Friday, April 6, 2012

Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)

The big nosed, heavy drinking, sarcastic, downtrodden, yet sympathetic character-type supplied by comedian W.C. Fields returns again in his picture Man on the Flying Trapeze. The picture, which for the record has nothing to do with a trapeze or even the circus for that matter, once again brings the funnyman to the big screen supplying an ever plentiful amount of laughs as a meek demoralized man trying to make good while being hounded by his surroundings. Fields is a marvelous comedian who in this picture of just over an hour provides moments of adult humor, but is a meek individual that has you rooting for him with the woes of the world that seem ever eager to find him.

Man on the Flying Trapeze is a W.C. Field comedy sharing the episodes of a henpecked man looking to simply enjoy in those few fleeting moments of the day he has for himself, primarily attempting to take a workday off to attend a wrestling event, but always seems to run into trouble. Ambrose Wolfinger (Fields) is a meek, loyal man who supplies for his family. Despite his loyalty, his nagging wife Leona (Kathleen Howard), his unemployed, lazy brother-in-law Claude, and his mother-in-law all verbally abuse him. Ambrose does find solace in his moments with a bottle, or the loving support of his daughter Hope (Mary Brian), which he has from a previous marriage. In a single day Ambrose puts up with burglars who get drunk in his basement, having himself arrested for illegal alcohol manufacturing, and personal plans to attend a wrestling event he had planned for a time that goes array. Fields becomes the punching bag for many jokes, including being pinched in a “no parking” zone leading to many tickets, the loss of his ticket to his lazy brother-in-law, and white lie that blows up in his face about attending the funeral of his mother-in-law, who is still very much alive, leading to a family separation and the loss of his job. In the end Ambrose being himself, and with the help of his daughter, he wins back his wife and his job, with the last punch line on his unthankful mother-in-law and brother-in-law.

Burglars singing in the basement.
This picture makes for a classic Fields type of comedy. His playful antics with his repeated sneaking in a nip of something from a bottle, to the being stuck in literally tight situations makes the flawed character sympathetic and lovable, despite his lack of overall love he exudes. Two of the best jokes in the film are scenes with running gags; the singing burglars in the basement that have the family hounding Ambrose to do something, only to him join in on the drinking and singing, and the time where Ambrose seems to never get out of the no parking area and the continual tickets he receives from various police officers. This was very much a film completely made by Fields himself, penning much of the jokes himself (using his pen name “Charles Bogle”), adlibbing, and even directing despite the name in the credit is to Clyde Bruckman.

Bruckman was originally set to direct, but mid production the veteran director/writer of comedies, dating back to the silent days of Buster Keaton, would be removed from the set due to heavy alcoholism. It would be Bruckman’s last directing job. Fields would take the helm of the picture allowing for him to have ultimate creativity, which makes for a hilarious film, along with unpolished aspects to it. The special effects of Fields running after a tire and nearly being ran over by a train leaves contemporary audiences in wanting, but surely got laughs in its day with the cheap rear projection.

A usual cast of characters surrounded Fields on the set as the berating family, most notably Kathleen Howard playing the ever nagging wife that Fields respects, but never quite gets reciprocated back to him. Mary Brian would play Fields’ loving daughter from a previous marriage that stands up for her dear daddy. Brian was a veteran actress from as far back as a juvenile star in the silent days of film, finding continued success into the days of talkies. Brian’s roles were sparse at this time, but she supplies a necessary anchor to the jelly-spine Ambrose character, who rarely does much for himself in this film. Brian spins her lovely magic to give Fields’ character a saving grace, encouraging him to take an afternoon off, treat himself, and even helps get her father a raise in the end. Brian may not be the most memorable part in the film, but she would have a strong acting career under her belt that would continue into her future work which spanned into the days of television.

Man on the Flying Trapeze is titled such more for the fact that it is film about a man joggling many areas in his life, so close to disaster, despite his care. In structure the picture is rather episodic with an overall loose story that plays more like a longer version of a comedic short. It would a pleasing way for the general American public to spend an enjoyable evening or weekend afternoon in a theater as they leave their cares at the door and laugh at someone else’s worries. Fields does his best to make us laugh and in this case does his job well, marking another credit to his comedic legacy.

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