Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #50 (“Godfrey Daniels!” edition)

My New Year’s “vacation” with the ‘rents ended around 11:30am Sunday morning, and having returned to Castle Yesteryear I was naturally delighted when I remembered that Turner Classic Movies had scheduled a three-film retrospective featuring the Great Man himself, W.C. Fields:

It's a Gift (1934) – Robert Osborne introduced this classic comedy as Fields’ funniest film—and while I’m certainly a fan of Gift (I don’t agree with the film’s detractors that it’s basically three two-reelers strung together) I wouldn’t rate it quite that high (comedy being subjective, of course; my favorite Fields outing is Man on the Flying Trapeze [1935], with You're Telling Me! [1934] and Million Dollar Legs [1932] coming in at second and third, respectively). W.C. is grocery store proprietor Harold Bissonette (pronounced BIS-SON-NAY), a henpecked man who dreams of buying and owning his own California orange grove—and manages to do despite the disapproval of his shrewish wife (Kathleen Howard), bratty son (Tommy Bupp) and all-too-patient daughter (Jean Rouverol). Gift contains some of the most unforgettable set pieces of any film in the Fields catalog: Bissonette is helpless to keep blind man Mr. Muckle (Charles Sellon) and mischievous infant Baby LeRoy from destroying his establishment; he spends a sleepless night on his back porch as he’s subjected to a constant series of disturbances (including T. Roy Barnes as an insurance salesman looking for a Carl LaFong: “Capital L, small A, capital F, small O, small N, small G!”); and arrives at his orange grove destination only to learn he’s bought a pig in a poke. Naturally, Bissonette prevails by the movie’s end. Sufferin' sciatica!

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) – Fields’ last starring film is an absolute masterpiece of insane comedy (highly reminiscent of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin' [1941]); the not-too-tightly wrapped plot has The Great Man attempting to sell a story to the head (Franklin Pangborn) of Esoteric Pictures amidst the background of studio craziness. Universal cut and edited and cut and edited and essentially made a shambles out of Fields’ original script, which is why what’s onscreen often doesn’t make much sense—and it didn’t help matters any that the studio refashioned the movie (regrettably) as a vehicle for new singing sensation Gloria Jean, aka “the poor man’s Deanna Durbin.” But for my money, there are more quotable Fields lines in Sucker than any other of his comedies, (including my all-time favorite: “Drown in a vat of whiskey…death, where is thy sting?”) and many of the sequences (W.C. vs. a pre-Life with Luigi Jody Gilbert in a hysterical diner sequence, the “nest” scenes with the great Margaret Dumont, etc.) are extremely funny—including a classic car chase that was so good it was recycled in Abbott & Costello’s In Society (1944). Sucker also features appearances from W.C.’s old Ziegfeld Follies crony Leon Errol, Susan Miller (who sings Comin’ Through the Rye), Minerva Urecal, Fields’ mistress Carlotta Monti and TDOY fave Dave Willock (as the assistant director, Johnson).

If I Had a Million (1932) – This multi-episodic film features Fields (along with his Tillie and Gus/Six of a Kind leading lady, Alison Skipworth) but it also makes room for a deluge of Paramount stars: Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, George Raft, Jack Oakie, Charlie Ruggles, Mary Boland, Roscoe Karns, May Robson, Wynne Gibson, Gene Raymond and Frances Dee. Wealthy (but dying) businessman John Glidden (Richard Bennett) decides to kiss off his greedy relations by doling out million-dollar checks to random individuals from the phone book—with a mixture of tragic and comic results. Among the tragedies: a forger (Raft) finds himself unable to cash Bennett’s check because of his criminal record; a Death Row inmate (Raymond) desperately hopes that the millionaire’s money will get him a new trial; and a trio of Marines (Coop, Oakie and Karns) stupidly give the check to a lunch counterman (Lucien Littlefield) in exchange for ten dollars, believing the paper to be bogus. There are also some truly sublime moments: prostitute Gibson is able to afford a hotel room and sleep in a bed…by herself and hapless china shop worker Ruggles, constantly penalized for breaking the store’s wares, gets the last laugh when he’s awarded Bennett’s check. (Has anyone else besides me noticed that Ruggles’ character’s last name is “Peabody”…and that his boss’ surname is “Bullwinkle?”?) The two most famous sequences in Million are Laughton’s the-worm-turns send-off to his boss and Fields and Skipworth’s multiple purchases of old clunkers with which they and hired drivers operate to teach the road hogs of the world a much needed lesson. But I think the last segment—elderly Robson is able to use her check to make much needed changes at the nursing home she’s stuck in—is probably the most endearing. This is a highly enjoyable picture, with its vignettes directed by such big names as James Cruze, H. Bruce Humberstone, Ernst Lubitsch, Norman Z. MacLeod, Stephen Roberts, William A. Seiter and Norman Taurog—based on the story Windfall by Robert Hardy Andrews.

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Tom said...

I need to see more WC Fields. These look funny. Thanks. "Hellzapoppin'" is going to be screened at a local film fest in the coming weeks, which I plan to check out.

Matthew Coniam said...

I've always felt that, as far as the really great Fields films are concerned, the order in which you saw them conditions how you rank them as favourites, to a far greater extent than most comedies. We all tend to have the same five or so in the top list, just in a different order. So Gift comes out top for me, but your top picks come close behind.
Can you confirm or deny this theory???

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I've always felt that, as far as the really great Fields films are concerned, the order in which you saw them conditions how you rank them as favourites, to a far greater extent than most comedies..,can you confirm or deny this theory???

I can't confirm or deny it, but I certainly don't discount it -- it's just that I'm not certain I could apply it to myself since I saw several Fields films before Flying Trapeze and yet for some reason I enjoy it more. I do know that what keeps me from thoroughly enjoying Gift is that the final sequence where Fields and family crash the private residence and have a picnic on the grounds just doesn't work for me because it doesn't fit Fields--it's more suitable for a Three Stooges short. The same sequence is used in Fields' silent It's the Old Army Game and it didn't work there for me, either.

That having been said, I would love to see So's Your Old Man sometime. I'd be enormously curious to see how the material plays in a silent comedy.

texasoperastar said...

Well Deanna Durbin with her amazing voice and natural acting comes out on top of a very talented group from the Golden Age of Hollywood.