Thursday, January 19, 2012

It's a Gift (1934)

A good comedy is always a great thing for a person to watch at times when they just want to get away from the drudgery of life. To be entertained and laugh for an hour or two is marvelous way for anyone to forget their worries. Comedies were staples of the motion picture business; usually cheap to make and required at times little pre-production and more creativity at time of shooting. W.C. Fields, former vaudevillian and Broadway comedian, by 1934 worked his way into becoming a Hollywood star for his particular brand of comedy. The large nosed, round, and muttering comedian would have paid his dues to the viewing public when he produced one of the all-time best critically acclaimed comedies with It’s a Gift. The witty, mumbling and pratfalling humorist helped to produce laughter for a public that was very much still in the middle of the Great Depression with his everyman character who eased the pain with some heavy recreational drinking, something that at the time could be more portrayed on screen thanks to the recent overturning of prohibition in the United States.

It’s a Gift is a comedy of the trials of a humble, yet problem filled grocery store owner who after coming into a little inheritance wants to live out his dream of moving his family to California to grow oranges. Harold (Fields) is a kind hearted grocer whose life seems to bear down on. Work can be stressful when dealing with a bubbling employee, a blind customer, as well as angry guest. His home life is little better, with his nagging wife Amelia (Kathleen Howard), self absorbed daughter Mildred (Jean Rouverol), and obnoxious son.  All the while it seems there is this little neighbor boy that continually causes him grief (Baby LeRoy). After receiving a handsome sum as an inheritance, Harold goes out on a limb, despite the objections from his irksome wife and selfish daughter, and purchases an orange grove in California, selling the grocery store. Throughout the picture Harold is troubled, but that never stops him as he travels across the country. The kicker is that the land he purchased is barren and useless, that is until he makes a handsome some reselling it to an eager and wealthy buyer. Harold does get his handsome life on a great orange grove in the end.

The picture is very humorous and entertaining to watch, considering the story serves as nothing else other than a platform for which W.C. Fields to be set on to perform his comedic routines. The film is rather episodic, going from one trouble for Harold, where he must get out of a situation producing many laughs, then moving onto yet another situation that puts Harold in the way for more comedy. The film is really just W.C. Fields while everyone else plays as set pieces to help him deliver the jokes that keep us laughing.

In to direct the feature was Norman Z. McLeod, whose short list of credits included the very humorous Marx Bros. pictures Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. Much like those Marx Bros. films ample amounts of the actual creativity came from the talent, in this case Fields. Fields came up with many of the jokes, revisiting old set ups he had done in other silent pictures or on stage. Fields technically helped write the picture, many in his adlibbing, even being credited by his pseudonym “Charles Bogle.” So as you can see McLeod had little to do with the majority of the creativity of the film, other than the point and shoot of the camera.

Fields had been acting for many years by now, but it was around this time that he would become the star he would be known for. It’s a Gift showcased the talents of the funnyman he was, with only his name being the recognizable one in the credits. That is to say beyond the little Baby LeRoy, who was billed alongside Fields, having been tormenting Fields in a handful of other features and becoming a popular joke surface for actor. Baby LeRoy was a popular tormentor of Fields’ on screen characters, but it was not a long lasted career for the child actor. Beyond Fields’ characters, Fields himself didn’t like the runt, feeling he may be stealing scenes from the real star. Their team would be broken very quickly and Baby LeRoy would become a footnote in comedy history.

Fields’ co-stars were no names at the time. To play his nagging wife was a former opera singer with a booming voice in Kathleen Howard. She would become known as the classic nagging wife thanks to her work on a handful of Fields’ pictures. To play the self-thinking daughter was a completely green newcomer to Hollywood, Jean Rouverol, who was discovered in a high school play. Her career in acting never got far, becoming a screenwriter and eventually blacklisted as a member of the Communist party.

As you may see, this film was built around W.C. Fields as everything revolves around the man, and rarely will you see a shot without him in it. The film was powered by his comedy and it would be on his shoulders that would make the picture a timeless success of the movie. It was never meant to be an art picture or try to win any awards, but in time it would find its way unto AFI’s Top 100 Laughs list in 2000, listed at #58. It too would find its way into the list of preserved American films at the Library of Congress, as a treasure of American culture.

Fields had become a household name in the realm of comedy and would grow to become a legend of the genre. Here we mark special time for he had reached the top of his game. He would continue to work in several more films for years, but it is important to see him in this manner where he is the center of all the creativeness of a picture. It may not be the best of all his works, but it is a treasure that cinema history loves.

2 comments:

  1. This is a great blog and you have excellent taste in film. The 1930s (especially pre-code) turned out the highest concentration of my favorites in celluloid. Paramount did the best of the best with their Fields and Marx Bros comedies, nevermind the horror masterpiece that is ISLAND OF LOST SOULS.

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    1. I am honored and humbled by your kind words about my blog. Paramount definitely had a special touch that I feel is lacking from MGM's, the only larger studio over Paramount, repertoire. I am getting to see more and more of Fields and the brothers Marx by watching them this manner (in chronological order).

      Call me a sucker though as I still love the silent comedy stylings of Keaton and Chaplin sometimes over them.

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