Review: Poppy (1936)

>> Friday, March 30, 2007

USA/B&W-75m./Dir: A. Edward Sutherland/Wr: Waldemar Young & Virginia Van Upp/Cast: W.C. Fields (Professor Eustace P. McGargle, F. A. S. N.), Rochelle Hudson (Poppy), Richard Cromwell (Billy Farnsworth), Catherine Doucet (Maggie Tubbs, a.k.a. Countess De Puizzi), Lynne Overman (E.G. Whiffen)

In 1923, W.C. Fields proved that he was much more than a juggling vaudevillian and sketch comedian when he agreed to play a supporting role in the Broadway musical comedy, Poppy. Although the Great Man was already a box office draw on the New York stage, Poppy made him legit in the eyes of theater critics. They hurled superlatives at him. However, in truth, Fields’ new venue was not that much different from his previous stage turns. The script of Poppy had been weak, so W.C. padded his part with adlibs, juggling tricks, and bits of business from the stage sketches for which he was known.

Thirteen years later, the Great Man revisited the play that initially gave him respectability in the film version of Poppy. Fields stars as Professor Eustace P. McGargle, a grifter who drifts from town to town with his daughter Poppy in tow. McGargle is perfectly happy bilking the local hicks--hawking patent medicine (Purple Bark Sarsaparilla, a potent 196 proof elixir) and running a crooked shell game--but Poppy longs to settle down. The old man helps the girl get her wish when he devises a plan to convince the townspeople that his daughter is the missing heir to a three-million dollar inheritance.

Although Poppy is not amongst the first rank of Fields’ films, it is a much better than its reputation. Past critics have lowered expectations for this picture, noting the Great Man’s illness and injury (due to a fall from a penny farthing bicycle) during the production. Nevertheless, Fields is in fine form throughout the film, and there is no evidence of pain or stiffness in his performance. And despite critics lamentations regarding the lack of Fields’ screen time, the part of McGargle was greatly inflated in the movie as compared to the Great Man’s stage turn. In short, although this concoction is not quite as potent as the patent medicine peddled by McGargle, Poppy is consistently enjoyable and smile inducing.

Drinks Consumed--Whiskey and patent medicine (196 proof)

Intoxicating Effects--Slurred speech

Potent Quotables--WHIFFEN (taking a swig of Purple Bark Sarsaparilla): Ah! Land o’ Goshen, that’s hotter than a depot stove, ain’t it?
MCGARGLE: Yes it is. 98 percent alcohol and 2 percent sweetening--very good for your stomach though.

Video Availability--DVD, as part of the W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vol. 2 (Universal)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Fields first played McGargle onscreen in Sally of the Sawdust (1925), a silent adaptation of Poppy, directed by film innovator and noted racist D.W. Griffith.

W.C. Fields Comedy Collection Vol. 1 (The Bank Dick / My Little Chickadee / You Can't Cheat an Honest Man / It's a Gift / International House)


Review: The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)

>> Monday, March 26, 2007

USA/B&W-65m./Dir: Clyde Bruckman/Wr: Ray Harris & Sam Hardy/Cast: W.C. Fields (Ambrose Wolfinger), Mary Brian (Hope Wolfinger), Kathleen Howard (Leona Wolfinger), Grady Sutton (Claude), Vera Lewis (Cordelia Neselrode)

No character W.C. Fields ever played had more reason to drink than Ambrose Wolfinger, the hero of his hilariously painful masterwork, The Man on the Flying Trapeze. Over the course of the film, Ambrose suffers on a Job-like scale--getting arrested for manufacturing liquor without a license; being wrongly accused of having an affair with his secretary (portrayed by Field’s real-life mistress Carlotta Monti); receiving four traffic tickets in a row; and absorbing numerous insults hurled by his nagging wife, mother-in-law, and good-for-nothing brother-in-law. It’s no wonder Ambrose sneaks sips of applejack in the bathroom while pretending to brush his teeth.

The much put upon breadwinner harbors one secret wish--to attend the wrestling match of the century between Tosoff, the Russian Behemoth and Hookallockah Meshobbab, the Persian Giant--but to do so, Ambrose must fib to his boss to take his first afternoon off in 25 years. Will the employer believe Wolfinger’s excuse that he has to attend the funeral of his mother-in-law, who kicked the bucket drinking poison liquor? Will Ambrose make it to the wrestling matches in time to catch the big fight? And will his horrid in-laws ultimately receive their much-needed comeuppance? You’ll have to find out for yourself. I’m not telling. However, I will guarantee that you won’t regret taking the time to enjoy this overlooked gem.

The Man on the Flying Trapeze is the most unfairly ignored picture of W.C. Fields’ career. In terms of quality and laughs, Trapeze comes in a close third to the Great Man’s other domestic masterpieces, It’s a Gift (1934) and The Bank Dick (1940). However, it hasn’t received a fraction of the acclaim or the audience that those better-known films have attracted. I can only assume this is due to the fact that until recently this tipsy tour de force was entirely unavailable on video. Hopefully, with the DVD release, The Man on the Flying Trapeze will finally receive the recognition it so richly deserves.

Drinks Consumed--Homemade applejack

Intoxicating Effects--Sneaking sips, harmonizing, and jail time

Potent Quotables--MRS. WOLFINGER (from the bedroom): What are you doing in the bathroom?
AMBROSE: (Takes a drink of applejack) Eh, brushing my teeth, dear.
MRS. WOLFINGER: I don’t know what’s come over you lately. You’re always in that bathroom brushing your teeth.

Video Availability--DVD, as part of the W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vol. 2 (Universal)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--The Man on the Flying Trapeze was a loose remake of Field’s silent film Running Wild (1927), which also featured Mary Brian as his daughter.

W.C. Fields Comedy Collection Vol. 1 (The Bank Dick / My Little Chickadee / You Can't Cheat an Honest Man / It's a Gift / International House)

Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fields (Paperback)


Booze News: Modern Drunkard Magazine #52

>> Friday, March 23, 2007

I’m afraid I must interrupt “W.C. Fields Week Part Deux” for a bit of news. Fear not, Fields fans, the Great Man figures into the story. As I was perusing the local Borders bookstore, I noticed that the new issue of Modern Drunkard Magazine was available (issue 52 to be precise). I opened it up, hoping to find my first film column, and I was disappointed to discover that it wasn’t there. Then, I noticed that my name was still amongst the contributors. It turns out I have a six-page article, “Driven to Drink: The Films of W.C. Fields” in the current issue. I submitted the piece back in November, and I wasn’t aware MDM was going to feature it this month. Otherwise, I would have made a previous mention.

So there you have it, fellow inebriates. The film column will begin in MDM #53, but in the meantime, pick up the current issue for the longer piece on soused cinema’s patron saint, William Claude Dukenfield (a.k.a. W.C. Fields).

I now return you to your previously scheduled “W.C. Fields Week Part Deux” already in progress.


Review: The Old Fashioned Way (1934)

>> Wednesday, March 21, 2007

USA/B&W-66m./Dir: William Beaudine/Wr: Garnett Weston & Jack Cunningham/Cast: W.C. Fields (The Great McGonigle), Judith Allen (Betty McGonigle), Joe Morrison (Wally Livingston), Jan Duggan (Cleopatra Pepperday), Baby LeRoy (Albert Pepperday)

With the success of You’re Telling Me, Paramount allowed W.C. Fields to submit the story for his next feature, The Old Fashioned Way. In doing so, the Great Man created one of his most endearing characters, Mark Antony McGonigle, the dishonest head of a traveling theatrical company. The Great McGonigle, as he is more often called, leaves a trail of bad notices and unpaid bills in his wake, as he moves his troupe from town to town performing the classic melodrama, The Drunkard (what else?).

The Great Man often portrayed charlatans and hucksters in his films, based on the crooked men that cheated him during his early days on the stage. The Old Fashioned Way is far and away the best of these movies. In addition to containing McGonigle, Fields’ most loveable rogue, the picture also features W.C.’s classic battle with child-actor, Baby LeRoy. McGonigle absorbs numerous indignities at the hand of the toddler--including having his pocket watch soaked in molasses--while other adults are observing, but as soon as he has the brat alone, he gives the kid a solid kick in the pants. No other comic of the time (and few since) could get away with booting a small child and make the audience love him all the more for it, but Fields pulled it off with ease.

Like an olive that provides the finishing touch to a martini, The Old Fashioned Way contains a topper that is one of the most magical moments in Fields’ filmography. At the conclusion of the troupe’s performance of The Drunkard, McGonigle juggles for the audience. It is the only filmed record of the Great Man performing a portion of the legendary juggling act that first brought him to fame. On celluloid, W.C. rarely displayed more than a hint of the dexterity of his nimble fingers--a flip of a cane here, the twirl of a hat there--because he feared that he had lost much of his skill over time through his love of fermented fluids. Luckily, he made an exception in this case.

