It is, indeed, a gift

March 5, 2014

W.C. Fields

W.C. Fields

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have been eavesdropping on Jim Beckerman’s telephone conversation. We were colleagues in newspaper journalism; we worked in a newsroom and we were accustomed to shutting out the phone chatter going on all around us. But every once in a while, a phrase or a clause would penetrate the shield. If a person within earshot were to say, “Was it a homicide?”, for example, we would notice that.

Something like that happened one day when I was standing near Jim’s desk, but he didn’t get my attention by mentioning a homicide or a fire or an FBI raid on yet another mayor’s office in New Jersey. I don’t recall now exactly what he said. It could have been, “Never mind Norman’s skates!” or “I didn’t know oranges were bad for the heart,” or “Mr. Abernathy here has to get his commission.” I don’t know exactly what it was, but I do know that it was a line from the 1939 movie It’s A Gift. 

"I wouldn't ride across the country with that man for a million dollars!"

“I wouldn’t ride across the country with that man for a million dollars!”

In this film, W.C. Fields plays Harold Bissonette (pronounced, his nagging wife, Amelia, insists, “Biss-uh-NAY). Harold is a grocer in the fictional town of Wappingers Falls, New Jersey, but when he unexpectedly inherits some money he sells his corner store and buys an orange ranch in California. His wife, brilliantly played by Kathleen Howard, and his daughter, Mildred, are outraged. Only his hyperactive son, Norman, is enthusiastic about the move. Moreover, Mildred’s boyfriend, John Durston, who sold the orange grove to Harold, knows that the property is worthless but can’t convince Harold of that. After an eventful trip across country, Harold finds that John Durston was correct — at least to the extent that the land won’t support an orange grove — but Harold also learns from a nearby farmer, Mr. Abernathy, that developers need the place to complete a racetrack project. “You’re an old fool,” Amelia tells Harold after learning that the family is going to be rich, “but I can’t help loving you.”

"Do you want me to cut my throat? ... Evidently do."

“If you want me to cut my throat, keep that up. … Evidently do.”

It’s a Gift is regarded by many film critics as one of the funniest movies ever made. We didn’t know that when we became addicted to it at our house. We just knew that we thought it was funny enough to watch again and again, and eventually we began to recite the dialogue. I don’t mean that we repeated certain lines, such as “Yes, Mrs. Casterini, I would love some oatmeal” from Moonstruck or “I’m givin’ you pearls here, son,” from Scent of a Woman. No, I mean that we recited whole speeches, such as Amelia’s rant to her beleaguered husband:

“I don’t know how you expect anybody to get any sleep, hopping in and out of bed all night, tinkering around the house, waiting up for telephone calls. You have absolutely no consideration for anybody but yourself. I have to get UP in the morning, get breakfast for YOU and the children. I have no MAID, you know. Probably never shall have.”

"The public is buying them up like hotcakes!"

“The public is buying them up like hotcakes!”

And we recited scenes, sometimes to the consternation or confusion of others who were waiting for a table at a restaurant or riding on the same ferry in the North Atlantic. One such was a conversation between the Bissonettes’ upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Dunk (Josephine Whittell), and her daughter, Abby (Diana Lewis), who has been dispatched to buy something to settle the stomach of Baby Dunk. Harold, escaping from Amelia’s nagging, is trying to sleep on the back porch of his second-floor apartment. Mrs. Dunk is on the porch above him, and Abby is already in the back yard:

Mrs. Dunk: Don’t forget the ipecac!
Abby: I thought you said syrup of squill.
Mrs. Dunk: I can’t hear you, talk louder!
Abby: I thought you said syrup of squill.
Mrs. Dunk: All right, syrup of squill. I don’t care.
Abby: I don’t care either. I’ll get ipecac if you want me to.
Mrs. Dunk: Well, ipecac or syrup of squill. I don’t care which.
Abby: I don’t care either. You tell me what to get and I’ll get it.
Mrs. Dunk: Get whichever one you want. I don’t care. Whatever they have handy. It’s just the same to me.
Abby: It’s just the same to me, too. I hate ’em both. Oh, where will I go? To Jones’s?
Mrs. Dunk: Use your own judgment.
Abby: No, you tell me where to go.
Harold (muttering): I’d like tell both of you where to go.

Enter Amelia, who overhears this dialogue and comes out onto the porch:

Amelia: Who were those women you were talking to?
Harold: Mrs. Dunk upstairs.
Amelia: Seems to me you’re getting pretty familiar with Mrs. Dunk — upstairs!
Harold: They were talking to me, I wasn’t talking to them.

"Just a little glassware."

“Just a little glassware.”

It wasn’t until I overheard Jim’s end of a telephone conversation that I realized that my family and I weren’t the only ones who at will could perform large chunks of dialogue from It’s a Gift. Recently I have seen several strings on Facebook in which one user  posted a line from the film and a stream of “friends” immediately started chiming in with others.

Why is this true? One reason may be that this script wasn’t turned out by a team of college-educated writers who were handed a premise and ordered to be funny within the limitations of the budget. This was the combined work of Fields himself, who had been seasoned by years on the stage, J.P. McEvoy, a veteran magazine writer,  and Jack Cunningham, who had been writing screenplays since 1917. McEvoy, by the way, created the newspaper comic strip Dixie Dugan, which ran from 1929 to 1966.

It’s probably because of the combined experience of these men that there is scarcely a line  or exchange in It’s a Gift that isn’t funny. The script is hard to match on that account, and the fact that it was assigned to a brilliantly wackadoodle cast of characters completes the package.

One of the most famous scenes from this movie involves a salesman who is pitching annuity policies. This character was played by T. Roy Barnes (pictured above in the gray fedora), who died at the age of 56 less than three years after It’s a Gift was released but achieved film immortality with his search for a potential client, Carl LaFong. The salesman’s conversation with Harold takes place during the “porch scene,” and you can see that whole sequence at THIS LINK.

Sally - 1Watching silent movies always gives me a melancholy feeling. I think the sensation comes from a wistful and naive attraction to the era in which those films were made — an era that was gone long before I was born. The mood comes over me almost regardless of the film I’m watching, whether  it is drama or comedy.

And so it was with a mixed response that I watched D.W. Griffith’s 1925 comedy Sally of the Sawdust, in which the leading players were W.C. Fields, Carol Dempster, and Alfred Lunt. This film, which is based on Poppy, a 1923 stage musical, is lighter fare than usually comes to mind when Griffith’s name is mentioned, but it has dark undertones as well.

Fields plays “Professor” Eustace McGargle, a circus juggler and con man who befriends a single mother and her daughter, Sally (Dempster). After the mother dies, McGargle briefly considers returning Sally to her grandparents in the fictional New York suburb of Green Meadows, but he has a genuine affection for the child and decides to keep her with him.

Sally - 2

As Sally grows, McGargle also uses her as a dancing warm-up to his own act. When their fortunes are at a low ebb, the pair wind up in Green Meadow where they work at a charity carnival while McGargle prepares to finally restore the girl to her family, who have have benefitted financially from a real estate boom in the area. Although the handsome son (Lunt) of a local tycoon falls in love with Sally, his father is repelled by the idea of such a match and does what he can to prevent it by having McGargle and Sally arrested on the basis of the professor’s three-card monte operation. There are parallel frenetic scenes as Sally attempts to escape from custody and McGargle purloins a tin lizzy and leads a gang of bootleggers on a wild chase as he attempts to reach town and his distressed ward. To make a long story short, they all live happily ever after.

CAROL DEMPSTER

CAROL DEMPSTER

One impression I couldn’t shake is that this film, which appeared toward the end of Griffith’s career, was longer than it had to be. The story is thin and obvious, and the twin sequences of Sally’s escape and McGargle’s chase, go on too long by about a third.

Still, it was interesting to watch Fields, who in his later career made so much of verbal comedy, perform for an hour and a half in silence. Also, McGargle foreshadows other roles Fields would play but, except for Wilkins Macawber in David Copperfield, his characters didn’t face situations quite as grave as the one McGargle wrestled with. Fields would get to reprise this role in Poppy, a 1936 sound version of the same story.

I found Carol Dempster to be very appealing as Sally. She was one of Griffith’s discoveries and appeared in many of his films, and she was also for a time his lover. While I was watching Sally in the Sawdust, my wife came into the room and remarked that Dempster was kind of forlorn-looking. That struck me, too, and I read that Dempster attracted critical remarks on that account at the time she was making these movies. But I found that slightly hangdog quality both suitable and, in its own way, attractive. Evidently, at least some film critics now feel the same way.

A significant factor in my enjoyment of this film was the score that was written and performed, on a digital piano, by Donald Sosin.

I’m going to watch this film again and use the pause button several times. As with most silent films that were shot on locations, I often found myself transfixed by the background, by the storefronts and the signs and the cars and the structures that were serving their purpose on a long-ago day when Griffith’s camera happened to capture them.

Sally - 4