Motion/Captured Must-See: 'It's A Gift'
Why this film and why W.C. Fields?
Is it reflexive? Am I just running down a checklist of comedy icons and now it's his turn?
No. I'm not particularly brand-loyal it comes to the early days of comedy, with the possible exception of Buster Keaton. Him, I endorse across the board. Everyone else, I've got my likes and my dislikes. And in the case of W.C. Fields, I think it all came together in his Depression-era comedy version of The Book Of Job, and any discussion of great movies should include this dark-hearted misanthropy.
Part of that is because of Norman McLeod. This is a guy who worked with the comedy legends of his day, and helped shape who they were on film. He directed the Marx Brothers in "Monkey Business" and "Horse Feathers." He directed Cary Grant and Constance Bennett in "Topper." He directed Danny Kaye repeatedly. He directed Bob Hope and Bing Crosby repeatedly. And, yes, in 1934, he directed the great W.C. Fields in the film that I think best showcases the particular comic sensibilities that made Fields such an icon in his time. Not only did he know funny innately, he helped define the vocabulary of how it's still being shot today. He understood that it's not just funny people doing funny things, but also how you shoot and cut it. He really understood where to put his camera to sell every single punchline. He made great use of all of his actors and not only his stars.
[more after the jump]
At one hour and seven minutes long, "It's A Gift" is a bullet, a series of expertly-built set pieces telling the lean and mean story of Harold Bissonette ("Biss-o-NAY!"), the owner of a general store who dreams of life as an orange rancher. Saddled with a family he can barely tolerate, Bissonette suffers pretty much non-stop indignity, and it's that long slow burn that makes the film such a gem. It doesn't matter what he's doing... something as simple as trying to shave in the morning becomes this elaborate routine that both endangers his life (god, I'm glad I don't use a straight razor) and humiliates him (his wife's withering glare after catching him at the end of the scene) in equal measure. Trying to catch a little sleep turns into this amazing bit of physical orchestration involving a huge four story set. Opening the store for business is a ballet of possible destruction, especially once Mr. Muckle is set loose in his store. And through it all, Bissonette just takes it and takes it, always focused on his dream of owning an orange ranch, refusing to let anything else disturb him.
What I find most fascinating about Fields and his onscreen persona is that he was an able-bodied physical comedian who looked completely out-of-shape. There's a fat man's grace to the way he handles himself, though, and his pratfalls are precise and painful. He's just as adept verbally, though, and he can sell a line of exasperated disbelief as well as Groucho on his best day.
"Those feathers belonged to my mother!"
"I didn't know your mother had feathers..."
I love how he's always mumbling under his breath, afraid to say these things directly to his family. And I love that they don't soften his persona to make sure you like him. Bisonnette is a man who genuinely dislikes pretty much everyone and everything except for oranges, and the film makes a strong case for why that is. His misanthropic outlook seems earned. If life had its thumb on you to this degree, you might resent waking up every day as well. And like Job, Bisonnette has to just take it, because it's not like there's a person doing all of this to him... it's just the way situations play out. Something as easy as stopping for a picnic almost ends up with him in jail. So the way he sees it, the universe owes him that orange farm, and he's determined to keep his head down and bear whatever abuse he has to if it gets him closer to those oranges. As a father who is frequently stressed about money and overworked to the point of being harried, I can totally relate to Fields when I watch this now. Wasn't always the case. I used to watch him with a sense of remove, but these days I'm feeling more and more like his character each day. I guess one of the signs that something really works as a movie is that every time you watch it, depending on who you are at that point, the film seems brand-new. That's definitely the case with the marvelous "It's A Gift," a film that every comedy fan owes it to themselves to unrwrap and treasure.
If you'd like to watch along with me for the next week, you can expect Monday through Friday reviews for the following films: "Joe Vs. The Volcano," "Koyaanisqatsi," "Love and Death," "M.," and "Night Moves."
And you can join me live on April 1st and 2nd at the New Beverly for the first AICN/HitFix Cinema Rehab night, where we'll screen "Ishtar" and "Joe Vs. The Volcano" for you.
The Motion/Captured Must-See Project appears here every, Monday through Friday. Except when it doesn't.
Can't get enough of Motion/Captured? Don't miss a post with daily HitFix Blog Alerts. Sign up now.
Don't miss out. Add Motion/Captured to your iGoogle, My Yahoo or My MSN experience by clicking here.
Not part of the HitFix Nation yet? Take 90 seconds and sign up today.
1997 | Crime | RSummary: Quentin Tarantino adaptats an Elmore Leonard novel into this story of a few increasingly desperate people scraping to get by. It has deep soul, a wicked sense of humor, and Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Pam Grier, and Robert Forster.Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster
2013 | Comedy | NRSummary: Insanely funny comedy show created by Amy Schumer, who stars in brilliantly funny sketches about sex, city living, dating, and friendship.Director: Daniel Powell, Amy Schumer (creators)
Cast: Amy Schumer, Kevin Kane, Mike Houston
1996 | Crime | RSummary: Jerry, a small-town Minnesota car salesman is bursting at the seams with debt... but he's got a plan. He's going to hire two thugs to kidnap his wife in a scheme to collect a hefty ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. It's going to be a snap and nobody's going to get hurt... until people start ...Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare
2007 | Comedy | PGSummary: Newlyweds Nick (Ice Cube) and Suzanne (Long) decide to move to the suburbs to provide a better life for their two kids. But their idea of a dream home is disturbed by a contractor (McGinley) with a bizarre approach to business.Director: Steve Carr
Cast: John C. McGinley, Ice Cube, Nia Long, Aleisha Allen
2008 | Science Fiction | PGSummary: Animated series continues the story of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker as they battle the Emperor Palpatine, Count Dooku and General Grievous, but also takes time to explore other smaller characters in the Star Wars universe.Director: George Lucas (creator)
Cast: Tom Kane, Dee Bradley Baker, Matt Lanter
2013 | Thriller | RSummary: Based on the true story of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) a Miami bodybuilder who wants to live the American dream. He would like to have the money that other people have. So he enlists the help of fellow bodybuilder Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and ex-convict, Christian bodybuilder Paul Doyle (D...Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub
1995 | Mystery | NRSummary: Denzel Washington plays an out of work WWII vet who takes the wrong job and is soon neck-deep in a mess of politics, murder, and jazz in '40s Los Angeles.Director: Carl Franklin
Cast: Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals
2013 | Drama | RSummary: Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill have boundless energy in the story of a real-life commodities crook who earned millions through scummy small-time stock trades.Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
1993 | Sports | PGSummary: Emotionally powerful sports classic featuring Sean Astin as a skinny high school kid with big football dreams and the determination to make his way towards his dream team at Notre Dame.Director: David Anspaugh
Cast: Sean Astin, Jon Favreau, Ned Beatty
Let Streaming Genie help you.