You’re Telling Me! and Man On the Flying Trapeze (Kino Lorber, NR)

In addition to You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and Never Give A Sucker an Even Break, Kino Lorber has reissued two more W.C. Fields films which are even better than the aforementioned titles. Man On the Flying Trapeze might best be described as quintessential W.C. Fields, a sampling that best represents his comedic sensibilities and recurring bits. You’re Telling Me! can also claim that distinction, but more importantly, stands as perhaps his best and most enduring film.

A bit of biographical background would be helpful in outlining what makes these two films so Fieldsian. In his early vaudeville days W.C. Fields married fellow performer Harriet Hughes, with whom he had his first child. Hughes wanted to settle down and raise a family as Fields’s film career took off, and as a result they separated but never divorced. He’d be estranged from his wife for the most part, aside from written communication, until his death in 1946. In these letters it was said Harriet often pleaded with Fields for greater financial support, and tension remained between them over his choice to pursue a show business career rather than become a family man. Both this marital dynamic and his absence as a father inspired two of the most recognizable elements of a Fields picture—a henpecked husband and loving but disappointing dad, a let-down to his older kids and antagonist to small children.

Man On the Flying Trapeze has the nagging wife at her most demanding and grating. Kathleen Howard, formerly Fields’s wife in It’s a Gift and in-law in You’re Telling Me!, plays the ultimate Fieldsian spouse, a bawdy terror of operatic proportions poised to give an earful over every blunder Fields makes, no matter how minor (Hughes actually was an opera singer, and so her bellowing reproaches come off extra powerfully). Supplementing her totalitarianism are a teetotaling mother played by Vera Lewis and a shiftless, mean-spirited brother played by another Fields regular, Grady Sutton. The trio is an exaggeration of the common picture of domestic life for a Fields protagonist. They are embarrassed by his love of alcohol, lack of manners, and attribute their precarious standing in polite society to his boorish antics. But in You’re Telling Me!, the dynamic between husband, wife, and angelic, blonde daughter (as is most often the case), feels more realistic and less strained.

Veteran stage and film actress Louise Parker takes the mantle in You’re Telling Me!, and while no-less impatient, needling, and disapproving, her antagonistic qualities are more justified, being rooted in resentment over her husband Sam Bisbee’s disorderly conduct and a lost hope of his reformation, and Parker’s more restrained and careworn style of expression captures that sense of longing and disappointment. Classless and oblivious, Sam Bisbee keeps his family on the brink of disgrace at all times. He’s an inventor, and presumably he’s had success in the past as evidenced by their sizable home. But he’s been on a losing streak when we find him, spending much of his time getting drunk at late hours. The opening of the film has him clumsily stumbling up his porch, unable to hold onto his hat and shoes or unlock the front door without a special stabilizing device he’s made for jittery hands.

He humiliates the family when meeting his daughter’s potential mother-in-law (Howard) and errors in judgment lead to his only viable invention, a legitimately puncture proof tire, being dismissed. He decides to leave his family and, rather drastically, commit suicide on the train. A classic W.C. Fields sequence of distraction and interruption prevents him from doing so, and he befriends a foreign princess traveling in a private car before deciding to return home in disgrace. The princess, having taken pity on Sam, decides to pose as his close friend in order to rehabilitate him among the judgmental townsfolk.

In Man On the Flying Trapeze, Ambrose Wolfinger has less of a claim to public rehabilitation. He works in a comfy job organizing the affairs of a manufacturing company’s president, but frequently neglects his duties, as evidenced by his non-existent system of record keeping and avoidance of important assignments. On top of this, Ambrose lies and says his mother-in-law has died of alcohol poisoning in order to get the day off to see a wrestling match. So we’re far from the loveable scamp seen in You’re Telling Me!, and the hellish domestic life of Wolfinger seems more justified.

Fields’s Ambrose Wolfinger has a far more capricious and impulsive quality, whereas his Sam Bisbee has a stronger moral center and sense of direction. These differing character traits manifest in the narrative of the films. In Man on the Flying Trapeze, Fields mostly sticks to fleeting moments of absurdity—singing burglars, flying men in spandex, an abrupt right hook to his brother-in-law and an attempted one to his mother-in-law. This makes for a leisurely, almost Stooges-esque narrative. You’re Telling Me! contains lengthier and far more memorable bits. One, the golf-course scene, a single drive interrupted by all manner of squeaky shoes, sticky pies, and loose pieces of tissue paper flying in the wind was a repeat from an earlier silent film and probably one of his most famous scenes. This and a tire-shooting demonstration where he catches ricochets with a baseball glove, an ostrich chase, and a run-in with some curtain strings are legitimately laugh-out-loud funny, absurdly long and frustrating scenes that border on anti-humor.  

What makes W.C. Fields worthy of continued consideration is his equally timely and timeless approach to comedy. On the one hand he’s deeply rooted in vaudevillian slapstick and spectacle that predated the early sound era, and on the other hand he exemplifies subtle, somewhat ineffable character work, perfectly calculated but impossible to describe why it’s funny, stuff that didn’t become mainstream until the ’70s. That golf scene for which he’s so famous illustrates this perfectly. It contains all of the shoe stomping, club whacking, pie-related buffoonery expected from any of the black and white comics, from Buster Keaton to The Little Rascals. But in the midst of this, the mumbling, ever beleaguered Fields turns to his inept caddy (close friend and regular chump Tammany Young) and mutters, almost inaudibly, “I’m gonna choke you to death.” He then turns and bellows for the thousandth time, “Stand still and keep your eye on this ball!” before proceeding not to hit it. In no other blithe pre-code Hollywood comedy will you find something so oddly esoteric. | Nic Champion

Man on the Flying Trapeze and Your Telling Me! are distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras include the vintage documentary “Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look at W.C. Fields” and trailers for several W.C. Fields films.

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