In truth, The Old Fashioned Way contains no explicit boozing, but the “evils” of drink are enacted by the theatrical troupe in the temperance play within the film. More importantly, this movie is simply too good to leave off this list. As an interesting side note, the Great Man briefly dated Judith Allen, the actress that plays his daughter in the picture.

Drinks Consumed--Fields swigs patent medicine (presumably alcoholic), and the “drunkard” of the play gets soused on brandy

Intoxicating Effects--Fields displays no ill effects, but the “drunkard” exhibits slurred speech, staggering, brawling, and creates a public disturbance
Potent Quotables--(From the play within the film) MARY: I must remain and find my husband.
MCGONIGLE (as Squire Cribbs): He would laugh in his drunken ribaldry could he hear you speak thus.
Video Availability--DVD, as part of the W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vol. 2 (Universal). You can also view a low-rez clip of the juggling scene here.

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Fields also lampooned temperance melodramas in the funniest short subject ever made, The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933). The Drunkard also served as the basis for a less successful comedy, The Villain Still Pursued Her (1940), featuring Buster Keaton and a bunch of lesser-knowns.

W.C. Fields Comedy Collection Vol. 1 (The Bank Dick / My Little Chickadee / You Can't Cheat an Honest Man / It's a Gift / International House)


Review: You’re Telling Me (1934)

>> Tuesday, March 20, 2007

USA/B&W-67m./Dir: Erle C. Kenton/Wr: Walter DeLeon, Paul M. Jones, & J.P. McEvoy/Cast: W.C. Fields (Sam Bisbee), Joan Marsh (Pauline Bisbee), Buster Crabbe (Bob Murchison), Adrienne Ames (Princess Lescaboura), Louise Carter (Mrs. Bisbee), Kathleen Howard (Mrs. Murchison)

Although W.C. Fields drank immoderately on and off camera, he rarely played a scene in which he appeared pie-eyed drunk. The major exception can be found in You’re Telling Me, the first sound film in which the Great Man was given the solo lead. The movie opens with a masterful drunk scene, in which Fields staggers home, removes his shoes to avoid waking his wife, loses his hat repeatedly, and has to resort to using a funnel to insert his key into the keyhole. Once indoors, he gets caught in the decorative ropes that hang from the hallway curtains and nearly strangles himself in his efforts to become disentangled.

Unfortunately, after this boffo display of physical humor, the film settles into a mild, homespun narrative, based on a short story that originally appeared in Redbook (which gives you an idea of how edgy it is). Fields portrays Sam Bisbee, a small-town inventor with a big heart whose nipping and uncouth manners are a constant embarrassment to his wife and daughter. However, after a chance meeting with a real princess, tables turn and Bisbee finds himself the toast of the small town socialite set. It’s a pleasant enough story, and Fields gives an excellent, out-of-character performance as the kind, gentle Bisbee. Still, the film is nowhere near as fun as the later classics in which Fields had a greater hand in scripting. Although, W.C. intersperses the proceedings with occasional touches of dark humor and a few amusing moonshine-laced gags, the net effect is a little like watching a cobra with his fangs removed.

Still, even minor Fields films are better than most comedians’ “A” material, and the movie is a must-see for the Great Man’s drunk scene and the classic golf routine which ends the picture. The self-scripted golf sketch was one of Fields’ most popular stage routines, and though it is an odd fit here (it’s very obviously tacked on), it contains more laughs than the rest of the running time combined.

Drinks Consumed--Moonshine and imported whiskey

Intoxicating Effects--Sneaking sips, staggering, bad breath, and punch spiking

Potent Quotables-- MRS. BISBEE (speaking of their daughter): Suppose she were entertaining a nice young man in her home, and you came in looking like that, with your shoes off, suspenders down, and your breath smelling of cheap liquor?
SAM BISBEE: Cheap? Four dollars a gallon.

Video Availability--DVD, as part of the W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vol. 2 (Universal)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--The story “Mr. Bisbee’s Princess,” on which the film is based, also served as the foundation of Fields’ silent feature So’s Your Old Man (1926).

