Million Dollar Legs

The National Film Theatre is running a season of the great Hollywood comedian W.C.Fields, famous for his alcoholic aphorisms, eccentricity, meanness and general uncontrollability (though he deliberately cultivated this image he plainly had a clear idea of what he was doing on-screen and is still one of the funniest film performers of all time).

Million Dollar Legs (1932), shown yesterday evening, is a daft comedy starring Jack Oakie with Fields in a supporting role. Oakie is Migg Tweeny, an itinerant brush salesman, who while in the bankrupt county of Klopstokia falls in love with Angela (Susan Fleming), the daughter of the President (Fields) who maintains his authority by being able to arm-wrestle the members of his Cabinet, led by the venal Secretary of the Treasury (Hugh Herbert): Ben Turpin pops up as a cross-eyed spy and an uncredited Billy Gilbert plays a Cabinet member with a serious case of sneezing (which he would later reprise as the voice of Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).

Migg persuades the President to let him train Klopstokia's athletes to enter the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics in the hope of winning and gaining enough money to pay off the country's debts, despite the efforts of Mata Machree (Lyda Roberti), a beautiful spy hired by the Cabinet to subvert the athletes... there's more plot, but does it matter?

The gags range from the surreal to the childish to the insane, with uncontrolled sideswipes at athletes, politicians, the Olympics and Greta Garbo in Mata Hari: low slapstick and Fields' usual juggling-with-his-hat routines are interspersed with very variable spoken cracks, though there are some good moments.

MIGG: I suppose if all the athletes in Klopstokia were laid end-to-end they would measure...
ANGELA: 485 miles.
MIGG: How do you know?
ANGELA: We did it once.

The film has a lot in common with the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, released later that year, but lacks its tightness of construction and pace: one of the rules of comedy is not to give the audience time to think about bad jokes, but the editing and pacing is rather slack. To a modern eye, Fields not Oakie is the main attraction and there isn't nearly enough of him. An interesting curiosity though, and in a nice clean print, which helps a lot. More W.C.Fields next week.

Posted: Fri - January 15, 2010 at 09:41 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM