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Monday, October 09, 2017

Chucklesome Mating Of Eagles

My Little Chickadee Is 1940's Great Expectation

Seemed to many, before seeing it, that My Little Chickadee must be the funniest picture ever made. Certainly stills gave such impression, W.C. Fields and Mae West (reverse that --- she's billed first) in resplendent costume, both looking for all of world like caricatures from one-after-another 30's cartoon as career of each (in Fields' case, health too) passed peak. He was still the bigger noise, in for more Chickadee gravy than West, according to W.C. bio by James Curtis. Fields and West were truly stars that were bigger than life, evoking more a flamboyant, circus-bred notion of celebrity. Fitting they should be prolific to cartoons, as they were sort of cartoons themselves, or etchings from Victorian-era books (in Fields' case, a real-life Dickens illustration). Where West hit a wall was public knowing she'd not do an act so ribald as what got her going when films were looser, if not gamier. That put her at from-start disadvantage to Bill.

Here's my softer attitude on comedians slipping: accentuate the positive rather than obvious negatives. Yes, Mae had much to cope with re censorship, but it's how this monument adjusted that ennobled her, and there's no better evidence than uneven struggle West engages with wily Fields, billed second but ranking first for laffs earned off Chickadee. Each is accorded routines not involving the other, the pair kept separate for most of run-time. West fairly strangles at effort to hip-wriggle sizzle into dialogue where none is there, any/all of suggestion erased before cameras turned. It makes for me a more fascinating exercise to watch her wrest humor from a straight jacket Houdini could not loose. Mae didn't care for Chickadee in hindsight. Probably she knew it represented swans singing, plus fact she under-earned Fields (his higher up-front plus a percentage). Bill had also thrived on radio, with Bergen/McCarthy, while she'd been run off the medium following too blue tilt with the monocled dummy.

Might Chickadee have done for West what Destry Rides Again did for sister discard from Paramount, Marlene Dietrich? Both had been labeled past-use stock, but from such refuse were comebacks made, and Dietrich's had been remarkable. Universal would present Marlene as a modernized Mae, with Destry, Seven Sinners, The Spoilers, Pittsburgh, and The Flame Of New Orleans frames one might visualize West being fit into. Part of problem was Mae turning forty-seven the year Chickadee got out (1940), while Marlene swung into Destry when not yet forty. West in no way could, or would, have done brawling required of Destry, her all the more belonging to gas lit past where compared with even slightly younger personalities. Fields, on the other hand, could age, if not gracefully, then at least dissolutely to joy of many (especially a coterie of critics) who embraced him as last stand against milking down of comedy. Bill was a bastion against politeness the Code forced upon farcing; he'd point out the protest in Never Give A Sucker An Even Break direct address to viewers. Fields would be the greater outlaw against propriety than West, only he'd protest not with sex, but lifestyle unbecoming to moral uplift. What restraint was applied to his act was curb of on-screen imbibe, the PCA watchful where drinks were poured in movies.

Fields was cherished, I think, for freedoms that once were, and now taken away, by proprieties imposed by the Code and adjuncts like the Legion Of Decency, latter a body to beg demolish by Bill for its name alone. He was early incarnation for comics who'd dare to loosen collars around humor. The treasure in Fields was his not blowing with winds of change. I doubt many encouraged around-forever Bill to "update" his act. To believe press at the time, My Little Chickadee had more comedy coming off the set than ever got on film. Columnists led with whatever outlandish thing Bill said between takes, not to mention ad-libbing when he filmed. Fields was never a working comedian in the customary sense, being a man naturally funny in any circumstance. I doubt there was ever sense of Fields' comedy coming from anywhere outside himself. His pausing long enough to declaim gave scribes a next day's squib, as in Fieldsian observation unique to him. My Little Chickadee's pressbook is filled with these, all ready made for publication in where-ever towns the show ultimately played.

W.C. Fields and Mae West have been largely absent from television, satellite or otherwise. TCM leased samples from Universal, these narrow as playlists on oldies radio. The four that Fields did for Uni, prolific once on TV and indeed theatres during the 60/70's, are doled out stingily now. TCM ran The Bank Dick in lovely HD, but You Can't Cheat An Honest Man was a decrepit transfer, even as Universal has a High-Def master on hand. Retro-Plex HD, part of Starz menagerie, had My Little Chickadee. I held breath on opener night in hope theirs would be an uptick, and indeed it was HD and a best Chickadee since days it played revivals on 35mm. A trivial pursuit of mine is ID'ing broadcast premieres of classics in HD. Stations don't bally them, nor is there mention at web pages, so it comes down to set of the DVR, and hope for happy outcome. Recent Marion Davies day on TCM yielded Five and Ten for instance, one I had checked whenever it played over a last several years. Twenty-five year old standard-def graduated this time (August 29) to HD and new joy in this venerable precode. Lassoing ancients from TCM, or outliers like Retro-Plex for My Little Chickadee, seem sole way of having them in HD. Peruse of schedules and then recording is worth the effort for goodies often yielded, a revisit in ways to long-ago scour of newsprint and TV GUIDE in quest for rarities.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer addresses Universal the "sausage factory:"

Might "Chickadee" have done for Mae West what "Destry Rides Again" did for Marlene Dietrich? It seems unlikely. In "Destry," all the men of the town are like waves breaking upon Dietrich's shore, to her amused indifference, but then there is the young, passionate James Stewart, with his full lips and brooding eyes, and his presence draws strands of raveling velvet down those ravaged sands.

And West had W. C. Fields to ratify how sexually desirable she still was.

