Classic Cinema: It’s A Gift (1934) – By Jason S. Lockard

My Name is Jason Lockard and I love Classic Cinema…. There have been many great comedians in cinema history but only one is so unmistakably recognizable and this month I’m uncovering a comic gem starring this comic legend!

W. C. Fields started in the world of vaudeville as a comedy juggler. He was so good that he quickly rose to fame and when radio was born and vaudeville died Fields was able to make the transition where most were not! He became known as a misanthropic and hard-drinking egotist who remained sympathetic to audiences despite his contempt for dogs, children and women. There was some truth to the misanthropic persona, however. Madge Evans, a friend and actress who appeared in several films during the 1930s, told a visitor in 1972 that Fields so deeply resented intrusions on his privacy by curious tourists walking up the driveway to his Los Angeles home that he would hide in the shrubs by his house and fire BB pellets at the trespassers’ legs. Groucho Marx also told a similar story, in his live album An Evening with Groucho.

Our film this month is It’s a Gift starring the iconic Fields plays Harold Bissonette ("pronounced bis-on-ay") a grocery store owner who inherits some money and decides to give up the grocery business, move to California and run an orange grove, much to the dismay of his shrewish wife Amelia. The plot of the film however seems somewhat secondary to the series of routines which make up the film. Over the course of the picture, Harold fails to prevent a blind customer and Baby LeRoy from turning his store into a disaster area; attempts to share a bathroom mirror with his self-centered, high-pitched gargling daughter; his family have a destructive picnic on private property; but in the film’s lengthy centerpiece, Amelia’s consistent nagging while he’s trying to sleep drives him to sleep on the porch swing. While trying to catch some shuteye he is kept awake all night by neighbors, salesmen, and assorted noises and calamities. Including Baby LeRoy who drops grapes through a hole above him one going down his throat to which he spits it back up through the hole into LeRoy’s face!

Despite his family’s objections of moving to California to own an orange ranch the Bissonettes packs up and head out to California.  When they arrive Harold finds out that the ranch is nowhere near what he expected! Harold is about to lose all hope when his luck takes a dramatic turn: a neighbor informs him that a developer is desperate to acquire his land in order to build a grandstand for a race track.

A well-known, and often somewhat misquoted Fields comment occurs at the climax of the film, as Harold is haggling with the developer, who angrily claims that Harold is drunk. Harold responds, "Yeah, and you’re crazy; and I’ll be sober tomorrow and … you’ll be crazy for the rest of your life!"

The windfall for Fields’ character and the resultant happy ending of this film echo the climax of his earlier 1934 release, You’re Telling Me!. This film is considered one of the best in Fields career as 2000s AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs scoring The #58 spot!

Fields in his younger days never drank, because he was afraid it would impair his functions while performing. The loneliness of his constant touring and traveling, compelled Fields to keep liquor on hand for fellow performers, so he could invite them to his dressing room for companionship and cocktails. Only then did Fields cultivate a fondness for alcohol. Regarding alcohol is attributed to Fields: "I can’t stand water because of the things fish do in it." On movie sets, Fields kept a vacuum flask of martinis handy; he referred to it as his "lemonade". One day a prankster switched the contents of the flask, filling it with actual lemonade. Upon discovering the prank, Fields was heard to yell, "Who put lemonade in my lemonade?"

In 1936 Fields became gravely ill, his health worsened by his heavy drinking. Fields’ film series came to a halt while he recovered; he made one last film for Paramount, The Big Broadcast of 1938.

Near the end Fields was very sick and suffering from delirium tremens. When asked what he would like his epitaph to read he said, "On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia!" W.C. Fields passed away on December 25, 1946 and the world of cinema lost one of the great comedic performers!

Fields likeness with his bulbous nose, rotund body, and blustery, nasal voice, has often been caricatured cementing his character as an icon. Frito-Lay’s controversial "Frito Bandito" in the late 1960s was retired in favor of a Fields look-alike called "W.C. Fritos". For Cocoa Puffs Sonny disguised himself as Fields. On the TV show Gigglesnort Hotel, there was a puppet character named W. C. Cornfield which was an obvious caricature of Fields.

Fields was an easy target for impressionists. Ed McMahon aped Fields on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and Family Feud host and Match Game panelist Richard Dawson frequently did imitations of Fields. Also master impressionist Rich Little used a Fields characterization for the "Scrooge" character in his ‘classic’ one-man presentation of A Christmas Carol.

MGM’s 1944 cartoon Batty Baseball takes place at "W. C. Field" in what the cartoon describes as a "corny gag", then assures the audience that the guy who thought up the gag "isn’t with us any more".

So if you want to uncover a real classic comedy dust off the W.C. Fields DVD and watch the bumbling foolish Fields in It’s A Gift! It’s well worth that watch!

Moral Rating: Nothing Offensive
Audience: Family
Genre: Comedy
Length: 67 min.
Year of Release: 1934
Our Rating: A+