by Dennis Polifroni
(USA 1934 70m) DVD
p William le Baron d Norman Z. McLeod w Jack Cunningham story W.C.Fields,
J. P. McEvoy ph Henry Sharp art Hans Dreier, John B.Goodman
W.C. Fields (Harold Bissonette), Kathleen Howard (Amelia Bissonette), Jean Rouverol (Mildred Bissonette), Julian Madison (John Durston), Tommy Bupp (Norman Bissonette), Baby le Roy (Baby Ellwood Dunk), Charles Sellon (Mr Muckle), Tammany Young (Everett Hicks), Morgan Wallace (Jasper Fitchmueller), Josephine Whittell (Mrs Dunk), T.Roy Barnes (salesman)
There is a deep, almost personal connection I have with the work of W. C. Fields. Unlike the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, The Stooges, yeah, even my beloved Chaplin, Fields holds a special place in my heart. To me, he’s more connective, speaks to me directly, and comes off as a real person.
My father, the greatest guy I ever knew (and know), is the toughest man I ever met. Standing up at a height of 6-feet 5-inches and built like a stone statue of a Greek god, he is the very essence, even at his current age (70), of what the ideal male form is. In his working life, he pounded steel with a hammer and blow-torch, carried and fused miles and miles of electric cables up hundreds of flights, over-hauled cars and created and monitored a thriving restaurant through years of sweat and determination. My father was a rock. He worked long hours, never missed a days work and, through thick and thin, ALWAYS provided for his family. He was a dreamer as well. After years of physical labor he saw his dreams of owning his own business (the aforementioned restaurant) come to fruition and he struggled every day that he oversaw his business to make it the rousing success it is still remembered as. Even when he retired he dreamt. Florida was always on his mind. An avid golfer and a lover of athletics, my father dreamt of a simple place in the sunshine state, overlooking green grass and bodies of moving water, that he could nestle into and live out the rest of his days in fresh air and peace.
However, with every dream he had, whether a business venture or a focus on his ideal retirement, he always encountered an obstacle.
Enter my fathers wife or, as we refer to her, “Big Shirl”.
My mother (now 71 years old) is a 5-foot 7-inch tall, 125 pound whirl-wind of shrill, screaming, emotionally high-strung nerves that rushes into a room like a hurricane. If you got up from your bed to use the bathroom at any given time of the day you could usually count on the bed being made by the time you got back. Always cleaning, wiping, vacuuming or polishing something, there was order in HER house and she made NO apologies if she commanded you out of it in order to maintain that plowed-field-groove in the fibers of her beloved carpeting after running her “electric-broom” over it. She was, and still is, loud, confrontational, accusing and, worst of all, the stone that fell on our heads every time we had a dream or an idea of something better in the future. My mother is dug into her environment, loves organization and order (one of her most frightening attributes that I have, unfortunately, inherited) and will only consider something reaching past her comfortable norm if SHE’s the one that thought it up.
To my mother, my father is just a bumbling and puttering “pain-in-the-ass” who can never “just sit still”. To her, my fathers dreams of betterment meant, and mean, the disruption of organization and order in both HER home and HER life.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I LOVE my mother dearly. However, in all the years I lived in that house with the two of them (on and off for the first 14 years of my life as I was ping-ponging back-and-forth to my grandparents place while my parents also balanced jobs and my father built his restaurant business, permanently afterwards), I don’t ever recall my father having a conversation with my mother that didn’t end with the words: “That man needs serious help” or “I think he’s on drugs”. To my mother, anything outside of HER status-quota meant upheaval and trouble and it wasn’t until my father presented my mother with the current home they live in (completely renovated, fully and newly furnished, and without so much as asking her to lift a finger to help in its preparation) that she finally conceded in stating that his years of hard work and dreaming FINALLY saw a pay-off worthy of her praise.
Now, what does all of this have to do with my love for the films of W. C. Fields?
Well, think about it.
In just about EVERY Fields film, the comic writer and performer is a man just like my father. Only ever wanting to be left alone to do his dreaming (although taking comfort in an open bottle was not in my father’s regimen as it is with Fields), he’s a guy who goes to work every day, makes what he thinks is the best for every situation and always looks to the future for a better and more comfortable way to live out the rest of his life. Like my parents, Fields is usually besieged by an insurmountable obstacle and that obstacle is usually his wife.
IT’S A GIFT (1934) is, arguably, Fields tour-de-force. At 71 minutes of running time, it’s the comic genius’ shot at the stadium seats. Tight, with never a frame wasted, it’s Fields opus on failure and misunderstanding, coincidence and arms thrown in the air as forced up by defeat. It’s a mirror image of many a marriage where the husband bows his head to the consternation of the better thinking “other half”.
