Sunday 17 January 2010

It's a Gift (1934)

Director: Norman McLeod
Stars: W C Fields and Baby LeRoy
Baby LeRoy was two years old when he received co-star billing in It's a Gift, the youngest motion picture actor ever to receive such lofty billing, most amazingly given that he has what amounts to about two minutes of screen time. It looks like this was his eighth film, with only one to go, It's a Great Life, made at the ripe old age of three. He died in 2001 but I'm guessing he didn't remember a heck of a lot about his movie career almost seventy years earlier. I wonder what he felt about it. Four out of those nine films saw him play opposite W C Fields and however much Baby LeRoy is played up as a name here, it's a Fields movie through and through, often referenced as the best he ever made.

He does prove his dedication from moment one. Not only does he prove willing to co-star in a movie with a two year old, his hatred of children being the stuff of Hollywood legend, but the first time we meet him he's fashioning a scene around the trials and tribulations of trying to shave. I'm sure the straight razor he's using is a prop made of plastic but it simply screams danger and sets the stage for the rest of the film. The comedy made me laugh but it also made me cringe, not because the gags were bad but because being the main character in this film reminds of being trapped in one of Dante's nine circles of Hell.

Fields is a New Jersey grocer by the name of Harold Bissonette and it's amazing that he's managed to avoid suicide this long, because the life he has would test the patience of Job. He's about as henpecked as could comfortably be imagined, his wife Amelia nagging him incessantly about everything. Whatever he does she tells him not to do it, even when he's not there. When he tells his daughter that he's the master of his household, he does so in a whisper just in case Amelia hears him from the next room, from which she's still nagging him, not realising that he's left. She doesn't just nag him though, she nags everyone, including the kids, grown up daughter Mildred and young ADHD sufferer Norman.

The gags are deceptively simple, but constructed with impeccable timing. What Fields does here is every bit the equal to anything the great slapstick comedians created, but less stylised and more grounded in reality. Even the recognisable Fields voice is subdued here, as if he can't be bothered to enunciate properly because he knows nobody wants to listen to him anyway and maybe if he keeps quiet, some fresh catastrophe might divert itself to somebody else. Harold Bissonette is a catastrophe magnet, similar to the concept of the Rain God conjured up by Douglas Adams. In So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, it's always raining in Rob McKenna's world because the clouds loved him and wanted to be near him, to cherish him and water him. In It's a Gift, Bissonette is a Chaos God, because Chaos just can't leave him alone.
There is a vague storyline. Uncle Bean dies and leaves the Bissonettes a hefty inheritance, with which Harold does what he's always dreamed of doing, selling his grocery store and buying an orange ranch in California. Really though that doesn't matter in the slightest because this is all about seeing just how much the majesty of creation can dump on Harold before he either quits or wins out through sheer perseverance. So Amelia isn't just a constant nag, she's consumed by jealousy and suffering from delusions of grandeur as well. Mildred is as normal in this household as Marilyn Munster is in hers, but the opening bathroom scene shows that she's so insensitive of her father that she hardly even notices he's there. Norman is a bundle of energy who would wear anyone out, even if he didn't spend most of his time on roller skates.

And it isn't just the rest of his family, it's the rest of the world too. Harold is saddled with an idiot shop assistant, Everett Ricks, who rides his bike in the store and sleeps on the drop of a hat. Baby LeRoy plays Elwood Dunk, the baby of the family who live upstairs from the Bissonettes, and his few scenes are dedicated to making Harold's life miserable. The first time we meet him he's throwing a tin of clams at him and he merely progresses to flooding the store with molasses and dropping ice picks at him through a hole in the floor. When John Durston, the very boyfriend that Mildred doesn't want to lose by moving 3,452 miles to California, sells him an orange grove called McKillon Ranch, it's hardly the dream that he's set his heart on.

There's also more than a liberal spreading of absurdity that gets more delightful the more I think about it. Mr Muckle is a stroke of genius, a blind man who has a penchant for accidental destruction. If Harold has something in his store that's made of glass, starting with the front door, Mr Muckle can destroy it, wreaking havoc even though he's only after a five cent stick of chewing gum. The levels of absurdity are many. Harold quietly ignores wide devastation to make a five cent sale of gum, ignoring the man who wants a hundred pounds of kumquats. He wraps and ties the gum, only to find that Mr Muckle doesn't want to carry it with him and so asks for it to be delivered. What's more, this blind man is apparently the house detective at the Grand Hotel over the street. This film is only 68 minutes long, though originally five minutes longer, but there's more subtle detail in scenes like this than in most feature length comedies.

While the picture was based to a degree on a play, J P McEvoy's The Comic Supplement (of American Life), Fields apparently snuck in plenty of references from his life too, and I'm not just talking about the bottle of gin he pours into his orange juice at the end of the film. Many of the gags are fashioned around long running sketches in his repertoire. What seems like half the picture is taken up by one long set of gags centered around Harold trying in vain to sleep, always inventive and apparently neverending. Fields was an insomniac, so knew precisely how to relate to the scene. The way in which we can relate too is testament to how grounded this story is.

We can laugh at Buster Keaton surviving the side of a house being dropped on him or Harold Lloyd hanging from a clockface but we can be sure in the knowledge that none of these things are ever going to happen to us. By comparison there isn't anything in this picture that is beyond possibility and I'm sure anyone viewing has a reference point or three from their own lives. In fact I'm sure I'll have different reference points every time I watch it and even having just finished it for the first time I'm already looking forward to watching it again. It doesn't seem on the face of it to be as good a film as some of the other Fields movies I've seen, like The Bank Dick or Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, but it may just build in the memory like Mr Hulot's Holiday and get better with every outing.

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