Willis Kent Productions was one of those movie production companies that was even further down the food chain than the Poverty Row studios. They were involved in some Poverty Row productions but mostly they catered to the exploitation market, making sensationalistic potboilers such as Sucker Money.
Although it came out in 1933 I’m not sure that it actually qualifies as a pre-code movie. Willis Kent movies were the types of movies, in common with other exploitation movies of the period from the 30s to the 50s, that were generally distributed outside the established distribution networks dominated by the major studios. Even when the Production Code came in these tiny companies weren’t bound by its rules anyway.
Although Sucker Money was apparently filmed in the studios of Republic Pictures the studio doesn’t appear to have had any actual involvement. Presumably they just rented out studio space.
The plot is as sensationalistic as you could hope for. A newspaperman goes undercover to blow the lid off the operations of a phony psychic. This counterfeit spiritualist claims to be able to contact the spirits of the dead, for a price of course. He has quite an elaborate setup with a team of actors and various technical aids including a movie projector that appears to show his clients scenes of their dead relatives. The dearly departed offer helpful advice, but the advice is usually along the lines of recommending the purchase of shares in speculative mining companies that the phony psychic just happens to own.
The fake psychic’s current target is a wealthy but naïve businessman from a small town in the Midwest. The businessman has an attractive daughter and she provides the love interest for the crusading reporter. The scam starts to go wrong, but the reporter’s cover is also blown and he finds himself held captive while the scammers plan to kidnap the businessman’s daughter.
This is very low-budget film-making indeed, and to describe the plot as creaky would be an act of generosity. The acting is mostly dire, with a particularly wooden hero. The special effects are crude but considering it’s a zero-budget film they’re serviceable enough.
Surprisingly, for an exploitation film, there isn’t much in the way of sex and sin. In fact there isn’t any sex and sin at all, which leads me to believe the movie may have been intended as a very cheap B-feature for theatrical release rather than an exploitation film as such.
It’s a public domain movie and my copy is from Mill Creek’s Dark Crimes boxed set. It’s an awful DVD transfer but it’s the sort of movie that probably only exists in very battered theatrical prints. It’s also a film that’s not likely to be getting a fancy restoration job done on it any time soon.
With all its faults the inherent interest of the subject matter makes it at least moderately entertaining. Especially if love movies about fake spiritualists and con artists with a suggestion of the fascinating and seedy-glamorous worlds of travelling carnivals and sideshows.
Director Dorothy Davenport had been married to silents star Wallace Reid. After he died as a result of drug addiction she directed a number of exploitation movies which she used as a vehicle to warn the public against the evils of moral decay. The movies she directed including the highly entertaining 1934 The Road to Ruin, a delightful mix of sleaze, sin, nudity and moralising.
At just under an hour Sucker Money is a harmless enough time-killer, and it’s an amusing curiosity.