the first recorded lottery took place in England.

The earliest archeologically verified lotteries date back to the B.C. era Chinese Han Dynasty, and were used to fund projects like the Great Wall. Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar organized the first public lotteries in the western world to fund repairs in Rome. But the lottery really took off when Queen Elizabeth I charted an official lottery in 1566, which was then drawn in January 11, 1569 (shit moved slow back then). The lottery was advertised with scrolls posted around England, and the prizes were valuable commodities, such as silver plates.

The relevance on English lotteries was to prove extremely vital to the development of America. Quite literally. It was through lotteries that the Virginia Company of London raised much of its funds to settle Jamestown (the first successful permanent English colony in North America). In the 1700’s, American colonists used lotteries to finance Princeton, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania, and later to raise money for the Revolutionary War.

Of course, lotteries have also always had a fairly negative public image, generally seen as attracting the poorer segments of the population, the “undesirables.” In the late 1800’s, many New Yorkers referred to their lottery as the “Nigger Pool.” Eventually the haters won out, and in 1890 President Benjamin Harrison demanded that Congress pass legislation against state-run lotteries. Congress banned the US mails from carrying lottery tickets, the Supreme Court upheld the law, and by 1900 lotteries were put in the hands of the private sector. It was not until the mid-1960’s that individual states were given the right to decide if they wanted to legalize and run lotteries again.

The idea of hitting it rich off of a single ticket is a wonderful fantasy, so of course lotteries have long figured into cinema subjects and plot devices.

[Apologies for how ugly and cramped the formatting gets towards the end, but I would have needed to start the post over from scratch to fix it, and fuck that noise. Also, for the record, it is still Jan 11 where I live.]

Greed (1924)
This silent film adaptation of Frank Norris’ novel McTeague by Erich von Stroheim (best remembered these days for his memorable acting roles in Grande Illusion and Sunset Boulevard) has developed a famous reputation as a lost film. The story concerns a dentist whose wife wins the lottery. Soon an obsession with money, plus the untimely return of the wife’s former lover, sends all our characters into a downward spiral. With a budget of a then staggering $500,000, Stroheim’s original cut of the film came in at an even more staggering – in any time period – ten hours in length. During production Goldwyn Studios had merged with Metro Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Pictures to form MGM, and Stroheim’s new bosses were reasonably indifferent to his crazy artistic vision. Under orders, the director was able to cut the film down to four hours, with a planned intermission, but eventually MGM took the film away from him and cut it down to 140 minutes. The deleted material was eventually destroyed, so it is merely the director’s cut that is lost. In 1999, Turner Entertainment (possibly trying to make up for all the bad karma it garnered by colorizing classic black and white films) attempted to restore the film by using the original shooting script and still photographs taken during production. Their makeshift restoration came in a 239 minutes. Frank Norris’ novel was also the basis for the 1916 film Life’s Whirlpool, of which no known copies exist.

When Worlds Collide (1951)
This directing project from classic cinematographer Rudolph Maté (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, To Be or Not to Be), is an adaptation of a sci-fi novel co-written by Philip Gordon Wylie and Edwin Balmer. The story concerns a doomsday scenario in which a newly discovered star, Bellus, is on a crash course with Earth. The United Nations frantically builds a spaceship to carry away survivors and maintain the human race. The first passengers are made up of important world figures and scientists. The remaining passengers are chosen through a lottery. Predictably the lottery losers are not very happy with their situation, and a revolt to board the ship at the last minute nearly ruins the chance for any human survival.

Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
This classic from the master of schlock showmanship, William Castle, tells the tragic tale of Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe), who began life as a poor farmer. When the Baron’s family wins the lottery, he realizes that his father has been buried with the winning ticket. Desperate for money, the Baron digs up his father’s grave, and the terrifying mortis grin on the corpse’s face permanently disfigures the Baron’s own face into a hideous grin. So frightening is his new visage that his wife commits suicide. Now a rich Baron, having renamed himself Sardonicus, the unfortunate man summons a London doctor to try and cure his affliction. Based on a short story from Playboy by Ray Russell, the film featured the kind of gimmick that made Castle famous. Every audience member was given a glow-in-the-dark card featuring a hand with the thumb out. At the appropriate moment during the film, the audience presented their cards with the thumb either pointing up or down to indicate whether Sardonicus would live or die at the film’s conclusion. As far as anyone can tell, the gruesome ending was the only one that actually existed – Castle wisely guessed how his fans were going to vote.

Fox and His Friends (1974)
This film from West German maverick, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Marriage of Maria Braun), stars the director himself as Fox, a poor and naïve homosexual who scrounges enough money up to buy a lottery ticket and miraculously wins the drawing. Unfortunately, for him, Fox soon begins a relationship with Eugene (Peter Chatel), the son of a wealthy industrialist who only finds Fox interesting after learning he won the lottery, and soon is swindling Fox out of his fortune. This nihilistic tale from Fassbinder positions love and money as equal commodities.

