Man on the Flying Trapeze
ollowing last weeks showing of Million Dollar Legs, two more, rarely seen, W.C.Fields films at the National Film Theatre yesterday evening. Tillie and Gus (1933) was Fields' first starring feature. He and Alison Skipworth are a couple of married card sharps and con artists, and the vague plot involves their helping a niece to get a battered steamboat running to save her franchise. It's fun, with some good scenes (particularly Fields handling a group of hopeful card sharps who thinks he's a novice) but much of it itsn't really tailored to Fields and could have been performed by any competent comic. It's interesting for his first appearance with Baby LeRoy, though he doesn't show the distaste for the child which is hilarious in the later pairings, and there's a bit too much of the baby just being cute.
The evening's other film, Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), is a much greater success. To our great good fortune, the producer and director both went down with 'flu, leaving Fields and his co-writer to direct the film without interference - the result is a hilarious masterpiece (I might add that there is no trapeze involved at any point).
Fields' character lives with his daughter from a previous marriage, his shrewish wife, her lazy brother and her dreadful mother-in-law. The first half-hour of the film is a masterly demonstration of how to be funny while actually doing very little. Only Fields could collapse an audience by taking five minutes to take his socks off at bedtime. This done, his wife hears two burglars who have broken into the cellar (one is Walter Brennan), discovered the illicit applejack (cider), and are now singing 'On The Banks Of The Wabash'. Fields phones the police (after taking several minutes to put his socks back on): shortly a policeman arrives and the duet becomes a trio.
At his wife's insistence that he go down and deal with it, Fields inadvertently strews the bedroom floor with walnuts while searching for his gun (which is in a drawer, tangled up with his braces). He tiptoes down the stairs, trips, crashes through the cellar door, somersaults down the cellar stairs, and lands at the bottom sitting on the gun. Which goes off ('Drat!'). After this it gets complicated...
Shortly the trio becomes a quartet. The burglars are taken to night court, where Fields is imprisoned for making applejack without a licence...
Later in the film, wanting the afternoon off to go to a wrestling match, he unwisely tells his employer that his mother-in-law has died - of poisoned liquor (in fact she is an aggressive teetotaler). The staff are sympathetic:
SECRETARY: It must be hard to lose a mother-in-law.
FIELDS: Yes... very hard... almost impossible...
While he is collecting four parking tickets on the way to the match, flowers and letters of condolence are arriving at his home, which doesn't improve his popularity when he gets back...
It's a superb comedy (and shown in a top-quality print): it's on DVD in the UK but only as part of a 10-DVD boxed set - it deserves to be more readily available
Posted: Sun - January 24, 2010 at 09:10 AM by Roger Wilmut
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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM