The Billion Dollar Hobo

Director: Stuart E. McGowan
Tim Conway, Will Geer, Eric Weston

After thinking about it long and hard, I have come to the conclusion that I have a good life. Maybe not the ideal life, but there are many things in my life that make me a happy person. There's my web site, of course, that gives me a lot of pleasure. But there's also the job where I earn my living and the various close friends that I have in my life. One other thing that makes me happy is where I live. I'm not really speaking about the roof over my head (though my apartment is pretty sweet), I am talking about the city that I live in. The city that I live in is pretty hard to beat in a number of different ways. It doesn't get that cold during the winter, and it usually gets little to no snow. There is a park within walking distance in just about every corner within city limits. The city is an agreeable mix of a major metropolis with a small town, so there's both convenience as well as a laid back aspect. Yes, the city that I live in has a lot of good things. Though I will admit that if you look carefully, there are some not so pleasant aspects to my city as well. For one thing, my city has a somewhat big homeless problem. I am usually reminded of it every time that I leave my apartment and go for a walk - just a few steps from my apartment was once a closed movie theater where the homeless liked to hang around and beg for spare change. Even after I pass them by and start walking on another street, it is usually inevitable that I will pass by another of these unfortunate people. And I see that life on my city's streets has had its toll on these individuals - they look exhausted, beaten down by the many problems they have encountered while trying to stay alive, problems such as alcohol and illegal drugs.

What I have just told you in the end of the previous paragraph is an attempt to accomplish two things to readers just like you. The most obvious is to have a tie to the subject matter of the movie I am reviewing here; it seems obvious to talk about homelessness when the title of the movie being reviewed is The Billion Dollar Hobo. The second purpose of my reporting my real life encounters with homeless people is to make clear how real life homelessness is very often much different than how movies have portrayed it to be. Let me give you some examples. Think of the movies that came out of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. How did they often portray homeless people? Well, often in these movies you'll find the homeless wearing suits and ties. Scruffy-looking, but still better dressed than real homeless people. And the homeless people in these movies not only often seemed to be much smarter and wiser than people with homes, they also apparently had no issues with substance abuse. This often can be seen with more modern Hollywood movies. For example, Lee Marvin wore a suit in Emperor Of The North. Oh, there have been some movies that have shown how tough homelessness is more often than not for those unfortunate people, like the Danny Glover / Matt Dillon movie The Saint Of Fort Washington (which is a very good movie that I might get around to reviewing one day for this web site.) But most Hollywood looks at homelessness have not been that tough, for reasons that are simple to deduce: We in the audience don't want to think about how bad it is. A movie that shows how awful real life homelessness is would not attract many paying customers. Indeed, The Saint Of Fort Washington did not attract many paying customers.

With what I have just told you, you may understand why a large part of me was not looking forward to The Billion Dollar Hobo. I know how tough homelessness is, and I was not looking forward to another slick Hollywood treatment - and one that treated homelessness as a comedy. The Billion Dollar HoboBut there was another reason why I was not looking forward to watching the movie. And that was that it was a Tim Conway movie. In my review of They Went That-A-Way & That-A-Way, I told you how I found that movie unfunny. So why, you may be asking, did I decide to review another Tim Conway movie? To put it bluntly, I was desperate. It's getting harder every week to find new unknown movies to review, and this movie was the only new unknown one I came across after a long dry spell searching various pawn shops, dollar stores, and thrift stores. Also, the movie was brand new on DVD in anamorphic widescreen for only two dollars, so I would be seeing it the best way possible. In The Billion Dollar Hobo, Conway plays a fellow by the name of Vernon Praiseworthy, a down and out fellow who doesn't deserve his last name as he is extremely inept, as we see in the opening scene where as a newly hired short order cook his clumsiness burns down a restaurant. Not long after that debacle, Vernon is called to the mansion of an eccentric billionaire by the name of R. R. Trayne (Geer, The Waltons). Trayne not only tells Vernon that he is his long lost and last living relative, but that Vernon stands to inherit Trayne's entire fortune once Trayne steps down from leading his company. There is a catch, however. Trayne tells Vernon that he started his ascent to becoming a billionaire by riding the rails as a hobo when he was much younger, and wants Vernon to cross the country the same way to prove his worth. Trayne then tells Vernon he'll be accompanied by Trayne's super smart dog Bo along the journey. Vernon reluctantly agrees, and heads to the local train yard to start his journey to Seattle. But things quickly start to go wrong when he gets on the wrong train...

If you have read at least a good portion of the reviews on this web site, you know that more often than not I like to start my critique of a movie by first examining the most prominent attribute about the movie. So you may be expecting that I would start by looking at Tim Conway. But I can't. You see, I had the same reaction to Conway in The Billion Dollar Hobo that I had with They Went That-A-Way & That-A-Way. If I were to list all the ways that Conway turned me off in The Billion Dollar Hobo, I would be simply repeating myself and wasting your time, and a professional critic does not do that. So if you want to know what I thought about Conway in this movie, go to my review of They Went That-A-Way & That-A-Way, scroll down to the fourth paragraph, and read it. Now that I got that particularly unpleasant part of The Billion Dollar Hobo out of the way, I can get to the rest of the movie. When it comes to the other performances found in the movie, there are a few that do have some positive attributes. The star performance belongs to Will Geer. His screen time only adds up to a few minutes, but he makes the most of his limited time, giving his character a lot of spunk. He is both lively and likable, so much so that viewers more likely than not will wish that he was the central character instead of Vernon. There was another actor in the movie that I welcomed seeing, that being cult movie star Sydney Lassick (Sonny Boy). He has even less screen time than Geer, but Lassick's brief presence does add a little spark to the parts of the movie he's in, enough to momentarily shake me out of the near slumber the surrounding parts of the movie quickly put me in.

Are there any other performances worthy of mention in The Billion Dollar Hobo? Well... um... ah... there is the dog that plays Vernon's sidekick through most of the movie. The dog (which later played the dog in the Canadian revival of The Littlest Hobo TV series) does have some instant charisma, and while he executes enough various tricks to show that Bo is a smart dog, the screenplay and his off-screen trainer don't go overboard with the tricks. Bo comes across as smart but believable. And with that report, I believe I have run out of positive things to report about The Billion Dollar Hobo. I'll start off my savaging of the movie by continuing with the rest of the characters and the actors who play them. The movie makes a tragic mistake by not giving us strong enough villains. As Vernon makes his journey, he soon crosses paths with two guys named Ernie (Frank Sivero, The Wedding Singer) and Steve (Eric Weston, who was also the movie's producer), two criminals planning a crime that they trick Vernon into participating in. But these two guys are simply underwhelming. They not only act and speak alike; there is no spark to these fellows. You don't feel anything remotely like a threat from them. The only so-called praise I can give the movie concerning these guys is that they are not annoyingly dumb in a way that was found in many other 1970s American family films. Other characters in the movie, unfortunately, do come across this way. There's a dumb state department representative (played by Disney veteran John Myhers) who gets tangled in the movie's criminal scheme, as well as a shrill and annoying television reporter (Victoria Carroll, Pandemonium) who also gets tangled with the criminal scheme. Whenever one (or both) of these characters is onscreen, the movie is more than particularly painful to sit through.

As it turns out, most of the rest of The Billion Dollar Hobo is a chore to observe. The biggest reason that the movie does not work is that is isn't the least bit amusing, save for when the character of Vernon comments that he got his egg sandwich from a "fire sale" shortly after that opening scene of him burning down the restaurant. I don't think even kids will be laughing at people sitting on chewing gum, getting their fingers hurt by slamming doors, or making a mess of their environment while trying to accomplish a simple task. While I can understand why someone might have thought moments as those were funny, there are other attempts at humor that had me mystified as to how anyone could think them funny, like when Vernon is offered some coffee but declines because he says he'll soon be driving. Huh? Clearly the screenplay (co-written by Conway) is painfully unfunny, but there's another big problem with it. With the setup of the movie I described in the third paragraph, plus the title being The Billion Dollar Hobo, you might understandably think that the bulk of the movie is about Vernon's journey to prove he is worth the fortune he is challenged to earn, and reaching that goal in the end. But instead, not long after he starts his journey, the movie makes an about-face and turns into a dull story about Vernon getting involved in a dognapping scheme. Hoboing is subsequently completely forgotten about for the next hour of the movie until the final few minutes, with Vernon resuming his journey. That's right - the movie doesn't even give us a satisfactory ending to what had been set up in the first half hour! A more appropriate title for this movie would have been The Billion Dollar Irritating Schmuck Who Gets Caught Up In A Boring And Unfunny Dognapping Scheme, but I guess that would have been too long for the average movie theater marquee.

(Posted January 25, 2018)

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See also: Emperor Of The North, Mr. Billion, Santa With Muscles