Harold Bissonette, as played by Fields, is a simple general/grocery store owner trying as hard as he can to etch out a meager existence without having people break his balls. Sleepy, almost catatonic, he’s a man who’s consistently berated and chewed up by his wife, kids and neighbors. Because of his simple nature, he is the target of strong willed personalities. Muttering under his breath, he has answers for most of the questions but is seen as such a bumbling idiot that he nary gets a chance to speak up and make his position on matters known. At the grocery store, he’s often yelled at by impatient customers wanting what he doesn’t have (Kumguats, a tropical fruit, being the most desired item) and too intimidated by to tell his patrons he’s short of. In one of the funniest moments of the film, Bissonette tries his earnest to gently wrangle Mr. Muckle (an hysterical Charles Sellon), a deaf AND blind man, to a chair in order to keep the agitated cripple from destroying a display of lightbulbs as he wraps a stick of chewing gum. As one of the first funny bits of the movie, Fields effortlessly and simply defines the good intentions of the character while all the time expressing exasperation and floating the question of why he’s even involved in a business he’s so ill prepared to monitor. A baby (Baby Leroy) upends a barrel of molasses and effectively destroys the floors of the store. His clerk runs him down with the delivery bicycle and, by the end of the sequence, sees just about every window of the place broken or smashed. Yet, through it all, Fields maintains an aire of complete amazement as he fathoms how any of this could even happen in the first place because he’s such a good natured soul.
Back at home, Bissonette is ripped to shreds by everyone endowed with a tongue. His son (a perfectly precocious Tommy Bupp), is often seen laughing at him during a tongue lashing from his mother and regularly leaves the errant roller-skate in just the right place to see his father trip over and somersault into the dining room from (that gag is so off-the-wall perfect that I find myself laughing uncontrollably every time I see it, and I’ve seen this film over 50 times). His daughter (the romantically angst-ridden Jean Rouverol) has no problems with leveling her father every time he mentions the idea of moving her to another state away from her beloved boyfriend (the always smiling Julian Madison) and has a penchant for surprising her father in the bathroom as he navigates his throat with a straight-razor (“keep it up if you want me to slit my throat!”). The neighbor lady, Mrs. Dunk (the annoyingly monotone Josephine Whittell), can’t seem to keep her voice down as he sleeps and regularly accuses the poor man of corrupting her son (the aforementioned Leroy, who practically impales Fields with a misplaced ice-pick). Hell, even the dog gives him no respect (the moment Fields tries to wave away the animal with a feather pillow, only to have the contents everywhere, has one of the comics best reactive lines when his wife comments that the feathers were her mothers: “I never knew your mother was a goose”). The poor guy just cannot seem to get a break, even at home.
However, like my father, if there were a poison in Harold Bissonette’s life, the deflator of all his dreams and hopes for the future, then it’s most definitely his wife Amelia.
The Marx Brothers had the irrepressible Margaret Dumont to act as their foil in classics like DUCK SOUP and the immortal NIGHT AT THE OPERA, and so Fields has the trumpeting Kathleen Howard. Like my mother, Howard can clear a room with the octaves of her voice. Always making herself out to be the victim of her husbands machinations, Howard perfectly exudes put-upon exasperation in everything that doesn’t fit into her ideals for life. She’s a woman who wants what she believes is her due (namely, a better house, nice clothes, a maid and a butler) and always bemoans the lost chances that were thwarted by her matrimony to Harold. She pinpoints certain damning words by elevating the tones in her speech and passages like “I don’t have a decent STITCH of clothing to wear” and “I WORK, WORK, WORK, my fingers to the BONE for you” and it seems her lot in life is a never ending barrage of corrals to reign in two kids, a dog and a house, let alone a husband who is half in the bag by the time he returns home for supper every evening. Without Howard, Fields moments of comic exuberance would fall flat and without a board to sound off of. She is the yang to his yin and her very presence is enough to rumble a room whenever she steps into the frame.
But, the plot thickens when a large sum of money left to Harold from a deceased uncle plops into his lap. Initially, Amelia wants to use the cash to upgrade the house and buy the things she feels the family is desperately in need of (clothing, kitchen appliances), let alone sock some away for a rainy day. Yet, Harold has other plans. Forever, Mr. Bissonette has been dreaming of that final place to nestle into and spend the rest of his days (just like my fathers dreams of Florida) in comfort and away from the horrors of everyday life. The picture on a calendar reminds him. The orange groves of sunny California call to him in the deep recesses of his mind and it’s there, all the way across the country, that the lowly grocer hopes to find his salvation. Upon telling Amelia of his desires, he is chastised and likened to a fool. After all, what does Harold now about running an orange plantation? However, set on targeting the west coast, Harold secretly buys a plantation anyway (“one’s as good as any other, I guess”), sells the house in Wappinger Falls, New Jersey, and packs up the family and their belongings for what has to be the journey of horror that inspired NATIONAL LAMPOONS VACATION (“c’mon, it’ll be great. Half the fun is getting there!”).
