Good Cinema: It’s a Gift (Dir: Norman Z. McLeod, 1934)

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“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.
– W.C. Fields

W.C. Fields is a celebrated, yet underrated, singular icon in the history of entertainment – the lovable misanthrope who hated kids and loved booze, heavily armed with a cynical zinger. Yet I fear this is too simple. This deprives Bill, as he was informally known, of his humanity. The archetype of Fields as a mean ol’ drunk was one built toward the end of his career, thanks mostly to his cantankerous radio tête-à-têtes with Charlie McCarthy, his escalated levels of drinking (which only rose with age and the impending doom of his declining career), and also the ways in which his latter films like You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) had anything resembling sentiment removed from them by the studio for the sake of slowing down the jokes. But if you look at his earlier films, behind the snark, behind the swindle, was a lonely man, hiding behind the bombast, trying to do right by the family who seemed to hate him.

To know his family history taints, or more accurately, paints his work with an autobiographical brush. Born in Philadelphia in 1880, Fields left school to work with his father selling fruit at age 12. It was here where he first learned to juggle, using the merchandise from his father’s fruit cart, and practicing his craft by watching a traveling circus act. His family completely discouraged any dreams of stardom (his grandmother even destroyed all of his props he had been collecting) and Fields eventually ran away from home to get away from his father’s abusive ways, promising not to return until he was a star.

Fields met and married his wife Hattie when they were both cast in a review called The Monte Carlo Girls. Hattie became his juggling partner, touring the world as a double until she became pregnant. Now with child, she returned to the States, wanting Fields to abandon his career for a life of provincial Americana. But Fields refused. Hattie held this decision against him for the rest of his life, using their son as collateral to guilt money out of him, and turning the young Fields against his father. Fields, having emotionally moved on with other women, begged Hattie for a divorce, but her Catholicism wouldn’t allow it. They remained married – and bitter rivals – until he died; and even then she strong-armed his estate into giving her the lion’s share of his earnings. The nagging, manipulative Hattie and their helpless son Claude (who relied on his father’s checks for survival well into adulthood) were the models for all of his “wife” and “son” characters in his work.

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Fields’ genius afforded him a rare level of autonomy in his work during the Studio System of Hollywood. He had starred in vaudeville and burlesque as the most respected and versatile juggler in the business; Broadway musicals; and the Ziegfeld Follies with Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor where he honed his comedic zest and skills as a writer; worked in both silent and sound films, directed by luminaries like George Cukor, D.W. Griffith, and Mack Sennett and acted alongside such formidable talents as Elsa Lanchester and Mae West. Later, he performed in radio with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, with whom he had an ongoing “feud.” The only medium he didn’t tackle was television and that was only because he died in 1946.

He rehearsed his physical bits tirelessly until every movement was choreographed to perfection (an obvious harken to his juggling days), yet struggled to remember his lines. Or possibly he was just contemptuous of the idea of playing by anyone else’s rules. Whichever the reason, Fields was an ingenious improvisor, never doing a second take the same. No one ever really directed W.C. Fields – or wrote for him for that matter; if they knew what was good for them, they merely stayed out of the way and allowed him to be brilliant.

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He was a shrewd businessman, grossing $50000 a week in 1930s cash, in addition to his fees for the writing, which could earn him an additional $15000 – $25000. Even though Fields was quite wealthy, he never wanted to appear so on film. He believed that comedy came from struggle and always made his characters circus performers (based on his own experiences as a traveling performer) or working class men trying to find his slice of the American Dream among the crash of the Stock Market and the Great Depression, a character not so subtly modeled after his father and the family life he left behind in Philadelphia. Occasionally, his characters would hit a windfall, but in the end, it was all a way for him to enjoy the simple things in life. Like a drink in the middle of the day with his best pals.

