You’re Telling Me! (1934) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Full disclosure, W.C. Fields’ characters as the hen-pecked but thoroughly disreputable husband represents in my opinion one of the pillars of the self-respecting American husband.  Although constantly set upon by his wife and family he refuses to knuckle and become bovinely domesticated.  Sometimes he’ll pretend to bow to convention for the sake of a short period of marital tranquility but we know that at any moment he might use the excuse of his mother-in-law’s spurious death as an excuse to skip work and go to the wrestling matches or throw away an inheritance by buying worthless land while following the dream of becoming an orange rancher.  It is this absurd and quixotic aspect of Fields’s characters that convinces me to excuse some of the infuriatingly boring routines that he loads into his movies.  And several of these routines are on maddening display in “You’re Telling Me!”  I’ll skip over the recurring gag of a drunken Fields getting his head and arms tangled in the ornamental ropes on his living room doorway drapery.  That is a mere couple of minutes of idiocy.  But at the climax of the film there is an eight-minute stretch of Fields attempting to drive a golf ball.  A lesser man would have turned it off after a few minutes.  But I soldiered on.  I had to see how Fields’ invention of bulletproof car tires would bring about the story’s happy ending.

I write this introduction to show the reader that I am aware that “You’re Telling Me!” is not a faultless masterpiece.  On the contrary, it’s a W.C. Fields movie which means it is a combination of awful physical comedy, brilliant verbal quips and tragicomical storytelling.  I am also aware that a taste for W.C. Fields is not a universal trait.  Far from it.  But being a true believer, I feel it’s my duty to advocate for the great man.

The premise of the story is that Fields’ character Sam Bisbee is trying to prove to his long-suffering wife Bessie that in addition to being a drunk he is also a great inventor.  He is on the brink of demonstrating his 1000% puncture-proof automobile tire to the National Tire Company.  At the same time Sam’s daughter, Pauline is in love with Bob, the son of the wealthy Murchison family that live on the other side of the tracks.  Bob’s mother is played by Kathleen Howard who played Fields’ wife in two of his other great movies, “It’s a Gift” and “The Man on the Flying Trapeze.”  She comes to visit the Bisbee house to forbid the romance but is delighted to find that Bessie is from an old money family from the Old South.  But immediately afterward Sam shows up and showcases enough boorishness to outrage Mrs. Murchison and in reaction to this rejection Pauline demands that Bob and his mother leave and never come back.  Now that Sam has angered and disappointed both his wife and daughter, he is determined to make good on his promise as an inventor to make the family fortune and thereby restore relations between his daughter and the Murchisons.

We are given a convincing demonstration of his invention in his work shop.  He fires a pistol at the tire and catches the rebounding bullet in a baseball glove.  Now he puts four of these tires on his car and drives into the city to demonstrate it to the Board of the National Tire Company.  Sam parks his car in front of the office building, in a no parking zone, and heads up to the Board room.  The building attendants push his car down the block and apparently called the police to come and take it away.  The police arrive and park in front of the building and exit the scene to meet up with the attendants down the block.

Meanwhile Sam brings the Board down to the front of the office building and apparently not recognizing that the police car isn’t his own he proceeds to shoot out the tires of the police car.  The Board laugh mockingly at his failed demonstration and the police show up and give chase at the sight of their car being used for target practice.  Sam successfully flees as the scene ends.

Next, we see Sam on the train headed back to his home.  He has written a suicide not to Pauline explaining that he can’t endure the humiliation that his failure will spark.  Now we are subjected to another long annoying sequence of Sam attempting to kill himself by drinking a bottle of iodine.  He finally gives it up after seeing a passing graveyard next to the train.

Now we mee the Princess Lescaboura who is travelling on the train in a private room.  Sam wanders into her room accidentally when a servant leaves the door open and he assumes it’s the bathroom.  The princess had just applied iodine to a cut on her hand and seeing the bottle Sam assumes she is about to commit suicide so he recounts his own misfortunes and suicide attempt to dissuade her from the supposed suicide.

