W.C. Fields was known for playing acerbic and henpecked misanthropes who outwitted their more sober enemies with quick-wits and sheer gumption. But in Norman Z. McLeod’s It’s a Gift (1934), Fields plays a gentler, less bombastic version of his trademark character, creating a film decidedly less caustic, but by no means less funny, than many of his other efforts.
The plot, which is more or less secondary,finds W.C. Fields playing Harold Bissonette, a henpecked husband who decides to give up the grocery business, move to California, and run an orange grove after he inherits some money. Despite his family’s objections, Bissonette packs up their things and then drives out to California with his irritating wife Amelia (Kathleen Howard), his egotistical daughter Mildred (Jean Rouverol) and his troublesome son Norman (Tommy Bupp) all in tow.
Truly the scene that sets the mood for Fields’ film occurs at the beginning, with Harold Bissonette still working at the grocery store. While dealing with a difficult customer, Harold notices Mr. Muckle (Charles Sellon) – a blind, partially deaf, and hostile old man – heading straight for his store. “Open the door for Mr. Muckle” shouts Harold, only for the blind Muckle to come crashing through the door and into a stack of boxes. After causing a great deal of damage to the store, the punch-line is finally revealed–Mr. Muckle came in for nothing more than a five-cent pack of gum, and to make matters even more ridiculous, the old man refuses to carry it around on him, instead insisting that Harold have it delivered to his home.
It is scenes like this that not only make It’s a Gift funny, but easily one of Fields’ best films. Unlike the Marx Brothers, with their hyperkinetic and anarchic comedies, Fields prefers to takes things much slower, manipulating time to an agonizing crawl in order to get his laughs. A great example of this is when Harold, trying to fall asleep on his porch after a fight with the wife, is kept awake by a seemingly endless number of annoyances, including a coconut that slowly bangs down every step of the apartment stairs. It’s like a joke that starts out funny, then it becomes a little less funny, then tedious, then aggravating, and then funny again because the joke’s gone on for so long that its almost surreal.
The only feature that is noticeably missing from It’s a Gift has to be Fields’ trademark comebacks and insults. While Fields’ other cinematic creations never hesitate to fire back at their antagonists with insults or strange threats, Fields’ Harold Bissonette is much more quiet than his other personas. Though he has a number of back-and-worth’s with his wife Amelia (played wonderfully by Kathleen Howard), ultimately Bissonette’s comebacks are fewer than one would expect from Fields. Instead, the character relies more on comedic body language and movement than on witty threats to show his outrage with his crazy family.
Though W.C. Fields’ character in It’s a Gift is lacking some of the verbal-sting and cunning that made his other characters so memorable, the film remains a funny and absurd affair, filled with memorable gags, quips, and enough laughs to justify renting it, if only for those who desire a classic comedy that strays away from the usual high-energy zaniness of 30’s cinema for something a little different.
Find the nearest Blockbuster near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.