Like the greatest comedians, he recycled material relentlessly, trying to create the “authoritative” version of a bit. Many of his films were based on sketches he had written for the Ziegfeld Follies or Earl White’s Scandals (another review show in which he starred on Broadway): For example, You’re Telling Me!, a sound remake of the silent So’s Your Old Man, featured his famous golf routine, which had been its own short film based on his sketch from the Follies.

W.C. Fields – like Mae West, Lucille Ball, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, and really any other legendary comedian of the first half of the 20th century – is not solely defined by a single performance, a single film; they exist as personalities with very little deviation; well honed “types,” variations on a theme, that find themselves in a series of situations with similar results: Mae’s sexuality (and sharp witted tongue) could always get her out of trouble; Lucy’s schemes (whether as Mrs. Ricardo/Carmichael/Carter/Barker) always got her in trouble with the male authority in her life; Abbott was the con-man to Costello’s naif (yet ended up getting conned himself in the end); and Groucho and his Brothers existed in a world with no consequences, where zaniness and chicanery were met with reward.

Fields essentially played two characters in rotation:

  • the Swindler, a carney who uses his gregarious charm to coax chumps out of a dollar
    • For examples, see:
      • Pool Sharks (1915)
      • Sally of the Sawdust (1925)
      • Two Flaming Youths (1928)
      • The Old Fashioned Way (1934)
      • Poppy (1935)
      • You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939)
  • the Everyman who tries against all odds to provide for his family while they – led by the nagging wife – are embarrassed by his failures and refuse to believe in him.
    • For examples, see:
      • It’s the Old Army Game (1926)
      • So’s Your Old Man (1926)
      • The Potters (1927)
      • Running Wild (1927)
      • The Dentist (1932)
      • The Barbershop (1933)
      • The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
      • You’re Telling Me! (1934)
      • It’s a Gift (1934)

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In It’s a Gift (1934), possibly his greatest and tightest film, Fields plays Harold Bissonette (which his wife insists on pronouncing “bis-o-nay” to sound fancy), a small town New Jersey grocer who uses his inheritance from his uncle’s death to buy an orange grove in California, much to his wife’s chagrin (played by the indomitable Kathleen Howard). The film is comprised of five distinctive bits that could stand alone, but collectively create a beautiful patch work of family dysfunction. They can stand alone because in true Fieldsian fashion, they had their roots in earlier material:

  • The opening scene in the bathroom where Harold struggles to shave, as well as the idea of being “duped” into an investment, came from The Potters.
  • The swing scene on the porch was reworked from a bit in The Comic Supplement, a play he did for Ziegfeld; in fact, the film’s original title was Back Porch 
  • Their car trouble departing for California was the combination of two Ziegfeld sketches, “The Family Ford” and “The Sport Model.”
  • The picnic scene and some basic elements of the plot were reworked from It’s the Old Army Game.
  • Only the scene in the grocery store with the blind Mr. Muckle (played to the hilt by Charles Sellon) was originally conceived (and mostly improvised) for this film – with the hilarious additions of Baby LeRoy (Fields favorite foil and somewhat improbable star; rumor has it that he once spiked the baby’s bottle with gin…) and Tammany Young (his favorite doofus; check out his deadpan as the caddy in You’re Telling Me!) as his neighbor’s child and his inept clerk, respectively.

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What anchors It’s a Gift amongst the hilarity is Harold’s humanity. As our Everyman, he braves on for the promise of a better life, deflecting insults from strangers and loved ones alike for what they all see as embarrassing folly, a flimflam, or both. Harold believes in his heart that the end will justify the means. So when they arrive to the lot in which he has sunk his life’s savings, his integrity, and dignity, of course it is a barren wasteland. Disgusted with Harold’s failure, his wife grabs the children and starts to abandon him. Notice Fields’ delivery of the line, “Come on back, Amelia. I’ll drive you” – imbued with such sincerity that it was obviously a choice by the studio that he not be given more chances to shine in dramatic work for fear of losing one of their preeminent comedians.  Harold sits on the running board of their car and it, like his life, collapses. He meanders to the front porch of his rickety shack and in probably the most tender moment in Fields’ whole oeuvre, the family dog nuzzles up beside him, kissing him on the cheek.

