this is part of an ongoing series in which i discuss the films that matter most to me. the only criterion they share is that i find them indispensable, my desert island selections. some are established classics, some are definitely not, some occupy the grey space in between...
there is no single film comedian i find funnier than my favorite raconteur, roustabout and reprobate, w.c. fields and no film of his makes me laugh harder than it's a gift (1934).
this thing is fields' essence distilled (quite appropriate). as with most of his work, the plot is threadbare, only existing to provide a skeletal framework that houses a series of brilliant gags and fields' grandiloquence. in the film, fields plays harold bissonette (pronounced bis-on-ay), the henpecked, downtrodden owner of a grocery store in new jersey. his dream of owning an orange ranch in california looks like it will become a reality with the untimely passing of his uncle bean. against his family's wishes, he takes his inheritance and buys an orange grove, packs the family up and heads west to prosperity. the orange grove is a disaster, a veritable wasteland. it seems this will be the final crushing indignity in a life that has hardly been idyllic up until now. fortune smiles upon the great man in the eleventh hour, however, and what looked like the single worst real estate decision ever made results in an incredible, and unlikely, windfall. his dedication to his dream has seen him through and it's nothing but california sunshine from now on.
the story in this particular film is not so important in and of itself. it's more important as the best example of the story fields told us his entire career. no comedian i can think of, with the exception of richard pryor, put more of his personal pain into his art in a noble attempt to tell us something about ourselves than fields. his films provide a running commentary on the dour life of the everyman, beset on all sides by shrewish wives, annoying children, accursed salesmen, nosy neighbors, demonic customers and bungling assistants. his struggle for those little victories and rare moments of peace are something most people can identify with and we'll gladly take each small claim he can stake on our behalf, even if sometimes it is only the curse muttered under his breath. these themes would arise again and again in fields' work as he constantly worked and refined material, each time making the joke cut a little closer to the bone. significant portions of it's a gift, for instance, are recycled from the early silent effort, it's the old army game (1926). even more significantly, though, these episodes are recycled from fields' life. his estrangement from first wife hattie and the anxiety over the separation from his son and his wife's unsettling influence over the child loom like a spectre over practically his entire filmic output. fortunately for us, he could turn this misery into comedy gold. it's a gift wastes no time in establishing these themes for us. the opening scene introduces us to our hapless hero as he tries to navigate the minefield of morning rituals in his household. his daughter's vanity and lack of consideration for her father results in him laying on a chair attempting to shave in a spinning mirror he has suspended from the bathroom light. his son's stray roller skate almost results in a broken neck for him and his wife's incessant badgering makes for a breakfast that never gets eaten. he rushes to work but it provides no relief as he must juggle his incompetent employee, a belligerent customer who wants ten pounds of cumquats and the hurricane force that is mr. muckle, the deaf and blind man who destroys the store in pursuit of a five cent pack of chewing gum.
put it down, honey!
fields' ear for the language is one of my favorite things about the man and this segment is a sterling demonstration of his skill. mr. muckle and mrs. dunk, the terms of endearment he showers the blind man with in an effort to stave off the store's destruction, ten pounds of cumquats - all of it genius. cumquats, that's an easy one. that's obviously far and away the funniest fruit you can keep in stock. his genius is demonstrated, though, by his choice of the amount. ten is the funniest number he could have reasonably chosen. don't believe me? replace it and see. six pounds of cumquats! nine pounds of cumquats! doesn't have the same punch. ten simply sounds the funniest. as if the verbal dexterity wasn't enough, this scene also introduces us to elwood dunk, portrayed by baby leroy, who was a tiny thorn in fields' side on more than one occasion. referring to the child as "blood poison", fields tries and fails to conduct business as usual as the tyke, fields' assistant and a barrel of molasses conspire to finish the job mr. muckle started. the refuge of work no longer an option, our intrepid hero returns home.
and here we are treated to one of my favorite comic sequences ever put on film. a misunderstanding over a wrong number ends with fields being exiled to the porch to get what little sleep he can salvage from this long night (of which, it is clear, there are many). words don't do it justice. here is a section of it.
sweet repose. and this is only a portion of this brilliant set piece. he is also assailed by baby elwood dunk again, who manages to nearly choke him to death with grapes and drop an ice pick into his skull, by abby and mrs. dunk who shout their conversation all around him, by his wife who wants to know who the women were he was just talking to, by mrs. frobisher and her squeaky clothesline, by a vegetable and fruit vendor noisily hawking his wares and, finally, by a fly. it is a masterpiece of slow burn and building frustration. it brings tears to my eyes. and, again, it's the little things that make all the difference. as funny as the jokes are, i laugh the hardest at the almost inaudible groan fields emits as the insurance salesman mounts the stairs. his weariness and exasperation with his fellow man, and his willingness to give voice to it, to say things we are all thinking but that other comedians wouldn't dare say, are the basis for some brilliant comedy. and he takes a shot whenever he can. when the neighbors gather to see them off one of them asks his wife what their first stop is going to be but fields heads the question off with his answer, "won't stop until we get five hundred miles from here", making quite clear the esteem in which he holds these jabbering mooncalves.
i'm with you all the way, bill.
the family makes their way westward to eventually arrive at the ruined orange grove that he purchased, sight unseen, and his family, disgusted with this turn of events, abandons him. it seems that all is lost. forlorn and dejected, he sits amidst the rubble of his purchase to ponder his fate. at this pivotal moment, a neighboring rancher races up the drive to inform him that, in actuality, his plot is prime after all. it is an ideal location for the grandstand of a proposed race track that is going in on the adjoining lot. his new neighbor advises him that the racetrack owners are on their way to make him an offer and to hold out for any price because they will pay it. after some negotiation, the staggering sum on $44,000 is settled upon which allows our beleaguered family man to live out his dream after all, and all in his own inimitable fashion. the dreamer, after a lifetime of suffering the slings and arrows of family and fortune, has finally arrived at his own personal shangri-la and he did it with a dogged self-reliance and a curmudgeonly grace.
it's one of my absolute favorites, and so is he. ever the underdog, he always managed to snatch victory from the jaws of ignoble defeat in the last reel, exposing fools and needling termagants all along the way. convention and propriety be damned! groucho marx always told a story about fields sitting in the bushes in front of his house and shooting at curiosity seekers with a BB gun. "today, he'd probably be arrested". probably so. i'd bail him out. any man that will boot a small child square in the ass when he deserves it is alright in my book. i'll watch his movies anytime.