Friday, January 22, 2016

The Old-Fashioned Way (Paramount, 1934)

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

The film was The Old-Fashioned Way, which I’m sure Charles and I had seen together before and which had previously struck me as a perfectly passable W. C. Fields vehicle with some great moments (notably Fields’ famous confrontations with Baby LeRoy — particularly the one in which LeRoy’s mother says, “He’s such a good boy. You really ought to see him some time when he’s by himself,” and Fields replies under his breath, “I’d like to catch him some time when he’s by himself” — and the great scene in which, for almost 10 minutes, Fields does quite a bit of juggling, including the cigar-box trick which he invented and many other jugglers copied, a scene which was excerpted and released in the 1960’s as a stand-alone short called The Great McGonigle). This time around it seemed stronger than that: it was Fields’ valentine to his own early days in show business, traveling with theatrical troupes that performed such standard plays as The Drunkard (excerpted here) and East Lynne, and lived a hand-to-mouth existence as they took themselves from one small town to another, often one step ahead (or not even that!) of various town sheriffs chasing them to collect on unpaid bills from their last town (or two, or three). Though the time period in which The Old-Fashioned Way takes place is pretty ambiguous, it’s obviously not the 1934 present in which it was made; in one scene the characters come to the window of the boarding house where the theatre people are staying to look at “one of those new horseless carriages” driving by, though Paramount wasn’t about to blow the budget of a 71-minute program comedy actually to rent a car of the proper vintage. Whenever it takes place, The Old-Fashioned Way is one of W. C. Fields’ lovable-rogue characterizations as he does whatever he has to do to keep his troupe together, including comforting actors restive because they haven’t been paid or outwitting the various sheriffs — one of whom, in an early scene, tries to serve Fields with a summons, only to find that Fields’ assistant has set it on fire, and Fields uses the flame to light his cigar. Fields plays The Great McGonigle (that’s his entire name; if he has a more normal first name, the script — by Garnett Weston and Jack Cunningham based on a story by “Charles Bogle,” i.e. Fields himself, and with no fewer than 10 other writers listed on the film’s page — doesn’t give it to us), whose poverty-stricken little troupe descends on the small town of Bellefountaine (presumably in California because it’s described as being near Cucamonga) and encounter boarding-house owner Mrs. Wendelschaffer (Nora Cecil), who’s worried because she got stiffed by McGonigle’s troupe the year before and this time is determined to get payment for her room and board up front, or she’s going to lock up the actors’ trunks and not let them leave.

She’s also got an obnoxious kid, Albert Pepperday (Baby LeRoy), who dumps McGonigle’s watch in a bowl of molasses. Fields apparently hated Baby LeRoy as much off-screen as his character does on-screen, and according to one biographer he actually spiked LeRoy’s milk with his usual mix of vodka martinis and then kept a straight face as LeRoy’s mother panicked and wondered just what was wrong with her kid. The obligatory young couple are McGonigle’s daughter Betty (Judith Allen, who frankly looks a bit too matronly for the role) and a rich man’s kid, Wally Livingston (Joe Morrison, a quite good Irish tenor who had the misfortune to come upon the scene just when the market for Irish tenors was drying up). Livingston’s dad (Oscar Apfel) shows up to try to talk Wally out of his theatrical ambitions and into returning to college, where he’s presumably going to prepare for a business career. Remember this was a time period when the public repute of actors was so low Fields made a point of repeating a joke he’d heard then, in which a young man makes a prodigal son-like return to the family he abandoned years before. When his parents ask what he’s been doing while he’s away, he hems, haws and finally, shame-facedly admits to them, “I’ve been … an actor.” “An actor?” his parents thunder at him. “And to think we thought all this time you’d become a nice, respectable burglar!” Livingston, Sr. confronts Betty McGonigle and tells her he doesn’t think his son belongs on the stage — and to his astonishment, Betty agrees with him, saying that she thinks he should return to school but he refuses to do so unless she agrees to marry him and come with him — which she doesn’t want to do because as leading lady of the McGonigle troupe, she has a loyalty to her dad. That’s about all the plot this movie has, but that’s really all it needs; it incorporates a good chunk of the script for The Drunkard into its running time, played in a really stilted, phony fashion that may have been in vogue when the script was first premiered (1843) but no doubt seemed as ridiculous in 1934 as it does today. Indeed, the opening credits promise us “The Cast of the Original ‘Drunkard’ Company,” though an “Trivia” poster said that by 1934 anyone who could have acted in the original production of The Drunkard would have been dead and what was probably meant was the revival company that had opened a production of The Drunkard in L.A. in 1933, which inexplicably ran for several years — though the poster was unable to obtain a cast list for the 1933 L.A. stage production to compare it with the film’s credits and see just how many members of the stage cast were also in the movie.

