The Story (continued)
It's a Gift (1934)
The California Trip
A victrola plays a spinning recording of "California Here I Come." But it is interrupted by the sound of Amelia calling for Norman:
Norman: Coming, coming, coming.
Determined to escape from his troubles, he boards a rattletrap Ford with his wife and family and they set off across the country to California. Neighbors and townspeople gather in a departure scene, to see them off, waving and cheering. Norman's friends run after him on roller skates as he jumps in the car. On their back porch, Mildred tearfully commiserates with John about how she will never see him again.
Mildred: Oh John, what are we gonna do?
John: Gosh, I don't know. Your mother says I'm a crook and your father thinks I tried to double-cross him and....
Mildred: I'll probably never see you again.
John: Oh yes you will.
Mildred: I'll be way out in California. How can I?
John: Listen, I'm going out there too. The first money I get saved, if it's only bus fare.
Mildred: You'll forget all about me.
John: No I won't, honey.
Amelia also calls out: "Mil-dred?" As the battered jalopy is about to depart, one of the neighbors asks:
Neighbor: What's your first stop, Amelia?
Harold: Won't stop until we get 500 miles from here.
Neighbor: Oh dear god. Goodbye.
They finally pull away with all their possessions strapped onto the outside of the vehicle - and then stop abruptly only a few short yards later! Amelia sneers over at Harold in the driver's seat. Mr. Muckle appears, signaling goodbye to them - waving in the wrong direction. Mrs. Dunk declares: "I wouldn't ride across the country with that man for a million dollars." After many delays in town and a few handcranks, they finally get going. Along the way, Harold mistakenly takes a detour to avoid a car stalled in the mud and drives across a plowed field, bouncing everyone up and down. The family stays overnight in a trailer camp. Amelia spots him drinking in their tent:
Amelia: Harold, are you drinking?
Harold: No, I wasn't dear, I was thinking.
Harold is instructed to sleep outside in the deck chair by the fire, because there isn't any room in the tent. In a classic slapstick bit, he vainly tries to set up the deck chair and becomes totally frustrated. When Amelia calls to him: "Don't forget to put the wood on the fire," he ends up throwing the chair on the fire as fuel. He comes upon men who are yodeling by a camp-fire, singing:
There's where my road is turning, back to my Indiana Hoosier Home, On the banks of the Wabash far away.
Harold offers to join them, bragging about his own singing experience: "As a younger man, I used to belong to the Cahauxin Hose Glee Club in Philadelphia." He just begins singing "The Two Sweethearts" song when a cow "moos" at him. Appalled at the sounds, Amelia calls for him from the tent. He obediently replies: "Coming dear. Coming dear..." When he dallies, she throws a heavy object in the direction of the irritating noise.
The next day, they seek a quiet location to have a family picnic for lunch. They enter a well-cared for park, thinking that it is a public park. Failing to see the "Private Property Keep Out" sign, they are unaware that it is a private millionaire's estate. Harold runs into a marble statue of the Venus de Milo and excuses his bad driving:
She ran right in front of the car!
They have their picnic, but leave the entire rich landowner's place defiled, littered and strewn with newspaper, debris, paper bags, cans, and other trash. Opening a tomato can with a hatchet, Harold showers everyone and everything with squashed tomatoes. Thinking that the sundial is ten minutes slow, Amelia tells him with sarcasm: "Yes, the sun is wrong, but your watch is right. Of course." Their son Norman is still hungry and demands another sandwich. Amelia insists that he eat half of Harold's sandwich. (Harold cleverly folds over the meat so that there is only bread on the half he tears off and gives to his son.) In a mouth-stuffing routine, Harold stuffs almost the entire sandwich half into his mouth. Amelia orders him to "sit down and eat like a gentleman."
When the dog chews into a feather pillow he uses as a cushion, and Harold tries to wrestle the dog for the pillow, it is ripped to shreds and feathers are added to the already-littered landscape. Amelia is upset and poignantly shrieks:
Amelia: Harold, STOP IT! Those were my best pillows...Quit playing with that dog. Oh, you idiot, those were my mother's feathers!
Harold: I didn't know your mother had feathers.
Amelia: You're always annoying that dog.
Harold: Me? When I get out to the ranch, I'm gonna swap him for an iron deer.
As he returns to sit down, Harold sits on the can opener - and extracts its sharp end from his rear end. Amelia shows surprise: "Oh, there's the can opener!" He is only worried about feathers in his sandwich and juggles one away from his face. After being torn away from throwing empty cans at the fallen Venus de Milo, Norman, on roller skates, finds the controls on the estate's sprinkler system and turns them on, setting off a downpour. Harold raises an umbrella and insists:
Harold: It's raining...Maybe it's a sun shower...Maybe it's a cloudbust.