The analogy to cartoons and caricatures is more apt. Universal sold West and Fields the way they sold their monsters in "House of Frankenstein," by name and appearance and nothing much to do with whatever had commended them to the public's attention in the first place. The studio was a sausage factory by that point, and films like these were the last scrapings from the floor stuffed into the sheep guts.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Ran a theatrical combo late show of CHICKADEE and THE BANK DICK during the 70s Fields revival days.

I recall hearing a few chuckles during CHICK, but nothing that registered well on our laffometer.

The laffometer broke during BANK trying to keep up.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

The concept of "Chickadee" seems funnier than it actually is. If you went in not knowing who Fields and West were, it would probably be more entertaining. As it is, you keep hoping that the laughs come faster and louder.

Even re-reading Curtis' bio, I'm still unsure how much of the script Fields wrote. Just the poolroom scene?

2:52 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

In THE BANK DICK Fields managed to slip in the heaviest duty swear words. I'll leave it to readers to find them. They are there.

EVERY DAY'S A HOLIDAY had only one gag the censors objected to. Paramount said, "If we cut that gag we will have the Mae West motion picture the whole family can see."

Well, a Mae West picture the whole family could see was a Mae West picture no one wanted to see. They killed the goose.

Whatever reasons Universal had for pairing West and Fields are fine by me. Maybe the studio was a sausage factory by that point. They ground out good sausages.

Mae West could only play Mae West just as, whatever he is in, John Wayne is playing John Wayne. That's the thing with the truly great stars.

SEXTETTE, her last film, is one of the most ridiculous films ever made. That does not stop me from liking it. MYRA BRECKINRIDGE put Hollywood up on the screen. I had been out there while it was being made and recognized it was incredibly accurate to the scene(I even managed to get an invite to meet Mae West but wrote her saying thank you however I am heading back to Toronto to be part of Rochdale College. When I got to Toronto and Rochdale a week later there was a letter waiting for me from Mae West stating if I was out that way again to come up and see her).

She and Fields were the stuff of legends. They don't make them like that anymore.

Too bad.

Dietrich also played Dietrich however her character allowed for more to be done around her. Her madam in JUST A GIGOLO is Lola Lola from THE BLUE ANGEL in old age. David Bowie called JUST A GIGOLO his 30 Elvis movies rolled into one. It is not. It is vastly underrated.

What is unfortunate is that it was not until the 70's that producers realized they could make movies with singers singing. They did not need to wrap the songs around a plot. A film of Mae West or Dietrich where they just sang would have been a delirious treat. Too bad we were denied it.

I ran MY LITTLE CHICKADEE so many times I have lost count. It always gets laughs, lots of laughs.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

My experience echoes Mike Cline's. I saw MY LITTLE CHICKADEE and THE BANK DICK paired at a screening during my college days. The reception given CHICKADEE was, at best, lukewarm. BANK DICK had 'em rolling in the aisles.

9:43 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

College and university students are always the ones most resistant to new ideas. Arthur Conan Doyle has the students wildly rejecting Professor Challenger's theories of dinosaurs in THE LOST WORLD. College and university audiences are not the same as working class audiences. College and university audiences affect being knowing and blase, which, as Oscar Hammerstein III put it, "is the sign of a very unsophisticated person."

As well, people who come out for W. C. Fields ignore Mae West; people who come out for Mae West ignore W. C. Fields. Fans do that. For fans films like THE BIG BROADCAST are intolerable when W. C. Fields is not on screen.

Many fans of Buster Keaton won't watch Chaplin.

I once did a program of films made by Disney animation directors like Burt Gillett at other studios before they worked for Walt in the first half and then in the second half the ones they made for Walt. The Disney fans were hysterically violent in their opposition to seeing the non-Disney work. I like to say you won't find a fan of anything at my screenings. Fans are boring.

Older musicians I have met talked of how much they did not like fans. Fans would sit in the first rows drumming out the beat from having listened to old recordings forcing them to play as they did back in the day the recordings were made. They did not want to hear the music as it was being played today.

Remember, fan is short for fanatic.

5:13 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

There is also the fact that Mae West has a completely different comic style than that of Fields. Her films were not designed for that type of response. She gets laughs certainly but not the kind of laughter Fields evokes. We laugh at Fields' frustration. That grew out of his juggling. He was juggling in Germany when he found himself on a bill behind another juggler. He realized you can't top juggling with juggling so he completely parodied the previous performer deliberately mucking up routines he knew to perfection. The thousands in the audience went wild. He moved from being a serious juggler to being a comic juggler. Fields is the con man at war with the world. Mae West is the strong woman at war with convention. For example, from I'M NO ANGEL, Swami--"I see a man in your life." Mae West--"What?! Only one?" In MY LITTLE CHICKADEE, judge--"Are you trying to show contempt for this court?" Mae West, "No, I'm doing my best to hide it." Hers is a completely different character with a completely different comic style and audience response.

5:35 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

One New Year's Eve I ran my 16mm print of THE MARX BROTHERS AT THE CIRCUS for friends. It had us falling asleep. I then put on Mae West in I'M NO ANGEL. We all woke up. FAST. People were astounded by their reactions to the two films. Frankly, so was I. All of Mae's films from Paramount have that crackling energy. CHICKADEE does as well. Tn THE HEAT'S ON the heat was off. That was not Mae's fault. The fault lands squarely on the shoulders of Gregory Ratoff. Similarly, Michael Sarne did not want MYRA BRECKINRIDGE to be a Mae West film. It would have been a better picture had he had the wit to realize it should have been. She was the name star. About CHICKADEE she said, "I kind of stepped off my pedestal when I made that." She was right, of course but I am glad she made it. As for SEXTETTE, she got paid well to star in that. She needed a stronger director with both personality and wit. They don't make directors that way anymore.

6:57 AM  

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