A long time ago I had a friend who was a prison guard at Riker’s Island and he was a movie buff. And he introduced me to the films of W. C. Fields. Most people my age recognize Fields’ trademark nasal tone, whiskey flask, bulbous nose and endless wisecracks. But I guess not many have seen many of his films. I never had before that time and I was immediately hooked on the absurdity of this comic everyman battling the endless affronts he suffers at the hands of wives, children, neighbors, bosses, policemen and any other authority figure who darkened his path. Deep down he just wants to live life his own way. And you can see that he still retains a child-like hope that he will somehow triumph. By the final reel of these films, a catastrophe has engulfed him and he appears to hit rock bottom. But then the magical reversal at the finale creates a deus ex machina that rights all wrongs and he lives happily ever afterward.
The two movies my friend introduced me to were early and both had Fields as a long suffering husband. And in both movies his wife was played to perfection by an actress named Kathleen Howard who was a large overbearing woman with a shrewish temperament, an acid tongue and the lungs of a Wagnerian opera singer who continually browbeat him over every imaginable fault she could summon. She is his perfect foil.
These early movies are a sort of halfway point between a string of vaudeville skits and an actual scripted movie. Some of the routines involve sight gags that often are carried too far. And the plot is usually ridiculously thin. Some folks who enjoy Fields’ movies prefer the more polished movies like the “The Bank Dick” and “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.” But for me in these earlier movies the comic delivery is hilarious and the happily ever after endings absurdly wonderful.
So, the plot of “It’s a Gift” (1934) has Harold Bissonette as the owner of a grocery store in New Jersey who dreams of being an orange farmer in California. Naturally he throws away his whole settled existence and drags his family across depression era America to follow his dream. And naturally the result is disaster.
In “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” (1935) Ambrose Woolfinger is a memory expert working for the Malloy Textile firm. But what he’d like to be is a professional wrestler. So, when he takes the afternoon off to go watch the wrestling match under the pretext of his mother-in-law’s funeral all hell breaks loose.
As I said the plots are ludicrously thin, the acting is pure ham and the sight gags painfully long. My family runs for the exits whenever I pop one of these in the DVD player. But I believe that any married man whose heart doesn’t sing with joy when Harold Bisonette or Ambrose Woolfinger finally gets the upper hand is a lost soul who cannot be redeemed and deserves to be fed feet first into the matriarchy.
As you can tell from my description, these movies are not for everyone. If they sound intriguing maybe you’ll give them a try.