Amelia (correcting him): Burst.
The irate millionaire owner and the caretaker arrive to drive the family off the private property. When Amelia argues with them, Harold tells her: "Don't argue with them dear. They're beneath our dignity." Harold drives into one of the sprinkler heads on the way out. After they have left, she berates Harold:
Amelia: Why were you sitting there like a stone image when those men were insulting me?
Harold: I was just waiting for one of 'em to say something to me.
In sunny California, they drive through an area with fine homes and rich-looking orange groves. When they ask for directions to find their orange ranch from a nearby neighbor, they are told where it is located. Mrs. Bissonette compliments Harold on how pretty everything is, hoping that their ranch will be as beautiful. She begins to think that they have all been wrong about the whole thing. He is pleased to hear her confessing her misjudgment:
I knew you were [wrong], dear. But I never said anything. We're all liable to make mistakes.
But they discover that the orange grove and ranch they have purchased is in a disaster area, a dessicated section of sunbaked desert land with a "Tobacco Road" ramshackle shack on it, situated between other fruitful orange groves. As they drive in, Mrs. Bissonette describes it:
Well, here we are, here's your orange grove. You knew it all as usual. Wouldn't listen to anybody...You dragged us out here. Spent every nickel on this. And now what.
Harold attempts to make the best of it. He finds one scraggly plant:
Harold: This is evidently a young orange tree.
Amelia: Young orange tree. It's a weed you idiot.
She continues her critical rampage: "Look at this house. A ranch house... Very good-looking house. It's a shack!" Harold thinks he can spend his spare time fixing it up, but it is falling apart. Walking under a lucky horseshoe, the floor boards hit him in the face. The house starts to break apart in his hands, and Amelia has seen enough:
What a father you've got! Come Mildred...Three thousand, four hundred and fifty two miles for this!
She announces that she is taking her daughter and son and going "anywhere to get away from this filthy dump." They proceed to march toward the road to town. Dejected, Harold sits on the running sidebar of the automobile, and the entire car collapses. He mutters: "I guess I won't take them after all."
Sad and beaten down, Harold forlornly sits alone on the broken front porch of the house. In a touching scene, the family dog ambles up and kisses him. He takes a swig from his flask as the next door neighbor drives up and rushes to tell him the good news. (His family has stopped at the end of the driveway.) A multi-million dollar raceway is about to be constructed by race-track promoters on the adjoining property. But the contractors miscalculated the angles of the sun's rays. Although his land is worthless for orange groves, luckily it will be the perfect place for a grandstand, since it will not be in the full glare of the sun. After tipping him off, the neighbor suggests that Harold hold out for an astronomical sum:
Watch yourself. Hold out for any price! Don't let them kid you. You can get it.
To fortify himself, Harold takes another swig from his flask. Moments later, the promoters and real-estate operators arrive with the buyer. At first, the millionaire-buyer offers $5,000 for the land to build a filling station. This is the amount Harold had originally paid for the land. The buyer criticizes the property and makes it appear that his offer is magnanimous. Harold turns down the offer.
Then, the offer is raised to $10,000, and the buyer threatens that $10,000 is his highest offer. Harold just swigs on his flask. Harold's wife has returned, completely unaware of the land's true value. She frets and fumes, pleading with him to accept the offer: "Harold, are you drunk or crazy?" But he doesn't listen to her. Instead, he nonchalantly lets the price bidding rise further while he takes more drinks. His wife is beside herself when the bidding reaches $25,000 and faints shortly thereafter.
The buyer accuses him of being drunk. Harold agrees - with one of his most celebrated wisecracks:
Yeah, (and) you're crazy. But I'll be sober tomorrow, and you'll be crazy for the rest of your life!
Harold is finally asked to suggest a price - and he proposes an astronomical figure - $44,000 (to include a commission for his helpful neighbor and a local orange grove). The buyer thinks: "That's a hold-up," but the deal is accepted. Harold's wife is helped with Harold's "reviver" after fainting and told of the triumphant deal. She compliments him: "You're an old idiot. But I can't help loving you....How did you know this...?" Harold tells Mildred to give her another drink.
After a fade out, the final scene shows the sign for Harold's prosperous property: "Bissonette's Blue Bird Oranges." A relaxed Harold, wearing a pure white shirt, is on the porch of his new home, in the midst of an orange grove - his California dream has come true. Before him on the table is an array of cocktail shakers. Harold lazily reaches out and effortlessly plucks an orange from a nearby lush tree. He squeezes a few drops of juice into his glass. He watches his well-dressed family being taken by limousine to town. He fills his glass with an enormous amount of gin for a delicious screwdriver, and settles back contentedly with a look of triumphant self-satisfaction on his face.
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AMC Filmcritic's Review of It's a Gift