Politically incorrect before his time, W.C. Fields took the offensive and made it funny with 4 films new to video

It's a Gift

W.C. Fields is back on tape

Decades before being politically incorrect became a mark of rebellious cool, W.C. Fields was at odds with just about every social norm, from sobriety and tact to the work ethic and consideration for small children. He enacted this contrary vision with a brilliant repertoire of startled takes, slow boils, side-of-the-mouth sarcasm, puzzlement, and a juggler’s dexterity. Sadly, too much of his work has been hard to find on tape. The release of four of his best films, two never before on video, helps correct the situation.

Fields’ resentments were as heartfelt as they were amusing. But he could also tap into a good-natured undercurrent. Without watering down his essential crankiness, he comes across as a bemused bungler, forever out of step with whatever company he keeps. In It’s a Gift (1934), he plays a henpecked husband and father, harassed by a whiny older daughter and an unspeakably bratty son. As a crackpot inventor and prodigious tippler in the new-to-tape You’re Telling Me! (1934), he is beleaguered by the harangues of his shrewish wife and scorned by yet another favorite thorn in Fields’ hide — hatchet-faced biddies. (”Is he a hard drinker?” one crone asks about Fields. ”Hard?” clucks another. ”It’s the easiest thing he does.”) Calling on his most famous character type in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), Fields portrays a shameless reprobate, circus owner, and petty scammer Larson E. Whipsnade, whose cage gets comically rattled by Charlie McCarthy, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy.

These movies — two of which (Honest Man and Gift) are based on stories Fields wrote and cowrote under one of his pseudonyms, Charles Bogle — consist mostly of hilarious set pieces. The best may be Fields struggling to sleep on his porch while interlopers clamor around him in Gift. In the scene’s highlight for misanthropes, Baby LeRoy drops grapes on Fields’ head and down his gullet; Fields reciprocates by ever-so-briefly threatening the precious toddler with an ice pick. At his darkest, in Telling Me, Fields conjures up laughs even as his character attempts suicide. Before he can gulp down a bottle of poison, he is continually interrupted and stymied by his own squeamishness, in a virtuoso display of the comedian’s talent for mime. At his most rambunctious, in Honest Man, Fields lays waste to an upper-crust soiree with what is easily the most anarchic exhibition of Ping-Pong ever filmed.

The one atypical vehicle is Million Dollar Legs (1932), making its video debut. The other three films focus on reality, or, at least, the comedian’s jaundiced version of it. But not Legs. A delirious fantasy coscripted by a young Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the movie revolves around a fictional country called Klopstokia, where every man is named George and every woman named Angela, and where Fields reigns as president and strongest man in the land. Lead billing actually goes to Jack Oakie, but Fields is a tough act to trump when he enters the Olympics in a sweat suit and top hat and flings a thousand-pound weight with the greatest of ease.

The best of the tapes by a slim margin is Gift: A, followed by Telling Me: A-, Honest Man: A-, and Legs: B+.

It's a Gift
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