1987’s million dollar mystery IS A BIT MORE THAN JUST OLD TRASH

To jaded 2019 film viewers an unofficial remake of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World designed as a viral marketing campaign for a trash bag sounds more like the stuff of a throwaway Simpsons joke than an actual viable theatrical release. However, in 1987 this was not only a real movie released to theaters, it was actually a pretty imaginative, fun, entertaining flick, and a showcase for some of the more esoteric comedic voices of the late 1980s.

Trashbag money bought you some A-List behind-the-scenes talent in 1987, as Million Dollar Mystery was the final directorial outing of Hollywood veteran Richard Fleischer. Fleischer had been directing movies for three decades, and his filmography included everything from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Dr. Doolittle to Conan The Destroyer and Red Sonja. Fleischer would forever solidify his place in cinematic history for directing iconic movies like Soylent Green alone, but he was also a second generation director—no small accomplishment for somebody who started his career in the 1940s. If his last name sounds familiar, it should. He was the son of Max Fleischer, of Fleisher Studios, the bizarre animation company that gave us Betty Boop and the first ever Superman cartoons.

Great, you have the Betty Boop heir, but the summer of 1987 had some pretty stiff competition at the box office, with Revenge of the Nerds II, The Lost Boys, and Summer School all hitting screens. There must have been some major star power in front of the camera too, right? Well…no, not really. The closest thing to a “star” Million Dollar Mystery had was Tom Bosley. Yes, Mr. Cunningham from Happy Days who had been the spokesman for Glad Trashbags for years by this point. Everybody knew his face, and his voice. The rest of the movie is a murders’ row of stand up comics and character actors. The REAL pull for viewers was that seeing this movie wasn’t just an enjoyable way to spend 95 minutes, watching this movie would actually give you clues that could lead to you, yes YOU, personally finding $1 million hidden in a Glad trashbag somewhere in America.

Who on Earth would come up with something like this? Well once again, you’re forgetting Dino De Laurentiis. The soon-to-be bankrupt super producer behind the King Kong remake and Flash Gordon was struck with the idea for the movie when he saw a line of people waiting to buy lottery tickets. Why make a movie about the lottery when you can make a movie that IS the lottery?

Glad jumped on board and Million Dollar Mystery was born. The plot basically IS It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Tom Bosley plays a man who steals $4 million and dies in a diner while on the run from the Feds. Before he breathes his last breath, though, he spills out a clue to the diner’s contents about the money and where it may be hidden, and we’re off to the races.

What happens next is that a cavalcade of stereotypes, weirdos, and ’80s stand-up comedians try to outwit and out match each other in the hunt for the cash. The closest we get to a “hero” here is Rick Overton, a funny and ubiquitous weirdo of a stand-up who serves as a very unconventional leading man here. He’s on the hunt along with his wife and teenage son. Their rivals include Eddie Deezen as a horny newlywed (yes), Sniglets’ Rich Hall as a Rambo-style survivalist, a rock band and his back up singers, and gone-too-soon impressionist Pam Matteson as maybe the most likable character, a diner waitress.

As you would expect, we get a series of mad-cap near misses and silly almosts, and things going very, very wrong. We’re also introduced to some really bizarre scenes including a stand-out cameo from forgotten Film Noir stand-up Tommy Sledge. Sledge’s whole schtick was that he did stand-up as a 1940s private eye character. He even was a short-lived host of comedy clips in the early days of Comedy Central, back when it was The Comedy Channel. Sledge’s scene takes place entirely in black and white, and is pitch perfect noir parody.

It’s not that this movie has a bad reputation. It sort of has no reputation. It should, though, as it’s ripe for rediscovery. It somehow manages to be funny, engaging, and good-natured (aside from all the weird racial stereotype jokes, but hey, it’s the times), and a fun throwback to simpler times, all the while only existing as a vehicle to sell trash bags, born in the feverish brain of a soon-to-be bankrupt Italian film producer.

If there were ever a movie that screamed for rediscovery as a cult midnight flick, maybe it’s not this one, but this would easily make the top…20. I’d love to see a world where people dress up as horny Eddie Deezen and chomp popcorn out of garbage bags as Tom Bosley wheezes the clues to hidden money with his last breath.

Let’s make it happen, world.

But Ken, wait! What happened to the REAL million dollars? Well it WAS found. A 14-year old girl named Alesia Lenae Jones of Bakersfield, California correctly guessed that the money was hidden in the Statue of Liberty’s nose. Now there is your metaphor for 2019.


  • Ken Reid

    Ken Reid is a Boston based stand up comedian. He's been a staple on the Boston comedy scene since 2003 and as a lover of all things TV, has a podcast of his own called TV Guidance Counselor.