But suddenly, a car rounds the bend, passing Amelia and the children on the dirt covered bridge. And their future takes another unsuspected turn.

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It wasn’t until Fields’ final three starring roles that he seemed to really break the mold from his aforementioned archetypes – or at least he combined them in new ways: My Little Chickadee (1940) casts him as a con-man, but this time as a bachelor and for the first time shows him as a somewhat pathetic Lothario to Mae West’s chronic troublemaking bachelorette (in real life, Fields definitely enjoyed having much younger women on hand as his secretaries and assistants, but history is unclear whether or not bedding him was part of the job description…); The Bank Dick (1940) saddles him with the shrewish wife, but his desire to “get ahead” seems to be for his own hedonistic purposes (laziness and drink) instead of providing for his family; perhaps this is why it is his most popular film, embracing a modern cynicism. And Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), the most surreal of his films, literally has him playing himself, pitching a script to a Universal executive and being hit with all the reasons why it should not be made (ironically, this film, possibly his most scrutinized and rewritten – and autobiographical – work ended up being shot as close to his original intentions as possible).

The constant in all of his films was the daughter who believed in him despite life spitting in his face. It’s telling that Fields never had a daughter nor any daughter surrogates in his life; it seems that he was, to paraphrase one of Alvy Singer’s famous quips, trying to get things to come out right in Art because they so rarely do in Life. It should come as no surprise that Fields was hired for the most quintessential of W.C. Fields roles, The Wizard of Oz – the charlatan with a heart of gold, ready to help the lost, little girl find her way home – but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. 

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But it is another famous Alvy quote (taken from Fields’ friend, Groucho Marx) that could have summed up Fields’ life: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member.” Fields, while not the misanthropic recluse people presumed, was a private man with few friends and traveled with cases of booze in his early years on the road as bait to ingratiate himself to his fellow cast members. Ironically, the booze, the very thing that once made him popular in private, became his way of alienating others in his old age – all the while being embraced by the public as our favorite, lovable louse.

 

Good Cinema: Lost Horizon (Dir: Frank Capra, 1937)

 

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“In these days of war and rumors of war – haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?” These lines, appearing on a title card, open us to the world of Lost Horizon (1937), an under known and sadly forgotten Frank Capra film made right in the midst of his three Oscar triumphs (It Happened One Night – 1934, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town – 1936, and You Can’t Take It With – 1938) for Best Director, where he holds the record.

I came to Lost Horizon, fittingly, by accident. Like Robert Conway, the film’s protagonist, I was brought to the film by an outside party. A few years ago, I set a goal for myself to see all of the films nominated by the American Film Institute for their decennial list so when the time came for its next unveiling in 2017, I would be equipped with the knowledge to fully judge their decisions. Most of their nominees and choices are standard American fair: The Godfather, High Noon, Midnight Cowboy. Loving and living film the way I have for the past decade, I have amassed a knowledge and an appreciation for all things cinema and felt I had a grasp on the American Classics, even if I hadn’t necessarily seen them all. On one of my many perusals of the list to decide what to watch next, I realized I had never even heard of Lost Horizon. This was a testament, so to speak, of its anti-popularity within the American lexicon, which given its anti-capitalist politics, is understandable. In actuality, this film, and its progenitor novel, of course, introduced one of our most well known and sought after ideas: The Land of Shangri-La, that magical place where life is void of conflict and people actually do live happily ever after.

