>> Tuesday, February 12, 2008
USA/Silent/B&W-90m./Dir: Edward Sutherland/Wr: Tom J. Geraghty & J. Clarkson Miller (based on the play by Joseph Patrick McEvoy and stage sketches by W.C. Fields)/Cast: W.C. Fields (Elmer Prettywillie), Louise Brooks (Marilyn Sheridan), Blanche Ring (Tessie Overholt), William Gaxton (George Parker), Mary Foy (Sarah Pancoast), Mickey Bennett (Mickey)
Although W.C. Fields is mainly remembered as a verbal comedian, he began his career as a pantomime juggler, and his comedic performances were always heightened by the physical dexterity and expressive gestures that he developed on the stage. Those skills were especially invaluable for the twelve films that the Great Man made during the silent era, most of which have been lost due to disinterest and disintegration. Luckily, one of the best and most important films of Fields’ silent output, It’s the Old Army Game, survives today for us to analyze and enjoy.
Fields portrays Elmer Prettywillie, a small-town pharmacist beset with large-scale frustrations--his nagging sister and her brat of a kid; annoying customers; self-centered, middle-aged women; and uncooperative inanimate objects of all kinds. Prettywillie’s lovely shop assistant (legendary silent beauty Louise Brooks) gets the harried shopkeeper even further over his head, when she encourages him to take part in a land-selling scheme being promoted by a slick salesman (George Parker). The druggist helps the salesman make a heap of cash, selling his parcels of land; but when a detective hauls the salesman out of town, it’s Elmer who is left holding the bag.
During most of Fields’ silent career, he was frustrated at either being relegated to secondary parts or working with filmmakers that didn’t understand his character. It’s the Old Army Game was a notable exception. It was the first feature in which Fields was trusted with star billing and a share of creative control. The Great Man took advantage of the opportunity and packed the film with material cannibalized from his popular stage sketches. The resulting film was disjointed (as were most of the comedian’s subsequent movies), but it was undeniably funny. For the first time, audiences were able to see the seeds of Fields’ comic persona--an excessively harassed man, often displaying ill temper in the face of simpletons, nagging relatives, and obnoxious children. They also got a first look at material that Fields would hone and present in revised form in The Pharmacist (1933) and It’s a Gift (1934), including the classic “front porch” scene in which Fields is constantly interrupted as he tries to get some shuteye on an unsteady porch swing. While the “front porch” routine and other familiar bits were funnier in Fields’ later movies, benefiting from the sound of the Great Man’s distinctive nasal mutterings, It’s the Old Army Game is more than just a fascinating historical relic. It’s quite amusing in it’s own right.
Of course, W.C. was not only the greatest comedian in motion picture history; he was also filmdom’s greatest proponent of the drinking lifestyle. It’s the Old Army Game provides only a few tantalizing hints of the alky side of the Great Man’s character. In an early scene, a customer asks Prettywillie for “something for the hip,” and before selling bootleg booze to the thirsty patron, the clever druggist uses an electric fan to check under the man’s suit coat for a badge that would indicate a Prohibition agent. The only other suggestion of imbibing comes during the film’s climactic chase. As townspeople try to outrun the druggist, Prettywillie tosses objects from his pockets to lighten his load. The only possession that he doesn’t discard is his flask, which he quickly returns to his back pocket. Some things are more important than the threat of jail.
Drinks Consumed--Unnamed alcohol is dispensed, but none is consumed
Potent Quotables--ELMER (to a Prohibition agent that has asked to purchase alcohol): Would you have me break the laws of our glorious country to satisfy your depraved taste?
Video Availability--Sunrise Silents offers a decent print of this rare silent feature on DVD in both U.S. (NTSC) and European (PAL) formats, and the screen shots that accompany this article were taken from their release. You won’t find It’s the Old Army Game listed on the Sunrise Silents Website, but if you contact them via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), they will send you pricing and order information.
Similarly Sauced Cinema--Many sequences in It’s the Old Army Game were reworked in Fields’ masterpiece, It’s a Gift (1934), including the “front porch” and “picnic” scenes.
It's the Old Army Game (DVD)