W.C. Fields Comedy Collection Vol. 1 (The Bank Dick / My Little Chickadee / You Can't Cheat an Honest Man / It's a Gift / International House)


Booze News: W.C. Fields Week Part Deux

>> Monday, March 19, 2007

Salutations and hearty handclasps all around! The W.C. Fields Comedy Collection: Vol. 2 hits store shelves tomorrow, featuring five firewater-fueled comedies from the Great Man:

* You're Telling Me (1934 Paramount)

* The Old Fashioned Way (1934 Paramount)

* The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935 Paramount)

* Poppy (1936 Paramount)

* Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941 Universal)

These features represent some of the crown jewels of soused cinema, so if you don't already have this set on order, pick it up tomorrow. Let's give Universal a reason to release a Volume 3 box!

I'll begin posting reviews of these films later in the week. In the meantime, check out this article from Dave Kehr of the New York Times in which he discusses the DVD set and compares the Great Man's work to that of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu-->Link


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)


Review: White Lightning (1973)

>> Tuesday, March 13, 2007

USA/C-101m./Dir: Joseph Sargent/Wr: William W. Norton/Cast: Burt Reynolds (Gator McKlusky), Ned Beatty (Sheriff J.C. Connors), Jennifer Billingsley (Lou), Bo Hopkins (Roy Boone), Matt Clark (Dude Watson), R.G. Armstrong (Big Bear)

Four years before Burt Reynolds transported beer across state lines in Smokey and the Bandit (1977), he hauled moonshine in White Lightning. As the improbably named good ol’ boy, Gator McKlusky, Burt begins this solid actioner in a prison work camp doing time for runnin’ jug liquor and other minor offenses. When he hears of the murder of his baby brother at the hands of crooked county sheriff, J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty), Gator agrees to help the feds build a case against the corrupt lawman in exchange for his walking papers. Being that Connors is filthy with payoffs from the moonshine racket, the feds think Gator is just the man for the job, but bribery and tax evasion charges may not be the kind of justice that Gator has in mind for the no-good sheriff.

White Lightning is a countrified version of the neo-noir films that sprung up in the Seventies, such as director Joseph Sargent’s much better The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). It’s a tight, well-made flick in the typical, realistic Seventies style, with a few first-rate car chases. The acting is also topnotch, Reynolds included. After all, this is the pre-mustache Burt, back when he actually gave a damn about his performance. Of course, as good as he is, Burt can’t hold a candle to Ned Beatty’s wonderfully slimy turn as a bigoted, dishonest sheriff who refuses to change with the times. Beatty is the primary reason to watch White Lightning, because for all its merits, the picture is instantly forgettable.

Like Robert Mitchum’s cult moonshine movie, Thunder Road (1958), White Lightning contains a lot of drivin’ but not much drinkin’. Still, the film deserves a “Booze Movie” mention based on its subject matter alone. All in all, White Lightning is a well-concocted cocktail, but it’s not quite tasty enough to be ordered for a second round.

Drinks Consumed--Moonshine

Intoxicating Effects
--Slurred speech

Potent Quotables--GATOR: I’m gonna get so goddamned drunk I ain’t gonna know what’s happenin’ when you take me out there on that lake to drown me.
BIG BEAR: You’re gonna have more fun than we are, ain’t ya?
GATOR: Bet your big butt I am.

Video Availability--Unfortunately, White Lightning is only available on DVD in the full frame, pan and scan format (MGM).

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Reynolds reprised the role of Gator McKlusky in the silly sequel, Gator (1976)


Review: Harvey (1950)

>> Wednesday, March 7, 2007

USA/B&W-104m./Dir: Henry Koster/Wr: Mary Chase & Oscar Brodney/Cast: James Stewart (Elwood P. Dowd), Josephine Hull (Veta Louise Simmons), Peggy Dow (Miss Kelly), Charles Drake (Dr. Sanderson), Jesse White (Wilson), Cecil Kellaway (Dr. Chumley)

James Stewart stars as Elwood P. Dowd, an affable alky with an unusual friend named Harvey, in this adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Harvey is a six-foot, three-inch tall rabbit that can only be seen and heard by Elwood. Well, actually, Harvey isn’t a rabbit at all. He’s either a figment of Elwood’s inebriated imagination or a pooka--a fairy spirit in animal form. Of course, Elwood’s unseen pal is a constant source of embarrassment for his live-in relatives, who find there may be more to Harvey than meets the eye when they try to have Elwood committed.