“Our story starts in the war-torn Chinese city of Baskul, where Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) has been sent to evacuate ninety white people before they are butchered in a local revolution.” Conway, along with a motley crew of four others, including his brother, board a plane to escape to Shanghai where the British Government is waiting to fly him back to England where he will take over as Foreign Secretary. Despite his brother George’s (Jon Howard) excitement, Robert, in a drunken joy, voices his concerns through a great monologue, exposing his true feelings that foreshadow the remainder of the film:

“Just you wait til I’m Foreign Secretary. Can’t you see me with all those other Foreign Secretaries? You see, the trick is to see who can outtalk the other. Everybody wants something for nothing. If you can’t get it with smooth talk, you send your army in. But I’m going to fool them. I’m not going to have any army. I’m going to disband mine. I’m going to sink my battleships. I’m going to destroy every piece of war craft. Then when the enemy comes, we’ll say, ‘Come in, gentlemen. What can we do for you?’ Then the poor enemy soldiers will stop and think, ‘There’s something wrong here. We’ve been duped! This is not according to form. These people seem quite friendly and why should we shoot them? Then they’ll lay down their arms.”

George, in one of his many intense or judgmental comments throughout the film, urges him not to drink anymore, sending Robert back to reality:

“Don’t worry, George, nothing’s going to happen. I’ll fall right into line. I’ll be the good little boy that everybody wants me to be…Just because I haven’t the nerve to be anything else.”

Truer political words were never spoken.

The next morning the passengers realize their plane is being flown in the wrong direction. When they try to talk to the pilot, they realize he has been replaced with a Chinaman wielding a gun. But why have they been kidnapped? And where are they being taken?

Not long after, they “crash” in a plush pile of snow, conveniently nuzzled between two mountains in the Himalayas. As if on cue, a group of men led by Chang, (H.B. Warner – Cecil B. Demille’s Jesus in his silent film King of Kings, 1927, and one of Norma Desmond’s “waxworks” in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd, 1950) greet them with appropriate clothes and tools to make the trek through the inclement weather.

They are taken to a beautiful palace known as Shangri-La: a fully functioning, self-sufficient oasis. The travelers are grateful for their rescue, yet anxious to return home as soon as possible. All except Conway. He feels as if he has been here before and is drawn to its majesty.

The following day Chang explains the philosophy of Shangri-La to Conway: “We preach the virtue of avoiding excesses of any kind including virtue itself…We rule with moderate strictness and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience. As a result our people are moderately honest, moderately chaste, and somewhat more than moderately happy.” They have no crime because “there can be no crime when there is a sufficiency of everything.” There are hardly any disputes over women because if one man wants your woman, it would be considered rude not to let him have her. (No word on how the women feel about this. Presumably, the same would work in reverse). There is no money because there is no need to stock pile cash for a rainy day. Any outside supplies they may need are brought in by porters who come through every few years in exchange for the gold that rests in their valleys. Chang finishes by saying, “You would be surprised, dear Conway, how a little courtesy all around helps to smooth out the most complicated problems.”

He further learns that Father Perrault (Sam Jaffe, coincidentally blacklisted in the 1950s for being a Communist), a Belgian priest built Shangri-La centuries ago. We learn soon after that Father Perrault is still alive (one of the place’s charms). Conway’s arrival is no accident. Father Perrault has summoned him. Given Conway’s political leanings and utopian literature, he has been brought to Shangri-La to rule upon Perrault’s imminent death. Unfortunately for the others, they happened to get on the wrong plane at the wrong time.

Conway keeps this knowledge to himself and eventually the others learn to love the land. Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), a former plumber, decides to eschew his plans to steal the gold and instead build a complex aqueduct system so the natives in the valley can have running water. Lovett (Edward Everett Horton, known to most audiences as the narrator of “Fractured Fairytales” on Rocky and Bullwinkle), a paleontologist, decides to put his twenty years as a Geology professor to work by teaching the local children. And Gloria (Isabel Jewell), who we know nothing about other than she presumably has consumption, will do whatever the men tell her. The only one who remains reticent is George, positioning himself as the villain of the film. He refuses to buy into Shangri-La, swearing that something is afoot, which is further fueled by Maria (Margo), a local girl in love with him who begs to leave. When the porters finally arrive to take them away, George is the only one who wants to leave. Despite Conway’s desire and duty to stay – and affection for local Sondra (Jane Wyatt) – George and Maria convince him to leave as well.  It is only after they do that Conway discovers the truth about Shangri-La and does everything in his power to return.

