It’s a Gift (1934)
It’s a Gift (1934)

Genre: Slapstick Running Time: 1 hr. 8 min.

Release Date: November 30th, 1934 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Norman Z. McLeod Actors: W.C. Fields, Kathleen Howard, Jean Rouverol, Julian Madison, Tommy Bupp, Baby LeRoy, Tammany Young, Morgan Wallace, Charles Sellon

 


 

I

n New Jersey, word reaches the Bissonette household about Aunt Matilda and Uncle Bean – who is at death’s door – in California. Nagging, booming, interrogative matriarch Amelia (Kathleen Howard) suspects there might be an inheritance for her henpecked husband, Harold (W.C. Fields), who has always dreamed of buying an orange grove – rather than working at the corner grocery store, which he manages. And he’s not too successful with that endeavor, as his customers – and his loggerheaded employee – aren’t always satisfied, especially when a blind man wanders through the place like a bull in a china shop. Harold similarly has a difficult time running his household: his adult daughter Mildred (Jean Rouverol) is angsty over her boyfriend John Durston (Julian Madison), while his young son Norman (Tommy Bupp) is a little terror. “Your father says a lot of things.”

“Of all the driveling idiots!” Wasting no time getting into the slapstick, Harold maneuvers his way into spectacular pratfalls and other physical comedy, finding himself entwined in background props and falling all over the place. Fields’ characters may not seem like the kind designed for frequent tumbles, yet the comedic action is choreographed in clever, natural ways, working the actor’s heft into the clumsiness. Supporting roles, such as Baby LeRoy as infant Elwood are also included in the silliness, primarily to instigate bigger disasters.

When Harold finally takes charge and purchases an orange ranch – something he’s certain he can run efficiently and profitably – his family reluctantly goes with him, convinced that the whole adventure will be a fresh fiasco. And it is, though not due to Harold alone; his wife and kids are quite a mess themselves. In one of the funniest sequences, the group turns a private park into a tremendous wreck, leaving a trail of trash and debris and disorder. “We’re all liable to make mistakes.”

Curiously, Harold’s woes escalate to the point that they counter the laughs from the slapstick and unintentional troublemaking. Great anxiety arises from the potential for Harold to do the absolutely wrong thing, and he’s always very close to doing it. Luck – contrived or otherwise – is all that stops the film from becoming extremely disconcerting, even in the midst of comic absurdity.

Unfortunately, Fields’ brand of comedy is really only suitable for short skits. His efforts to turn funny but small episodes of humorous catastrophes into a feature-length picture result in readily identifiable, disparate concepts being strung together with little regard for a cohesive plot (it’s the origination of many of his films, and it definitely shows here). A lengthy sequence in the middle is devoted entirely to Harold’s inability to get some shuteye, hindered by everything from a falling coconut to shouting neighbors to a pesky salesman. It’s no doubt a recurring theme in many of Fields’ works: the poor, browbeaten protagonist appears perpetually exhausted, in desperate need of just a few minutes of sound sleep away from the everyday nuisances of family life. And once on the road to California, Harold is faced with yet another instance of failing to set up a sufficient spot to rest – brief gags that remain more memorable than the main storyline, which ends quite suddenly and without a final, significant joke.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10