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W.C. Fields Is at His Funniest in 4 New Releases

October 15, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 11, he ran away from home after a violent fight with his father. He spent several months living on the streets on the verge of starvation, stealing to survive. Frequently, on the losing end of street fights, he spent many a night in jail.

But despite those harrowing beginnings, W.C. Fields became one of the best-loved comedic actors in film history.

Those early years, though, shaped both his on- and off-screen personality. In fact, there wasn't much difference between his screen image and his off-screen manner. Fields was distrustful of authority, marriage and kids. He was also skeptical, a misogynist, a braggart, a con man and a drunk.

Though he made his film debut as early as 1915 and appeared in several silent films, Fields didn't hit his stride until the talkies. Throughout the '30s and early '40s, Fields, who was born in 1879 and died in 1946, starred in a series of memorable comedies including "The Bank Dick," "My Little Chickadee" and "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break." He even went dramatic with surprisingly good results in 1935's "David Copperfield."

This week, Universal Home Video is releasing four of his funniest films ($15 each) from the 1930s: "Million Dollar Legs," "It's a Gift," "You're Telling Me" and "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man."

"Million Dollar Legs," from 1932, is a zany, madcap musical farce in which Fields plays the president of a small European country called Klopstokia. Unbeknown to the rest of the world, Klopstokians happen to be the greatest athletes on the planet. So when Fields is desperate to raise funds, an American traveling salesman (the always wonderful Jack Oakie) convinces Fields to enter the country into the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

It's incredibly silly, but tons of fun. It was penned by Joseph Mankiewicz, who later wrote and directed the 1950 Oscar-winning classic "All About Eve," and his brother Herman, who co-wrote "Citizen Kane."

Fields made several movies during the silent era including the 1926 farce "So's Your Old Man." The enjoyable 1934 comedy "You're Telling Me" is a remake of that silent. Fields is a hoot as a brow-beaten eccentric named Sam Bisbee whose offbeat inventions have made him the laughingstock of the town. Things get worse for Sam when he messes up his daughter's chance to marry a handsome wealthy young man (Larry "Buster" Crabbe) and he accidentally shoots the tires of a police car while demonstrating his latest invention. However, his luck changes when he meets a beautiful countess on a train.

"You're Telling Me" is full of belly laughs, especially the sequence in which Fields plays golf at the country club and when he tries to lasso an ostrich.

Perhaps Fields' best movie is 1934's "It's a Gift," in which he plays the ultimate henpecked husband--a bumbling grocer named Harold Bissonette who uses the inheritance he received from his late uncle to buy an orange grove in California. He packs his family into a car and drives from New Jersey to California only to discover his land isn't quite the Xanadu he expected.

There are numerous brilliant comedic bits in this film including the sequence in which Mr. Muckle (Charles Sellon) destroys Bissonette's grocery store; Bissonette's contact with a pushy salesman (T. Roy Barnes) looking for someone named Carl LaFong; and Bissonette's encounter with Baby LeRoy. This one is truly a gift.

There are some inspired moments in 1939's "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man," but the comedy has more than its share of dull spots. This time around, Fields plays Larson E. Whipsnade, the ringmaster of a threadbare circus called Giganticus who is trying to keep one step ahead of his creditors. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy also star.

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