Review: Mississippi (1935)

>> Sunday, September 22, 2013

USA/B&W-73 m./Dir: A. Edward Sutherland/Wr: Francis Martin & Jack Cunningham/Cast: Bing Crosby (Tom Grayson), W.C. Fields (Commodore Jackson), Joan Bennett (Lucy Rumford), Gail Patrick (Elvira Rumford), Queenie Smith (Alabam), Claude Gillingwater (Gen. Rumford), John Miljan (Maj. Patterson)

W.C. Fields’ best comedies (The Fatal Glass of Beer, It’s a Gift, The Bank Dick, etc.) were projects that he initiated and scripted.  However, the majority of Fields’ filmography consists of studio assignments that the comedian improved exponentially through copious adlibbing.  Mississippiis one of the most entertaining examples of a contractual obligation that the Great Man made his own. 

Mississippi was conceived as a straightforward adaptation of the Booth Tarkington play, The Magnolia, which had been mined for film fodder previously in 1924 and 1929.  The melodrama was to feature singer Lanny Ross; but at the last minute, the studio decided to turn the production into a star vehicle for their most popular crooner, Bing Crosby.  However, when Fields ignored the script entirely and padded his secondary part with hilarious improvisations, the film ended up as a greater showcase for Fields than for Der Bingle.


Set in the planation-era South, the story concerns a violence-adverse Philadelphian, Tom Grayson (Crosby), who is engaged to the eldest daughter of plantation-owner General Rumford (Claude Gillingwater).  When a former beau of the bride-to-be challenges Tom to a duel, he refuses to fight.  This discredits the Philly crooner in the eyes of the Rumford clan, with the exception of younger daughter Lucy (Joan Bennett) who harbors a crush on the pacifist.  With the nuptials called off, Tom takes a singing gig aboard a showboat skippered by mint julep-swilling Commodore Jackson (Fields).  After a tussle in which Tom kills a man in self-defense, the Commodore finds he can profit by promoting Tom as “The Singing Killer.”  Misunderstandings proliferate when Lucy boards the riverboat and hears the exaggerated stories of Tom’s murderous reputation.

When Crosby saw the initial previews of Mississippi, he was horrified.  The director had given W.C. free reign to create his own bits of physical comedy and dialogue, and the comic had stolen the picture out from under the star.  Furious, Bing demanded that another song be added to the film and that some of Fields’ footage be trimmed (including an entire sequence in which the Great Man attempted to play a steam-powered calliope).  Although the studio heads consented to Crosby’s changes, W.C. Fields still dominates the final cut of the film.  The comedian receives as much screen time as the crooner, and his boozy business outshines everything else in the picture.

Being that the Great Man was given carte blanche to rewrite and expand his scenes, Mississippi has a more Fieldsian feel than most of his studio-assigned outings.  Quotable lines abound; and a crooked poker game involving far too many aces was transformed from a brief throwaway scene on the page to a comedy classic thanks to Fields' improvised business.  Mississippi also has a higher alcohol content than most Fields’ output, due in large part to a running gag in which a steward delivers a mint julep whenever the Commodore has a free hand.  While Mississippi is not as essential as the gems that Fields built from the ground up, lovers of classic comedy and soused cinema enthusiasts should consider it a “must see.”

Drinks Consumed--Bourbon whiskey (in mint juleps, shots, with soda, and in spiked punch), wine, and unknown cocktails

Intoxicating Effects
--Boasting, bravado, stumbling, and swearing of a sort

Potent Quotables--GEN. RUMFORD: And here… Here is a little jug of liquor.
COMMODORE: Oh, thank you.  A nice little noggin, yes.
GEN. RUMFORD: Yeah.  It’s made right here on the plantation, so you needn’t be afraid of it.
COMMODORE: Never been frightened of liquor in all my life.

Video Availability--DVD, as part of The Universal Backlot Series: Bing Crosby Collection (Universal)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--That same year, Fields’ fellow Ziegfeld Follies cast mate, Will Rogers, also starred as a steamboat captain in the alcohol-laced comedy Steamboat Round the Bend.