What I love about Fields films is the way he always breaks the narrative up into three parts. The first part sets the tone and informs the viewer of the characters personalities and predicament. The third and final passage wraps up the story with a coincidental twist that sees Field’s character end up in the green by happy accident. The middle section, however, is the key, the centerpiece of Fields enormous dining table and as with all his other films, IT’S A GIFT’s mid-section sees the comic pull out every bizarre stop to leave the audience aching from laughter. Like every journey, it’s what happens on the road that humbles a man, allows him to take stock in who he is and what it is he is striving for by the end of it. Fields knows this and it’s through the incidental mishaps on the road that brings him to a point of forceful resolve when he finally reaches his destination.
A picnic on the lawns of a millionaire’s home (accidentally mistaken for a park) is a comic gem and allows for some of Fields most inspired physical gags. I can only tell you that I am breathless from laughter when Harold goes to show his son how they used an ax to open a can of stewed tomatoes in the army (“or, maybe, I was thinking of the navy?”), resulting in tomatoes and juice all over his face and chest, or him sitting down on the picnic blanket to enjoy his lunch only to find him wincing from whatever it is he sat on and is pulling from the crack of his ass (“oh, there’s the can-opener!”). Indelibly, each gag plays out like a heightened moment from any of our own fond memories of travel or vacation with our families. I was reminded of all the things my father did during that time off that would, ultimately, entertain me and my brothers by the pure stupidity of it all (like the time he decided to burn a fern tree in our yard. It was infested with bees. The tree was not taking to the spray that was used to remedy the malady, only to see the cops and the fire department show up, threaten to arrest him and fine him for nearly causing a forest fire in the woods immediately next to our house). A stop at a camp ground for rest one evening becomes one of the most memorable moments in the film as Harold joins some college-aged travelers, singing acapella, and finds himself disturbing a herd of cattle with his awful rendition of “A Proud Young Fella”.
The direction of the film is one of the invisible delights of IT’S A GIFT and Norman McLeod keeps the proceedings real and truthful by rarely resorting to a close up. Almost all of the sequences that make up the movie are shot in master shots and this perfectly allows Fields a stage in front of the camera to execute many of the acrobatics and timings that made him a legend of the Vaudeville theatres in the teens and the 20’s. There is a sort of elegance to the raw editing of the film and both the director and Fields strive for making the whole thing come off like a revisit to ones aged home movies. One shot in particular, however, seems to creep up at the half way point and seems completely, but wonderfully, out of place. The turntable of a Victrola record-player is seen centered in the frame and a hand comes in from the right to take hold of the needle and place it on a spinning record of “California, Here I Come”. Completely cinematic and not in keeping with the naked energy of the rest of the film, the shot acts almost like a chapter stop introducing the next step of Harold’s journey into forced discovery and separating it from the more civil moments of the sequences before it. I think what McLeod and Fields are doing by separating the “chapters” in the story is to make us understand that Harold is going from civility to an almost Neanderthal place in his psyche. He’s got nothing to lose that he is already fed up with and it’s his moment to take his destiny by the throat and wrestle it into submission. Harold is still a whimp and runs from the confrontations that loom over him and his wife, but in the midsection of the film he seems like an almost liberated soul that rarely, if ever, actually listens to his spouse in all her ranting madness and accusations.
In the end, Harold makes good on his promise of prosperity and happiness on the other side of the country. While it may have been by pure luck and complete coincidence that he finally got to that spot only reiterates, I think, Fields view of life as a series of events relieved by the belief that things will turn out all right in the end. Like my father, I see Fields as the dreamer, stifled and hen-pecked till he stands up and makes a move of complete authority and without any apologies because of the sweat he squeezed out over years of hard work to keep his brood and his home a secure one. Like my father and his trip to retirement in Florida, Fields is taking the chance, and enjoying all the funny little things that happen along the way.
Amelia admits that she loves her “old fool” of a husband in the end, happy that he stayed determined and got what they all were striving for. Like Amelia, my mother just goes about her day, calling me once a week, and telling me how wonderful it is to live where she does and with the guy that got her there.
My father hates this movie which, when you come to think of it, is probably the highest praise it could ever get.
I love W. C. Fields. The man WAS like a father to me.
How It’s A Gift made the Top 100: