It's a Gift (1934)
It's a Gift (1934) is often cited as W. C. Fields' best and funniest picture - it is undoubtedly one of the greatest, classic comedies ever made, although it is probably less well-known than his other two masterpieces: The Bank Dick (1940) and My Little Chickadee (1940). It was his sixteenth (out of twenty-eight) sound film - this time directed by Norman McLeod (director for the Marx Bros.' Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932)). The screenplay by Jack Cunningham was based on a story by Charles Bogle (Fields himself, under an alias). The core of the film remade his silent film It's the Old Army Game (1926) - a collection of gags from his best Ziegfeld Follies vaudeville sketches that co-starred Louise Brooks. Like all other Fields' films, this film wasn't nominated for an Academy Award.
Typical of Fields' films, he lampoons all the things in life he disliked the most: children, family life, salesmen, bothersome neighbors, and shrewish, nagging wives. The comedian/actor appears in virtually every scene as a hassled grocer, with a running monologue lampooning human behavior with masterful verbal humor. Memorable characters have a diversity of strange names - Muckle, the Dunks, and Bissonette himself (pronounced with dignity and social pretension: 'Bis-son-ay,' something that the characters are constantly corrected and reminded about in the film).
The classic American comedy is composed of four key sequences, parts of which had been past sketches in his repertoire:
- at home
- at the grocery store (with the classic scene of blind, hard-of-hearing Mr. Muckle wrecking the store)
- on the backporch (with the great scene of Harold's encounter with a salesman)
- a geographical move westward to California to search for a better life among the orange groves
The credits play over a back-projected view of downtown Hollywood. The Bissonette family (with Pop driving, Mom in the passenger seat, and the two children in the back seat) is the archetypal American family. They are seated in the open car that tours down the urban street. "California Here I Come" plays on the soundtrack. At the credits sequence progresses, the backdrop changes to country road scenes.
At Home with His Family
Mr. Harold Bissonette (W. C. Fields), the universal underdog, is the inept, bumbling proprietor of a small-town general store in Wappinger Falls, New Jersey, as well as the helpless, henpecked, long-suffering victim of a shrewish wife Amelia (Kathleen Howard). His life, values and endurance are forever in conflict with many daily indignities, suffered at the hands of his annoying family, relatives, neighbors and customers. [Note: The location of the town is found on a posted letter addressed to Harold. However, there is no Wappinger Falls, New Jersey, only a Wappingers Falls, New York, in reality.]
A postman delivers a letter - addressed to Mr. Harold Bissonette - to the front of a three-story apartment house on a suburban street. Amelia shrieks at Junior, 8 year-old son Norman Bissonette (Tommy Bupp) for skating around the house: "Stop that racket. Give me that letter! And take those skates off, I told you. Clattering up and down the stairs all day." It is early morning and the family has just received a letter from Aunt Matilda about the expected demise of Uncle Bean. Loud-mouthed Norman blurts out his father's overriding dream to move to California and buy an orange grove and ranch with the inheritance money: "Hey Ma! If Uncle Bean dies, Pop's gonna buy an orange ranch out in California, ain't he?" Norman teases that the move would separate his demanding, prim sister Mildred (Jean Rouverol) from her boyfriend, salesman John Durston (Julian Madison).
Weary, Harold must cope with another day of headaches. In a classic bathroom sequence, he is in the one-bathroom in the house, attempting to shave peacefully. His selfish, domineering, and indifferent daughter Mildred taps on the door and then moves in after being invited in by her father's drawl:
Mildred: Pop, hurry up. I want to come in.
Harold: Well, come on in. I'm only shaving.
When she barges in, he is in front of the medicine cabinet, shaving with a straight razor in his hand. The willful daughter ignores him, monopolizes the space, and opens the medicine cabinet door to find her lipstick. Harold moves to the side and continues shaving. But after finding her lipstick, she closes the cabinet door, uses the mirror, and applies her lipstick. So Harold moves around, trying to see into the mirror from behind her. She continually threatens to jiggle and hit her father's shaving arm that is precariously poised with a sharp razor.
Mildred opens the cabinet door, a second time, to find her hair comb. Harold once more moves around to the side to use the mirror - just as she shuts the cabinet door. Once again from behind, he attempts to see past her as she flips her hair back with her comb. He gets a wad of her hair in his mouth and lets out a bleating, choking gasp.
Giving up on the medicine cabinet mirror, he tries to use the blurry reflection from the bottom of a concave tin can, but that is also dangerous - he almost cuts off his ear. Mildred begins to gargle with mouthwash. Each time, her gargling causes him to jump. He snaps:
If you want me to cut my throat, keep that up! (She gargles again and he mumbles) Evidently do.
The harried man finally resorts to hanging a small, round hand mirror from a light pullcord in the middle of the bathroom so that he can shave, but it revolves. To shave, he must follow it around in an uncomfortable and awkward position. As it turns more rapidly, he takes quick swings and swipes at his neck as it passes by. Finally, he climbs up on a wooden chair and sits up on its back to raise himself up to the mirror's level. But he falls off while stroking with the sharp razor and nearly cuts himself. He tilts the hand mirror so that it is parallel with the floor, and then reclines back across the chair to finish shaving. When Mildred has finished her gargling, toothbrushing and beauty routine, she leaves the bathroom. His wife Amelia enters to ask the logical question, making him look like an idiot by pointing to the now-vacant bathroom mirror:
Amelia: What kind of tomfoolery are you up to now?
Harold: I'm shaving.
Amelia: Why don't you shave over there? (pointing to the now-vacant bathroom mirror)
Harold: Because she, uh, excuse me....
Amelia: Of all the driveling idiots. Hurry up and come into breakfast.
Harold: I'll be down in half a tick.
On his way to breakfast, a neatly-dressed Harold emerges in the hallway, where one of Norman's roller skates sits ominously in the lower right half of the frame. On first approach, he is momentarily distracted and turns away from the skate. But then, of course, he turns and steps on the stray skate and does a perfect pratfall as he exclaims: "Beautiful morning, isn't it?" - he somersaults spectacularly into the living/dining room. Amelia shouts:
Don't be kicking Norman's skates around the house. I've just had them fixed.
After exclaiming: "Suffering sciatica," Amelia orders him: "Get up off the floor." He assures her: "Coming, coming, coming, coming." His young son encourages him with laughter:
Norman: Do it again, Pop! Ha, ha.
Harold: Shut up!
Amelia: Did you hurt yourself, dear?
Harold: Shut... (he catches himself) No, no I didn't, thanks dear. (To Norman) Where's your other skate?
Norman: I got it on.
Harold: (gesturing) Well go and put that one on!
Amelia: Norman, I told you to take those skates off.
Harold: Yeah, go and take those skates off.
He is expected to share breakfast with his horrible family, sit at the table, and engage in conversation. Totally befuddled after rising from the floor, Harold, in a clever substitution gag, removes the boutonniere carnation from his buttonhole and jams the flower in his mouth. He then sticks his cigar into a water glass and lights the flower. Amelia nags:
- What are you trying to light the flower for?
- Don't smoke at the table.
- Don't throw matches on the floor.
The topic of conversation centers around the expected demise of the distant uncle ("the doctors say he's at death's door") and how much will be received from his expected inheritance. Norman keeps referring to Harold's secret wish to buy an "orange ranch" sight unseen, and move to California if Uncle Bean doesn't pull through. Harold is left without any sugar for his cup of coffee as everyone else uses all the sugar. He threatens his son and tries to kick him under the table. The bratty boy taunts him: "Ha, ha, you missed me":
Norman: What's the matter, Pop? Don't you love me anymore?
Harold: (pulling back his arm as if to swat his son) Certainly I love ya.
Amelia (shrieking): Don't you strike that child!
Harold: Well, he's not gonna tell me I don't love him.
His daughter, upset at the idea of moving to California, runs from the table. His complaining, harpie wife lectures at him and criticizes his insane and ridiculous plan - complaining that it will gamble away what little they already have:
Amelia: Harold, I want one thing settled. If you get any money from your Uncle Bean, you are not going to buy an orange ranch with it.
Harold: Oh, no, no, no, no.
Her voice becomes overpowering as she moves from one grievance and complaint to another, and he distractedly over-salts his food:
Amelia: Don't try that innocent look with me. We need things in the house. I haven't a STITCH to my back! The children need clothes. And we should have a car...I don't know where you get the idea you can make money raising oranges when you can't even run a corner grocery store.
Harold: I know a lot about raising oranges.
Amelia: What are you so nervous about? You haven't eaten a bite.
Harold: I'm not hungry.
Amelia: Well, that won't be worth eating if you put any more salt on it.
Harold: Oh, no, no, no, no.
Apropos of nothing and to break Amelia's endless string of nagging complaints, he picks up the skate and asks: "How much did it cost to fix these skates?" Hearing the eight o'clock whistle blow, he retreats into the kitchen as his wife's voice continues to jabber away at him with incessant commentary.
Wait, I'm not through with you. Now I KNOW you've got something on your mind. You're CONSTANTLY doing things behind my back and I know nothing about them till you're in some sort of a SCRAPE and I have to get you out. Remember that scheme to revive the celluloid collar you had a couple of years ago? Well, THAT was going to make us a fortune. WHERE is it? Now you've got an orange ranch on your mind. Well, nothing will come of it. You're not going to drag me and the children across this country, away from friends and relatives. If any money comes into this family, I'M going to handle it and put it to some practical purpose. And THAT'S that...
There in the kitchen, his daughter Mildred also gripes and berates him for taking her away from the people she likes, as he strains and "yesses" his wife to assure her that he is listening from afar:
Mildred: You're just trying to ruin the lives and future of everybody in this family.
Mildred: You don't care how much you take me away from people I like.
Amelia: Harold, are you listening to me?
Harold: Oh yes, yes, dear, go on, go on...
Amelia: What did I say last?
Harold: Yes, yes, every word of it, yes..
Mildred: I never knew such an ungrateful father.
Harold: (to Mildred) Listen, you've all got to realize one thing that I (he tentatively glances in the direction of his wife, and then whispers so his wife won't hear) am the master of this household.
Harold: Yes, dear?
Amelia: I don't know why it is that everytime I want to talk to you, you're off in some other part of the house. I have to shout, SHOUT, SHOUT! No wonder the neighbors know all about our private affairs. I get little enough opportunity as it is to find out what's going on, without you running away as if I had the SMALLPOX or something. Every time I open my MOUTH...
Harold tiptoes out of the kitchen, into the hallway, and then down the stairs. He sneaks out of the house to avoid the lecture that his wife is delivering.
At the Grocery Store
The next sequence is one of the funniest routines ever filmed - a marvelous collection of slapstick and sight gags. Now the ever-accommodating victim of his store customers, Harold arrives at his small grocery store which he runs with the assistance of an inept helper Everett Ricks (Tammany Young). Everett functions as a focus of exasperation for Harold. While Harold is distracted by a young girl who holds up a piece of chalk and asks if he wants to play hopskotch on the sidewalk, Everett unlocks one of the store's two front paneled doors. Harold returns to fiddling with his key to open the door. When he notices one panel of the front door is already open, he proceeds into the store without unlocking the second door.
In the back office, Harold, in classic befuddlement, fusses around while putting on his white coat and hat. At fault for doing the right thing, Everett speaks to Harold about the door:
Everett: The door was open.
Harold: I know now it was open, and don't talk to people with a toothpick in your mouth. It's impolite. (Harold is the one with a toothpick in his mouth)
Long-suffering Harold is quickly bedeviled by his eccentric customers in a scene of utter chaos. The first customer, already in the store, is pompous, impatient Jasper Fitchmueller (Morgan Wallace) who insists on ten pounds of cumquats as quickly as possible. After a delay when Harold fantasizes about his California orange grove while contemplating a brochure, the customer asks a second time in a louder voice: "How about my cumquats?" Harold rushes around responding: "Coming, coming..." Harold finds his foot stuck in the wastepaper basket. [Harold is probably unwilling to admit that he has none, or doesn't even know what they are!]
The most difficult customer, a blind, cantankerous deaf house detective named Mr. Muckle (Charles Sellon) is spotted heading for the store. Panicked, Harold races around:
Harold (to Everett): Open the door for Mr. Muckle.
Harold: Open the door for Mr. Muckle, the blind man!
Fitchmueller: HOW ABOUT MY CUMQUATS?
Everett: Whadya say?
Both Harold and his incompetent helper are unable to get to the closed front door in time to open it, and irrascible old Muckle smashes its plate glass window with his wildly waving cane: "You got that door closed again!" Harold is showered by pieces of glass shards. The cumquat customer is getting more and more agitated as he is not attended to. Mr. Muckle stumbles into large stacks of boxes that crash to the ground. Harold has warned him but it is too late:
All right. Think nothing of it. Just a little glassware.