Unlike many stories transported from stage to screen, Harvey never feels stagy. Stewart, revisiting the part he played on the stage, gives one of his very best performances. Two other holdovers from the theater version, Josephine Hull (who bagged the Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and Jesse White, provide dynamic support.

Much like the genial tippler at the center of the story, Harvey is an exceedingly pleasant and charming film without much of an edge. Although Elwood’s drinking is discussed ad nauseam, the boozing is not explicitly displayed on screen. All we really see is Elwood order multiple martinis, while other barflies sip beer in the background. Based on the fact that Elwood’s tippling is spoken of in the same manner as discussions of his bunny buddy, I assume Harvey is meant as a metaphor for the shame some feel in dealing with a drunkard. However, the film also works if viewed on a pure fantasy basis. Consequently, Harvey is a rare movie with adult themes that is appropriate for the entire family.

Drinks Consumed--Gin (martinis) and beer

Intoxicating Effects
--Sneaking sips

Potent Quotables--DR. SANDERSON: Oh, I suppose you take a drink now and then like the rest of us.
ELWOOD: Mmmmmm… Yes. Yes I do, doctor. As a matter of fact, I’d like one right now.

Video Availability--Harvey DVD (Universal)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--If you want to see Jimmy Stewart put away booze, I’d recommend The Philadelphia Story (1940). However, if oversized bunnies are more your bag, you might want to check out Night of the Lepus (1972) or Donnie Darko (2001).


Review: Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

>> Friday, March 2, 2007

USA/C-111m./Dir: Mike Figgis/Wr: Mike Figgis/Cast: Nicolas Cage (Ben Sanderson), Elisabeth Shue (Sera), Julian Sands (Yuri)

Nicolas Cage stars as Ben Sanderson, an alcoholic with a capital “A” in Leaving Las Vegas, the 90’s answer to The Lost Weekend. Ben is a man beset with problems--his wife abandoned him, he lost his job, and the liquor store is always closed when he needs it most--but rather than allowing his troubles to get him down, the determined dipsomaniac formulates a plan. Selling all of his possessions, Ben moves to Las Vegas (where the liquor stores never close) with the ambition of drinking himself to death. A chance encounter with a lonely prostitute (Elisabeth Shue) quickly blossoms into affection, as the two lost souls find solace in each other. Nevertheless, even love is not enough to deter Ben from his pursuit of self destruction.

Although filmed on a low budget on 16mm film stock, Mike Figgis’ indie looks better and packs a bigger punch than most big studio releases. Figgis deserves much of the credit for the picture’s success. He adapted John O’Brien’s novel for the screen, directed, and even composed the melancholy jazz score. However, the film might not have worked at all without Cage’s brave, sympathetic, and occasionally loopy portrayal of Ben, for which he deservedly won an Academy Award. Elisabeth Shue is just as good in a less showy performance, which also received a nomination.

Many viewers dismiss Leaving Las Vegas as being too depressing, but I can’t agree. Certainly, the movie is not without its downbeat moments, but I don’t see Ben as a tragic figure. He simply has a plan, and he’s sticking with it. Neither is the film entirely void of hope. After all, it is predominantly a love story, in which acceptance is shown as the most sincere form of affection and where small acts, such as the lighting of a match or the gift of a flask, are seen as highly romantic gestures. Finally, you must admit there’s an element of wish fulfillment to the picture. After all, there are worse ways to check out than making love to Elisabeth Shue while loaded on liquor. Of course, you may want to take my opinions with a grain of salt, because films about desperate alcoholics always make me thirsty.

Drinks Consumed--Vodka, whisky (bourbon and Scotch), gin, beer, and tequila

Intoxicating Effects--Sneaking sips, slurred speech, staggering, stumbling, bad breath, drunk driving, swearing, public disturbance, passing out, memory blackouts, and the shakes

Potent Quotables--SERA: So, Ben with an “N” (giggle), what brings you to Las Vegas? Business convention?
BEN: No… I came here to drink myself to death. Cashed in all my money, paid my Amex card, gonna sell the car tomorrow.
SERA: So, how long is it gonna take for you to (chuckle) drink yourself to death?
BEN: I think about four weeks. I don’t know for sure, but I think. I got enough for about 250 to $300 a day.
SERA: That should do it.

Video Availability--Leaving Las Vegas DVD (MGM)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Billy Bob Thornton played a suicidal drunk in Bad Santa (2003) with much different results.

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About Me

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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.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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