#278) It’s a Gift (1934)
OR “W.C., WTF?”
Directed by Norman McLeod
Written by Jack Cunningham. Based on a story by Charles Bogle (aka W.C. Fields) and the play “The Comic Supplement” by J.P. McEvoy.
Class of 2010
No trailer, so here’s a clip of W.C. Fields trying to eat a sandwich.
The Plot: Harold Bissonette (W.C. Fields) is a long-suffering husband and father who runs a grocery in Jersey. When his Uncle Bean dies, Harold moves the family to California and buys property to start his own orange grove. And that’s it plot-wise. The rest of this movie is populated by one W.C. Fields bit after another.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls Fields “one of the greatest American comedians of the 20th century” and gives special mention to the “sleeping on the back porch” comic set-piece.
But Does It Really?: Am I missing something with W.C. Fields? I’ve always heard what a landmark comedian he is, but I gotta say, so far he’s not impressing me. “It’s a Gift” is several of Fields’ vaudeville routines strung together into a film. This, of course, was more than enough entertainment value in 1934, but unfortunately the bits suffer today from a deadly combination of dated and slow. I may have to retract my post about “So’s Your Old Man” not being Registry-worthy: at least it attempted a plot. “It’s a Gift” gets a slight pass from me on its reputation, but “The Bank Dick” better bring its A-game.
Everybody Gets One: Norman Z. McLeod has directed several comedies I would deem “minor classics” should they ever make the NFR. No one thinks of “Horse Feathers” when you list off the classic Marx Brothers movies, nor “Topper” when talking about great Cary Grant comedies. But the main takeaway from “It’s a Gift” is child actor Ronald Le Roy Overacker, billed as “Baby LeRoy”. He was two years old when he filmed “It’s a Gift”, and was the youngest person ever signed to a studio contract. Baby LeRoy squared off with W.C. Fields in three films, and apparently Fields actually didn’t like working with his two-year-old co-star.
Wow, That’s Dated: In addition to the very dated comedy bits about a henpecked husband and his shrewish wife, we get the lost profession of grocer, plus married couples with separate twin beds.
- Why do comedians always have such domineering wives in the movies? You know what, don’t answer that. I think I know why, I just don’t want to admit it.
- Speaking of, Kathleen Howard (Amelia) was an opera singer in the 1910s, and “It’s a Gift” was one of her earliest film roles. It shows. You can clock her stage background from a mile away.
- Is there any greater comedy word than “kumquat”? It has two K sounds!
- Oh man, this film is so grating. The kids are annoying, Fields can be a lot, even the guy shouting “kumquat” gets old.
- Uncle Bean died from choking on an orange. Was he in “The Godfather”?
- And then we get to the comic set-piece of Fields trying to sleep on the back porch of his housing unit. It’s so…long. Part of that is the extended pauses, because films were edited to give large theater audiences time to laugh. Watching this film by myself 84 years later, the delayed timing dragged down the comedy.
- Everyone in this movie hates each other and has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I don’t need to sympathize with film characters, but I do need a reason to keep watching.
- Once the family moves to California things pick up. The trouble is there’s only about 20 minutes left in the movie. I suspect Fields’ work would be better off being divvied up into shorts, but I can’t fault him for wanting to be a movie star.
- Fields’ next role would be one of his most acclaimed: that of Wilkins Micawber in MGM’s film version of “David Copperfield”.
- Not necessarily connected to “It’s a Gift”, but it bears repeating: In 1939, comedy writer Leo Rosten was a speaker at a tribute to W.C. Fields, and summed Fields up by saying “any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad.” This has evolved over the years to the nonexistent W.C. Fields quote “Never work with animals or kids.”