>> Sunday, September 22, 2013
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.