>> 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)