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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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W.C. Fields: Comedy hero for the new Depression

February 6, 2009 | 12:04 pm

If you're out of work -- and have the unemployment check stub to prove it -- you can watch one of the most wonderfully crafted comedies of all time, W.C. Fields' "It's a Gift," for free tonight at Santa Monica's Aero Theatre, which is hosting a weekend retrospective titled "Great Films of the Great Depression." (If you miss the screening, "It's A Gift" is available on a great five-film DVD package that includes a host of other Fields classics.) As part of its American Cinematheque series, the Aero is showing two delightful Fred Astaire musicals from the '30s, including the memorable "Follow the Fleet," but the real gem is "It's a Gift," which Fields made in 1934, when the Depression was in full swing and the brilliant bulbous-nosed star was at the height of his comic powers.

Gr_b_its_a_gift Fields was a vaudeville star in the 1920s, but he really rose to prominence during the Depression, largely thanks to the invention of sound, which allowed audiences to hear his gruff, idiosyncratic voice and coolly subversive catch phrases, the best known being "Never give a sucker an even break." Most of Fields' films are social satires disguised as knock-about comedy. In "It's a Gift," when an annoying salesman shows up at the crack of dawn, looking for a prospective customer, he apologizes, saying the man leaves for work early in the morning. Unimpressed, Fields responds: "Well, he's a chump."

In "It's a Gift," Fields is a small-town grocer who suddenly comes into a large inheritance, allowing him to pursue his true dream -- buying an orange ranch in California. But the film's comedy unfolds around a series of indiginities Fields is forced to endure along the way, from the constant nagging of his shrewish wife to the demanding customers at his store, highlighted by Mr. Muckle, a blind, nearly deaf man who wreaks havoc when he stumbles around the store, knocking over displays of lightbulbs with his cane, oblivious to all the mayhem he's caused. The highlight of the picture (that was actually shot with three cameras, like a modern sitcom) is an extended set piece where Fields, desperate to escape his wife's wee-hours nagging, tries to get some sleep on the outside porch, only to be interrupted by a variety of tormentors, including a noisy milkman, the malicious toddler upstairs (who drops grapes on his head through a hole in the porch ceiling) and -- most memorably -- the traveling salesman, who loudly announces, as if an opera singer, that he is seeking the whereabouts of a Carl La Fong, spelling out the entire name, "Capital L, Small A, Capital F, Small O, Small N, Small G."

Fields loved oddball monikers. In "It's a Gift," he goes by Harold Bissonette, a name he lifted from a golfing pal who pronounced it Bisson-ette, giving Fields the idea of having his snooty wife in the picture insist on having it pronounced "Bisson-ay." The film is also filled with dry Fieldsian witticisms. On the family's drive to California, Fields blunders into a private estate. Distracted by the beautiful scenery, he crashes into a huge Venus de Milo statue on the grounds. "Oh, look at what you've done!" his wife complains. Fields is unapologetic: "He ran right in front of the car."

Fields' get-rich schemes almost always blow up in his face, in much the same way that Jackie Gleason's delusions of grandeur always come to naught in "The Honeymooners," reminding us that Fields' comedy influence was felt far and wide. The orange ranch is nothing more than a broken-down shack. But it turns out that the land underneath is a gold mine -- a developer needs it to build a racetrack. Seeing he has the upper hand, Fields holds out for the biggest orange ranch in the vicinity. Seeing Fields constantly pulling on a flask of whiskey, the developer snarls, "You're drunk."

"Yeh, well, you're crazy," Fields responds in one of his best-known retorts. "I'll be sober tomorrow, and you'll be crazy for the rest of your life." Actually, Fields was rarely sober. He started drinking in the morning and kept going all day long. But as you can see in "It's a Gift," Fields remains a comedy icon today because his films were never weighted down with an ounce of sentiment. You always got Fields, straight, no chaser.

Photo: W.C. Fields in "It's a Gift." Credit: Universal Pictures

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