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Review: Wings (1927)

>> Monday, September 2, 2013

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USA/Silent/B&W-144m./Dir: William A. Wellman/Wr: Hope Loring & Louis D. Lighton/Cast: Charles “Buddy” Rogers (Jack Powell), Richard Arlen (David Armstrong), Clara Bow (Mary Preston), Jobyna Ralston (Sylvia Lewis), El Brendel (Herman Schwimpf), Gary Cooper (Cadet White)

Wings,the winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture, can barely be considered a “Booze Movie.”  It only contains one extended soused sequence in which World War I pilots enjoy a drunken leave in Paris.  However, that small, 20-minute slice from the 144-minute film is so bizarre and memorable that I would be remiss not to mention it.

The movie itself is the story of two young men from the same small town, speed demon Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and rich kid David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), that are both in love with the same woman.  Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), the girl in question, truly loves David, but through a mix-up that could only happen in the movies, Jack gets the impression that Sylvia shares his affections.  To further complicate the melodrama, Jack’s neighbor, Mary Preston (Clara Bow), harbors a Godzilla-sized crush on the boy next door, but her not-so-subtle wooing goes unnoticed by the dim-witted Jack.

When war is declared, both Jack and David volunteer for the Air Service to become fighter pilots.  Due to their romantic rivalry, they begin as adversaries, but they soon forge a fast friendship.  That bond becomes even stronger as they dogfight with German biplanes in the skies above France.  The women are marginalized as the story basically morphs into a love story between the two men, punctuated by impressive aerial photography.

The soused sequence appears midway through the running time.  Jack and David awarded R & R in Paris for exceptional valor in battle; and coincidentally, Mary Preston is also in the city doing her part for the war effort.  When Mary overhears that leaves are being cancelled due to a major offensive, she goes searching for the boy next door.  She finds Jack at the Folies Bergere with David and another soldier, guzzling champagne and cavorting with loose women.  At this point, the scene goes cuckoo bananas.  Jack begins to hallucinate, envisioning cartoon bubbles rising from the champagne.  Soon he is seeing bubbles everywhere.  The sequence is second only to the “Pink Elephants on Parade” number from Dumbo (1941) when it comes to hallucinogenic drunk scenes.

Mary tries to convince Jack to return to the front, but he is so enamored with the bubbles, he doesn’t acknowledge or recognize her.  Eventually, Mary resorts to donning a sparkly dress to lure Jack away from scene, boasting that she has better bubbles than the French girls.  The scene ends with Jack passing out in a hotel room, while Mary gets caught changing her clothes (an excuse for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it topless scene from Clara Bow).

While Wings is the only silent film to receive the top Oscar until 2011’s The Artist, it isn’t a very good example of silent drama.  The movie is excessively melodramatic and corny, the performances are often over-the-top, and the comedy relief is generally unfunny.  Still, the film is worth seeing for its aerial battle scenes.  In this age of CGI action, it is thrilling to see real people in real planes performing death-defying stunts.  The flight scenes are even more electrifying when you realize that the actors had to fly the planes themselves during much of the action.  The aerial action and bizarre booziness, make the film well worth a view.

Drinks Consumed--Extremely bubbly champagne and unnamed cocktails

Intoxicating Effects--Hallucinations, blurred vision, brawling, destruction of property, harmonizing, staggering, passing out, and memory blackouts

Potent Quotables--JACK (commenting on the champagne): H’ray for bubbles!

 
Video Availability--Wings is available in a wonderfully sharp transfer on Blu-rayand DVDfrom Paramount.

Similarly Sauced Cinema--A baby elephant has similar alcohol-related hallucinations in Dumbo (1941)

Trivia--While Wings is considered the first “Best Picture” Oscar winner, in reality, two films were awarded top prize at the 1927/1928 Academy Awards.  Wings was awarded “Outstanding Picture” and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise was awarded “Best Unique and Artistic Production.”  The latter category was phased out the following year, while “Outstanding Picture” was later renamed “Best Picture.”

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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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