Review: Tales of Manhattan (deleted W.C. Fields sequence, 1942)

>> Tuesday, June 12, 2007

USA/B&W-12m./Dir: Julian Duvivier/Wr: Edmund Beloin & William Morrow/Cast: W.C. Fields (Professor Postlewhistle), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Langahankie), Phil Silvers (Tailor), Chester Clute (Mr. Langahankie)

Universal Studios unceremoniously dumped W.C. Fields after the completion of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), and the Great Man never found another opportunity to create and star in a film of his own. Of course, W.C. was not completely idle during his later years. He engaged in a lot of elbow bending, did a little radio work, recorded an album (featuring the monologues “The Day I Drank a Glass of Water” and “The Temperance Lecture”), and made brief appearances in four other movies. The first of these films was Tales of Manhattan, a Twentieth Century Fox all-star vehicle which followed a tuxedo tail coat as it moved from owner to owner, each portrayed by one of Fox’s biggest stars (Charles Boyer, Henry Fonda, Edward G. Robinson, etc).

Fields plays Professor Postlewhistle, an unscrupulous huckster who is scheduled to deliver a temperance lecture at the home of the wealthy Mrs. Langahankie (Margaret Dumont). On his way to the engagement, Postlewhistle stops to purchase suitable attire, and he is swindled into purchasing the secondhand tail coat, which he believes to contain the wallet of its previous owner. Dressed in the ill-fitting dinner jacket, Postlewhistle delivers an address on the evils of alcohol and the medicinal benefits of coconut milk. While the Great Man speaks, Mrs. Langahankie and her guests get shellacked on coconut milk (spiked with gin by Mr. Langahankie).

When Tales of Manhattan was previewed for critics, they praised Fields’ work as the highlight of the film, but the picture was overlong, and the studio cut his segment before the movie was released. Today, the public can finally evaluate this late entry in the Great Man’s catalog, because the scene was recently restored. The Tales sequence is far from Fields’ best work, and it is a tad shocking how much his face displays the ravages of age, illness, and excess. Still, the Great Man was incapable of being unfunny, and his numerous adlibs make the brief segment breezy, boozy fun. It should also be noted that this film gives us a rare opportunity to see Fields play a scene off another great huckster comedian, Phil Silvers.

Drinks Consumed--Gin and unnamed liquor

Intoxicating Effects--Stumbling, destruction of property, punch-spiking, and passing out

Potent Quotables--POSTLEWHISTLE: My subject tonight will be “Will alcohol ever take the place of rover as man’s best friend?”

Video Availability
--The deleted scene was reinserted into the VHS release of the film (Fox). On DVD, the segment and alternative takes can be viewed on Hidden Hollywood, Vol. 2 - More Treasures from the 20th Century Fox Vaults (Image). Catch the latter if you can, because Fields’ adlibs in the outtakes are often funnier than what was left in the picture.

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Fields also decries the effects of demon alcohol in the funniest short subject ever made, The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933).


Unknown July 16, 2007 at 1:02 PM  

It's great to see this sequence, but even though it's been put back it, it is still apparently incomplete.

PR stills show Fields talking to Dumont in the back of her limo; this presumably is the setup for his later lecture at her home. The scene as it stands picks up with the limo driving away, and we have no idea why.

Nor is there any indication of how the tux got BACK to Silvers' store, from which it was later stolen, after the temperance lecture.

Very odd. I wonder if the other footage exists, somewhere...

garv July 16, 2007 at 5:19 PM  


Welcome to Booze Movies. Thanks for the info on the W.C. Fields Tales of Manhattan sequence. I wasn't aware that the version inserted back into the film begins after Fields has exited the car.

I watched the sequence on the Hidden Hollywood #2 DVD. That version begins inside the secondhand clothing store with Silvers and his partner planning their con. We are then introduced to Fields, his valet, and Dumont inside the limo. This does in fact set up the premise of the segment. I'm surprised it was cut for the film.

The Hidden Hollywood #2 disc also includes several outtakes which display how far Fields tended to drift from the script. Every take is different and equally hilarious. I'd recommend picking up Hidden Hollywood #2 (or renting it through Netflix). Although this isn't Fields' best work, it's a treat to see him ad libbing on the set. I wonder if more Fields outtakes are waiting to be discovered somewhere deep in Paramount or Universal's film vaults. They would be nuggets of 100-proof gold.

Unknown December 8, 2008 at 2:51 PM  

Thanks for the follow-up. Just saw the comment about the footage I had FIGURED was missing on another site and googled back to this one. I'm glad to hear, at least, that it is out there and waiting to be "found"...

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