She is touched by his mistaken concern for her safety and is also sympathetic to the pathetic personal problems he is in.  He says goodbye to her not knowing that she is royalty, thinking she is a young woman named Marie and invites her to visit his family if she ever stops in his town.

Incidentally while he was talking to the princess a couple of old biddies from his town see him talking to a young woman and spread gossip at home that he is having an affair.  And the story mutates until by the time he reaches home everyone is convinced that he has been involved in a drunken debauch with a stripper.  When Sam reaches town, every woman he meets upbraids him as a masher and every man in town slaps him on the back and wants to hear his story.

When he realizes that his wife will want to kill him when he gets home, he tries to come up with a gift that will assuage her anger.  One of his friends suggests a pet parakeet.  Sam replies that it’ll have to be bigger than that.  In the next scene we see him walking down the main street holding a rope around the neck of an ostrich that doesn’t seem happy about the arrangement.

In the meantime, the princess has arranged for a visit to Sam’s town.  The mayor and all the leading citizens meet her at the train station and she tells them that she wants to go to the home of her friend Sam Bisbee, the man who saved her life “during the war.”  Mrs. Murchison bends over backward to please the princess and the crowd heads for Sam’s house.  Along the way they find Sam and the ostrich and after the princess assures a drunk Sam that he is a hero they head for his home.  Eventually the princess arranges for a party to be given at Sam’s home in her honor and catered by the Murchisons.  The princess provides enough nonsense about how important Sam is back in her country that Mrs. Murchison announces the engagement of her son to Pauline.  And she arranges that Sam will perform the honor of dedicating the new golf course in town by hitting the first drive.  This gives us that agonizing eight-minute dose of torture before the National Tire Company president shows up and offers to buy Sam’s invention for $20,000.  Cutting him off before he can accept, the princess gets into abiding war and the president is forced to offer a million dollars plus a royalty to Sam on each tire sold.  Now the movie ends with Bisbees and Murchisons driving off to a party with the princess and Sam preparing for a two-week drinking bout with his friends.

As you can see, the movie consists of ridiculous events and absurd situations.  But some of the dialog is inspired.  My favorite situation is when Princess Lescaboura meets Sam’s wife.  Bessie is confused and honored by the princess’s friendliness but when the princess exclaims, “You must be the happiest woman in the world.”  All Bessie can confusedly say is, “Is my husband dead?”  And that encapsulates the magic of this movie.  Sam is the quintessence of the American husband.  His refusal to conform to his wife’s opinions on acceptable behavior and the suffering they both experience because of the conflict provides a funhouse mirror version of the real-life war between the sexes.

One small personnel note.  Bob Murchison is played by Buster Crabbe.  Here he is a young and very green actor that would one day thrill us as children when he played Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers.

So, do I recommend this movie?  It’s hard to say.  If you cannot get through the bad physical comedy bits that are ridiculously long then no, you will not enjoy this movie.  But if you can, then you will be rewarded by some truly inspired comedic moments.  Maybe the solution is to fast forward through those bits.  But that is the coward’s way out.  It’s up to you.

Need A Laugh?

In the classic movie “The Caine Mutiny” the petty tyrant Captain Queeg assigns the deceptive title of morale officer to one of his unfortunate junior officers.  His responsibility in this position was to ruthlessly enforce the dress code down to the buttoning of shirts and the length of hair on the enlisted men.  Whereas this was a mockery of the concept of morale I believe that a morale officer is exactly what the country needs right now.  And to a large extent that is what President Trump has been attempting to do with his COVID-19 press conferences.  He’s trying to provide helpful information and an optimistic assessment of the progress we’re making in the dreary business of navigating through the pandemic swamp.  But we need more than that.  Trapped in our homes and deprived of even the opportunity to work we need some distractions.  We need some entertainment.