After using various stratagems to evade the sheriffs who are after him, including setting one of their summonses on fire (and stealing himself a Pullman ticket on the train while his troupe members have to sleep as best as they can in their seats), McGonigle more or less seduces Cleopatra Pepperday (the marvelous Jan Duggan), Bellefountaine’s richest widow and the fiancée of the town sheriff, into threatening to jilt him if he serves the troupe and paying off the Cucamonga sheriff (the equally marvelous character villain Clarence Wilson, uncredited) in exchange for a small part in McGonigle’s play — which never materializes, though she sings an excruciatingly bad song as her audition piece and endlessly practices her one line, “Here comes the prince,” with absolutely no clue how to stress it. (The gag had already been done on film five years earlier in Gold Diggers on Broadway, in which Winnie Lightner has one line in a big Broadway show — “I am the spirit of Liberty and the progress of Civilization!” — endlessly practices it and finally blows it on her big night.) By advertising Cleopatra’s stage debut McGonigle gets a full house for his performance — “I’m here just to see her make a fool of herself,” says one of the townspeople in the audience — but, whether out of devotion to his Art or because he simply can’t be bothered, McGonigle doesn’t let Cleopatra go on. (“She’ll probably go on right after the epilogue,” he tells her sheriff boyfriend.) After The Drunkard is over, Fields as McGonigle does his juggling act (thankfully preserving much of the routine that made him a star — he originally went into show business as a juggler but then put jokes into his act because he found comedians got paid more, just as the Marx Brothers had originally been a musical act who went into comedy because it paid better) and then there’s a tearful farewell that reveals just how fine an actor W. C. Fields was. He gets a telegram from his bookers that because of the bad reception of his company, the rest of his tour has been canceled. Putting a brave face on it, he says he’s received a big offer in New York, but it’s only for him, not her, so she should feel free to marry her boyfriend and settle down. Then there’s a cut to what he’s really doing now that the McGonigle Theatre Company is no more: he’s on a streetcorner selling a patent medicine called Yack Wee, ostensibly developed from cacti by Native Americans, and he’s pushing it as a cure for hoarseness. In the middle of his pitch he suddenly drops his voice, lowering its volume and making it gravelly as if he really had hoarseness, then he drinks a swallow of the stuff and booms out fortissimo over his crowd, “IT CURES HOARSENESS!”

The Old-Fashioned Way is a lovely movie, setting off Fields’ comedy in the context of a plot that makes sense and makes us feel for the characters. It was directed by William Beaudine — one of the most infamous figures in Hollywood history; in the silent era he rose from shorts to direct “A”-lister Mary Pickford in the 1925 version of Little Annie Rooney, only the Depression left him deep in debt and, like his partial namesake William Nigh, he was determined to pay off all his creditors even if that meant toiling in the salt-mines of third-rate studios like Monogram and making crappy movies on a schedule so tight that on one occasion one of the Monogram executives told him to hurry up so they could meet a release deadline, and Beaudine replied incredulously, “You mean someone out there is actually waiting to see this?” Beaudine hadn’t totally lost his chops as a filmmaker in the early 1930’s — two years before The Old-Fashoned Way he had made Three Wise Girls, a marvelous “pre-Code” movie from Columbia starring Jean Harlow (in her last film for anyone other than MGM) and written by Frank Capra’s collaborator, Robert Riskin — and while I’ve sometimes lampooned Beaudine’s work on The Old-Fashioned Way by saying anyone could direct a Fields movie as long as they kept the cameras on him and in focus, and made sure the sound people were recording his dialogue intelligibly, the fact is Beaudine brings a lot more to this film than that. Aided by his cinematographer, Ben Reynolds, and art director John B. Goodman, Beaudine flawlessly recreates the atmosphere of the turn of the last century and stages the action beautifully, and gets excellent performances from the cast. The Old-Fashioned Way was no doubt a personal film for W. C. Fields — it reproduced the showbiz milieu in which he had got his start — and it’s also a beautiful movie, screamingly funny but also with warmth and heart. It helps that Fields generally knew just how far to push his lovable-rogue characterization so the rogue stayed lovable (at least until the 1939 Universal film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, which had a similar plot to The Old-Fashioned Way and the 1936 film Poppy — based on Fields’ star-making 1924 Broadway musical — but whose writers screwed up Fields’ original story by making his character too dishonest and repulsive), and despite Fields’ oft-reported hatred of Chaplin in general and Chaplin’s celebrated pathos in particular, Fields was capable of a quirky sort of pathos of his own that softened his characterizations so he could retain the love of an audience even while treading on the thin edge of despicability. And, as his friend Leo Rosten once said about Fields (though the line is frequently misattributed to Fields himself), anyone who hates small children and dogs can’t be all bad …

[For a previous moviemagg post on The Old-Fashioned Way, please see]