The Squeeze (1987)
This gaudy action-“comedy” stars Michael Keaton as an artist who builds big ridiculous set pieces for nightclubs (and whose apartment is a comically over art directed monstrosity). Soon Keaton gets himself mixed up with some crooks who have a scheme for fixing the lottery. He also gets mixed up with a pretty young PI played by Rae Dawn Chong, who is investigating lottery corruption. Chases and bad jokes ensue. Danny Aiello co-stars and Meat Loaf pops up briefly.

29th Street (1991)
This light comedy from George Gallo (Midnight Run) has a very interesting backstory. In 1976, New York held its first state run lottery of the 20th-century. A lunk-headed wannabe actor named Frank Pesce, Jr. won. Pesce eventually became a non-famous but nonetheless working character actor, nabbing bit roles in films like Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, and even George Gallo’s Midnight Run. In a moment of Meta awesomeness, Pesce stars in 29th Street, the tale of how he won the NY lottery, as his own uncle Vito. Anthony LaPaglia stars as Pesce, with Danny Aiello appearing as his contentious and disapproving father. Tony Sirico and Robert Forster co-star.

Twenty Bucks (1993)
This novelly structured anthology film follows the adventures of a single $20 bill from its “birth” in a downtown ATM all over the city. After being dropped by its original owner, a homeless woman (Linda Hunt) finds it and determines it is her destiny to play the bill’s serial number in the lottery and win. She promptly loses the bill and we follow it as it passes to a variety of different owners, including Brendan Fraser as a groom who spends the $20 in a stripper’s g-string at his bachelor party. Hunt pops up here and there, and again at the ending, continuing her attempts to play the serial numbers in the lottery. The film also stars Steve Buscemi, Christopher Lloyd, Gladys Knight, Elisabeth Shue, William H. Macy, David Schwimmer, and Spalding Gray.

It Could Happen To You (1994)
This film stars Nicolas Cage as a friendly police man and Bridget Fonda as a down-on-her-luck waitress. The two meet in Fonda’s diner, and when Cage doesn’t have enough money for her tip he agrees to give her either double the tip later or half of his prospective lottery winnings. Of course, Cage wins the lottery. A man of his word, he plans to split the money with Fonda despite the protests of his sassy wife, Rosie Perez. Romantic comedy ensues. Isaac Hayes and Stanley Tucci co-star.

The Lottery (1996)
Shirley Jackson’s classic short story tells the tale of a small town that practices an archaic and superstitious annual tradition – a lottery. Only the “winner” of this lottery gets stoned to death by the rest of the town to ensure a good harvest. This NBC TV adaptation expands upon the idea to make the tradition of religious origin, while also positioning the lottery as the backdrop for a romantic storyline between Keri Russell and Dan Cortese. Yes, Dan Cortese. M. Emmet Walsh co-stars.

Waking Ned Devine (1998)
Known as just Waking Ned back home, this UK charmer tells the tale of the citizens of an incredibly small Irish town who band together to fool the claim inspector of the national Irish lottery after the real winner (Ned) is found dead in his home, holding the winning ticket. Convinced that Ned, who had no family, would have wanted them to all share in his winnings, the town simply pretends that the elderly and bumbling Michael (David Kelly) is Ned. Funny accents and farce ensue.

Lucky Numbers (2000)
This Nora Ephron joint, from a script by The Larry Sanders Show writer Adam Resnick, and based on true story, stars John Travolta as a charming but nearly backrupt television weatherman. Desperate for money, Travolta’s shady friend (Tim Roth) convinces him to fix the upcoming lottery with the help of his ditsy girlfriend (Lisa Kudrow), whose job is reading off the winning lottery numbers on TV. They end up winning, but soon things begin to unravel, with murderous results. Ed O’Neill, Michael Rapaport, Bill Pullman, and lefty filmmaker Michael Moore co-star.

Lottery Ticket (2010)
Taking place on 4th of July weekend, we follow formerly lil’ but now just regular Bow Wow as he enters numbers he found in a fortune cookie into the lottery on a whim. He wins. Initially he plans to pretend that he lost in order to keep the ticket safe from greedy acquaintances, but when he sees the respect his new winnings bring him, he can’t resist. Now he must fend off friends, family, and enemies alike until he has a chance to cash the ticket in. The film also stars Ice Cube, Keith David, Terry Crews, Charlie Murphy, T-Pain, Bill Bellamy, Mike Epps.

See you all next time. Still plenty more history and plenty more movies out there.