In a happier time, even just a short generation ago we could turn on the television and we would find on every network at least one show that was funny enough to distract us.  Back in the early 1990s you could watch Home Improvement with Tim Allen as a tv dad with his wife and three boys stumbling through the foibles of American family life with gentle humor and a very muted take on the battle of the sexes and the revolt of the young against their parents.  Later on, you could still laugh at the misanthropic but relatively harmless antics of Seinfeld and his neurotic associates.  Even during the 2000s you could see a show like King of Queens where the humor was more like a pitched battle between the husband and wife and the dysfunctionality of the older generation was on full display with Jerry Stiller’s portrayal of Arthur Spooner more resembling a mental patient than a normal adult.  But it was funny and the characters somewhat resembled real people.

That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.  The loss of any originality on network television seems to have killed off the sitcom.  The stupidity of the writing and the restrictions on the plot dictated by political correctness have rendered these shows unwatchable.  Maybe the better writers have moved over to cable stations like HBO and Netflix but the darkness of most of what passes for comedy on cable is pretty extreme.

And that is where we are.  As a society we are surrounded by joyless dysfunctional productions that are supposed to be entertainment.  The action shows aren’t good but they’re just supposed to tell a simple story of good versus evil.  That’s easy enough to do.  Comedy is harder.  It takes intelligence and an actual sense of humor.  Those two things are mostly absent now.  But that’s what we need.  A good laugh.

Luckily, there is a lot of old comedy available.  And there is probably something there for all tastes.  Everything from the tame antics of the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello and the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s, to the early modern comedy of George Carlin, Mel Brooks and Rodney Dangerfield, to the outrageous Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, right up to the current rants of Dave Chappelle.  Of course, the definition of funny varies enormously depending on the audience.  It’s probably safe to say that generational tastes will divide the audience into several camps.  But what is undeniable is that the modern entertainment industry has destroyed comedy.

But we still need a laugh.  So, go looking for something that is funny and put it on and have a good laugh.  You need it and the rest of us do too.

What I would recommend is do a search online for what movies, tv shows and comedy recordings are considered the funniest for the time periods when your concept of comedy was formed and see if you agree with the opinion.  Look at general lists of comedies for these time periods and make a list of your own favorites.  Then rent or buy or stream a few of these comedies together in your own film festival.  Make sure you have your favorite popcorn or other snacks and enjoy.  Maybe tell a friend or two and have a virtual movie festival in separate homes.  You can make a deal to swap favorites and compare notes after the fact.

Just to show that my heart is in the right place I’ll throw a few out.  Now mind you, I’ll start off by saying my tastes are peculiar.  But there they are.  I’ll go with two W. C. Fields movies, “It’s a Gift” and “The Man on the Flying Trapeze.”  I always enjoy his henpecked husband routine and the melodramatic actress who plays his wife in both these movies is perfect.  I love telling Camera Girl that she treats me just as badly as Field’s wife in the movies.

Add in the first installment of the “Thin Man” series.  And finish off the early movies with the Marx Brother’s “A Night at the Opera.”  For the later decades we could take a couple of Bill Murray movies, say “Ghostbusters” and “Groundhog Day.”  Maybe add a Jim Carrey movie, say the “Mask.”  And finish off with a cartoon that’s mostly a comedy like “The Incredibles.”  For a classic tv series I’d go with Jackie Gleason’s, “The Honeymooners.”

If you have any picks you’d like to volunteer leave them in the comments and share the wealth.

15JUL2018 – Quote of the Day

Let’s call this W. C. Fields Week

I beg your indulgence over these specialty quotes but I am a big fan of Fields so I like to spoil myself sometimes.

“I always made up my own acts; built them out of my knowledge and observation of real life. I’d had wonderful opportunities to study people; and every time I went out on the stage I tried to show the audience some bit of true human nature.”

W. C. Fields