Review: My Little Chickadee (1940)

>> Sunday, January 21, 2007

USA/B&W-83 m./Dir: Edward Cline/Wr: Mae West & W.C. Fields/Cast: Mae West (Flower Belle Lee), W.C. Fields (Cuthbert J. Twillie), Joseph Calleia (Jeff Badger), Dick Foran (Wayne Carter), George Moran (Clarence)

Since the pairing of W.C. Fields and Edgar Bergen in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) had resulted in a box office smash, Universal tried to create another winning team by co-starring the Great Man with the risqué comedienne, Mae West. Although My Little Chickadee provided another hit for Universal, the pairing of the comedians was not as successful.

Mae West stars as Flower Belle, a scandalous woman, booted from her home town because of the residents’ belief that she was the lover of the notorious Masked Bandit (Joseph Calleia). On the train out of town, she makes the acquaintance of con man Cuthbert J. Twillie (W.C. Fields), who she mistakenly thinks is loaded (With cash, that is. He’s almost certainly loaded on spirits.) Attracted by the money, Flower Belle pretends to marry Cuthbert, but the ceremony is a fake. Fields spends most of the rest of the film trying to consummate the union; while West splits her affections between the Masked Bandit and an honest newspaper editor (Dick Foran).

What should have been a perfect pairing falls flat, because the personalities of W.C. Fields and Mae West were too strong to mesh well together onscreen. They both fared best in the scenes in which they performed separately. Also, since W.C. contributed the dialogue for his scenes, while Mae West wrote and plotted the rest of this Western comedy, many of the Great Man’s passages feel as if they were intended for another (possibly better) film. Still, the movie is essential viewing to see Fields as Cuthbert J. Twillie, tending bar, cheating openly at cards, and drinking Mae West’s perfume for its alcohol content.

An interesting sidelight--Mae West was a teetotaler and had a clause written into her contract that allowed her to shut down the set if she ever caught Fields drunk. Stories vary as to whether she ever acted upon it, but everyone agrees that the Great Man continued to drink unabated throughout the shoot.

Drinks Consumed--Whiskey and perfume

Intoxicating Effects--Sneaking sips, hangover, boasting, slurred speech, hiccups, and physical violence

Potent Quotables--Twillie (nursing a hangover): I feel as though a midget with muddy feet had been walking over my tongue all night.

Video Availability--DVD, as part of the W.C. Fields Comedy Collection Vol. 1 (Universal)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Paramount Studios had previously tried to create a male/female comedy team with Fields and Alison Skipworth in If I Had a Million (1932), Tillie and Gus (1933), and Six of a Kind (1934).

W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vol. 2 (The Man on the Flying Trapeze / Never Give A Sucker An Even Break / You're Telling Me! / The Old Fashioned Way / Poppy)


Anonymous January 24, 2007 at 12:28 PM  

I really can't stand this movie -- it's Mae West, I really dislike her in every way imaginable. Love Fields, but he barely has anything to do in this movie at all. They were an awful match, in my opinion.

garv January 24, 2007 at 5:19 PM  

I've never seen West in her heyday (I'm No Angel, She Done Him Wrong), so I'm withholding judgement at this juncture. I do plan to check out a few of her early films soon, because some have a barroom setting.

As for CHICKADEE, I think it's the worst of Fields' Universal films, but the Great Man's solo scene in which he tends bar and holds court redeems the film somewhat.

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

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