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.