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.
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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.
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