Monday, January 25, 2016

It’s a Gift (Paramount, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was It’s a Gift, the next one in the W. C. Fields boxed-set sequence (the two W. C. Fields Collection sets were not programmed in chronological order, but being me that’s the way I want to see them), a marvelous little vest-pocket comedy from 1934. Fields’ movies generally fall into one of two types: ones which cast him as a henpecked husband being driven crazy by his wife and various children, both his own and other people’s; and the ones that made him a carnie-type character, going from town to town (often with various county sheriffs at his heels over his unpaid debts) and keeping himself alive by hook, crook or usually something in between. It’s a Gift was Fields the henpecked husband rather than Fields the carnie rogue; he plays Harold Bissonette, a name he’s perfectly content to pronounce the way it’s spelled in English but which his status-conscious wife Amelia (Kathleen Howard) insists he should say in the French manner, “BEE-son-NAY.” It’s set in a small town in New Jersey where he runs the local grocery store and has to contend with obstreperous customers like the infamous fellow who barges in and asks for 10 pounds of kumquats; Mr. Muckle (Charles Sellon), who’s both blind and largely deaf (he has an ear trumpet into which you have to speak if you wish to tell him anything and give him a fighting chance of hearing you) and who smashes several boxes full of glassware and quite a lot of Harold’s other stock; and Baby Dunk (Baby LeRoy, whose obstreperous behavior towards W. C. Fields’ character in The Old-Fashioned Way, including dunking his watch in a bowl of molasses, earned him not only a part in this film but co-billing with Fields on the opening credit — the title card says “W. C. Fields in It’s a Gift with Baby LeRoy,” even though LeRoy’s billing on the later cast list is sixth), who gets Our Hero in trouble with molasses again, walking over to a barrel full of the sticky stuff and opening the tap so it spills out all over the floor of the store — whereupon his mom (Josephine Whittell) chews Harold out for having allowed her child’s shoes to become contaminated with molasses. Though LeRoy might have got the publicity, Fields actually has a harder time in this film from Sonny Bupp, who’s playing his own son Norman — in one scene the kid leaves an odd roller skate on the floor of the Bissonette residence and Harold, of course, trips over it and does a pratfall — as well as his daughter Mildred (Jean Rouverol, daughter of playwright Aurania Rouverol, whose 1920’s courtroom drama Skidding was the basis of the long-running Hardy Family series at MGM) and her boyfriend John Durston (Julian Madison).

You see, it’s been Harold’s long-time dream to retire to California and buy an orange ranch which will support him in his remaining years, and with Harold’s uncle at death’s door he buys such a ranch, sight unseen, from Durston’s company — only Durston discovers that the “ranch” is no good (nothing, especially oranges, will grow there and the ranch house is a dilapidated shack) and tries to talk Harold out of the deal. Nothing doing, Harold says; he bought the property in good faith and he’s going to keep it. Even more than most Fields films, It’s a Gift is a collection of great comic moments rather than a well thought-out story with a through-line that makes sense, but the moments are priceless: the opening scenes at home, in which Mildred’s primping makes it virtually impossible for Harold to shave and he’s about to beat up his son for grabbing the last slice of bacon from the breakfast table. “He’s not going to tell me I don’t love him!” Fields thunders, his hand raised to hit his son — which he ultimately doesn’t, of course; the famous scene on Fields’ deck, where he’s gone to get some sleep and is successively awakened by a milkman, a coconut (it rolls down the stairs and just when you — and Harold — think it’s lost momentum and will stop, it keeps going), and an annuity salesman (T. Roy Barnes) who asks Harold if he knows Karl LaFong, capital-L, small-A, capital F, small-O, small-N, small-G. “No, I don’t know Karl LaFong, capital-L, small-A, capital F, small-O, small-N, small-G,” says Harold — “and if I did know Karl LaFong, I wouldn’t admit it!” As if they weren’t bad enough, he also has to contend with Baby LeRoy’s older sister (Diana Lewis, who like this film’s director, Norman Z. McLeod, worked with both Fields and the Marx Brothers; she was the female lead in Go West and shortly after that she retired to become the last, and longest-lasting by far, Mrs. William Powell) and a vegetable man who calls out his wares and attracts Harold’s attention — and his shotgun.

Halfway through the film the Bissonettes finally set out for California in a rattle-trap car, their belongings crudely strapped to its sides in what McLeod and the writing committee — Charles Bogle (a.k.a. W. C. Fields), J. P. McEvoy (who published something called The Sunday Supplement that was apparently drawn on for the plot of this film), Jack Cunningham (who blended Fields’ and McEvoy’s contributions into a through line) and eight other uncredited writers listed on — may well have intended as a parody of the Okies’ migration to California. They even pass through a government camp (in which they get to hear the Avalon Four, including Chill Wills making his screen debut, singing “On the Banks of the Wabash” in a style that makes it sound like they were trying to be the white Mills Brothers) and then a private home, on whose lawn they set up and have a picnic until they’re rousted by the security people — when they arrived the gates were open and they didn’t see the private-property sign. In the end Harold gets to his orange ranch, realizes it’s an infertile mess, but is told by real orange-grove owner Abernathy (Del Henderson) that a crew is putting up a racetrack nearby and they will need Harold’s property for a grandstand. At first they’re only willing to offer $5,000 — and Mrs. Bissonette of course is after her husband to take it — but when Harold bids them up he’s finally able to get $44,000 (the extra $4,000 is Abernathy’s commission) and a genuine, orange-producing grove in the neighborhood. The final shot is of Fields kicking back in the warm summer air of his ranch, slicing an orange in half, giving half to his son Norman and squeezing the other half into the drink he was making himself at the time. It’s a Gift isn’t much of a unified movie, and it was criticized back then for sub-par production values (the New York Times critic, I believe, said it looked like the film cost $100 to make), but it doesn’t matter because it delivers the goods: W. C. Fields is screamingly funny while managing that delicate balancing act of his: how far he can push the negative act without becoming too unlovable and/or pissing off the parents who took their kids to something advertised as family entertainment.