The idea of Lost Horizon is greater than the film itself. The plot doesn’t really get exciting until they reach Shangri-La, which takes over thirty minutes, and the opening scene escaping from China is mostly inconsequential, used as nothing more than a ploy to allow the film to take place in the mysterious mountains of secluded Tibet. None of the characters are very developed beyond surface levels, serving merely as symbols of demographics: the charming Average Joe, the uptight intellectual, the objectified female, the noble hero, and the loud, brash attractive man who if he didn’t worry about something, he would have no purpose in life. Given the film’s parabolic structure, it is understandable why the characters are broadly drawn, as well as the film’s lack of close-ups. Thematically, it also makes sense that we are let in very little to the characters pasts, wants, and desires because this would be antithetical to the Marxist mantra Lost Horizon propagates. All we must know about them is that they are different than Conway and very different than the people at Shangri-La. It is interesting to note how Father Perrault, a Westerner, would come to an Eastern country to teach and spread the Christian concept, as he calls it, of “being kind” through a decidedly Eastern governmental system such as Socialism.

If I had the aplomb to edit Capra, I would have started the film on the plane and omitted cutaways to the embassy, trimming fifteen minutes from an overly long movie, which would make it less of an epic and more a sociological character study a la Lord of the Flies.

Coincidentally, over the years, there have been numerous versions of the film, running various lengths, to push certain agendas. Originally, Capra turned in a six-hour film to be released in two parts, but the studio rejected this version for financial reasons. (Who was going to sit through a six-hour movie and even if people did, it could only be shown once a day). Capra then cut it down to 3.5 hours, but this version was shown only once in Santa Barbara, CA. Due to negative feedback, the film’s producer and Capra rival Harry Cohn, decided to make his own cut, shaving it to 132 minutes. Other versions have been less than two hours, cutting out things to make the film more patriotic during World War II and excising additional material to quell the Communist principals that run through the film. The American Film Institute commissioned a restoration in 1972 to return Lost Horizon to the 132 minute cut. Robert Gitt, the film’s preservationist, explains in the audio commentary his almost twenty year struggle to create the most complete version, using 16mm blowup prints found in Canada and still frame images in lieu of footage the same way George Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) were restored (prior to the discovery of its missing footage).

Despite my fervent belief that remakes are almost always substandard (Gus van Sant’s Psycho, anyone?), I found myself imagining within the first thirty minutes the prospect of a remake. If made today, the opening titles, if they existed, would have to change “white people” to “civilians,” to be more politically correct, the characters would be ethnically diverse, the female character would actually be developed, and to get the most out of the metaphor, the film would be set in the Middle East. Conway would be an American diplomat as opposed to a British one and could not be played by anyone but George Clooney. No one working in film today possesses the political cache, humanitarian attitude, calm demeanor, and Everyman status (not to mention the handsomeness) needed to anchor an epic of controversial ideas like Socialism. The film would be helmed by Steven Spielberg or, even better, Steven Soderbergh. The former would repeat the warmth of Capra with childlike innocence and wonder, whereas the latter would endow the film with a bite, exposing the potential problems and unfortunate realities of a Communist state (like how do the natives really feel about being the ones who cook the meals and tend the horses?) and fully use the periphery characters as they are intended: to show that people from different walks of life can come together, divorce their egos, and work collectively for the greater good without the need for selfish incentives. Father Perrault sums this up best:

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“Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is. What blindness. What unintelligent leadership. A scuttling mass of bewildered humanity crashing headlong against each other compelled by an orgy of greed and brutality. The time must come, my friend when this orgy will spend itself; when brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword…For when that day comes, the world must begin to look for a new life…based on one simple rule: Be kind. It is our hope that the brotherly love of Shangri-La will spread throughout the world.”

Amen.