Tuesday, August 03, 2010


"Godfrey Daniel!"

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Fans of the immortal comedian William Claude Dukenfield — better known to one and all as W.C. Fields — usually cite either of two motion pictures made by The Great Man as the pinnacle of his cinematic prominence in mirth making: the 1934 freewheeling farce It’s a Gift and the 1940 testament to the funster’s taste for zany nonsense, The Bank Dick. While I am a tremendous devotee of both of these comedy classics, there’s one Fields film in particular that stands out as my very favorite. Seventy-five years ago on this date, Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) was released to theaters…and it remains for me a falling-down funny exercise in Fieldsian frustration.

All “memory expert” Ambrose Wolfinger wants to do is attend a championship wrestling match…but this is easier said than done. He’s under the thumb of his battleaxe of a spouse Leona (Kathleen Howard), whom he married after his first wife passed on…and who has saddled him with a meddlesome mother-in-law, Mrs. Cordelia Neselrode (Vera Lewis), and her shiftless excuse for a son, Claude (Grady Sutton). Wolfinger marched down the matrimonial aisle in order to provide his daughter Hope (Mary Brian) with a proper mother — but he must soberly (well, not in the alcohol abstention sense) put up with his wife’s incessant nagging, particularly when a pair of burglars (Tammany Young, Walter Brennan) invade their cellar and start in with a few drunken choruses of "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away" after sampling Wolfinger’s homemade applejack. Instead of seeing these two intruders prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, Ambrose himself is sentenced by a night court judge (Arthur Aylesworth) to 30 days’ incarceration for manufacturing “Jersey lightning” without a license…and he’s locked up in the same cell with a maniac (Michael Visaroff) who’s just killed his wife with a pair of scissors!

Wolfinger, who hasn’t had a day off in 25 years, ends up lying to his boss (Lucien Littlefield) in order to take the time off for the match, telling him he has to attend Mrs. Neselrode’s funeral. But things do not go all that smoothly; our hero ends up getting five traffic tickets in a row and chasing down a runaway car tire en route…and to add insult to injury, he misses the big match and ends up in the gutter outside the exhibition’s entrance, bruised and battered after being hit by one of the wrestlers. At home, his wife and mother-in-law are besieged by flowers and sympathy cards sent by his co-workers on the occasion of her “funeral” — so when he returns to the House of Wolfinger he finds the two women quite unamused by that particular turn of events. Though in jeopardy of losing his job, Ambrose is able to finagle his way back into the good graces of his boss (Oscar Apfel) because he’s proven himself too valuable to lose…and he nets a hefty raise in salary to boot. As the just-over-an-hour film comes to a close, a jaunt in his newly-purchased car — with his mother-in-law and Claude in the rumble seat, drenched in a torrential rain shower — demonstrates that things are going to be different around the Wolfinger home from now on.

Flying Trapeze has many of the hallmarks of Fields’ immensely popular comedic vehicles: the comedian plays a small-town eccentric (with an unusual job occupation) who doesn’t go out of his way to look for trouble…it just ends up finding him. He’s usually manacled to a shrew of a spouse who berates and nags him at every turn…and his only champion is his teenage daughter. And like It’s a Gift, The Bank Dick, You’re Telling Me! (1934) and other Fields comedies, our hero endures an awful lot of abuse before the final wrap-up, when “the worm turns” and he is able to assert himself as lord and master of the household. Although it seems incredible that a comedian known for his under-the-breath verbal asides could eke out a career in silent comedy, several of Fields’ sound classics were remakes of films he had originally starred in during the silent era: Gift was adapted from It’s the Old Army Game (1926) and Telling was culled from So’s Your Old Man (1926). A film Fields made in 1927, Running Wild, saw a few of its elements lifted for Flying Trapeze…with a 1933 Lloyd Hamilton short, Too Many Highballs, tossed in for good measure.

Fields aficionados revere the comedian for his iconoclastic meanness, but they seldom remember that the comedian’s characters rarely acted in such a fashion unless provoked to the absolute limit…or to put it another way, the modus operandi that cartoon character Bugs Bunny adopted (“Of course you realize this means war!”). Fields’ Wolfinger suffers the slings and arrows of the torments offered up by his wife and her family — and yet he does it with a Zen-like stoicism that instantly puts the viewer in his corner. The best example of this is in the film’s opening sequence, when Mrs. Wolfinger implores her husband to do something about the burglars in the basement and he uses every trick in the book imaginable to stave off venturing downstairs and checking out the situation {“The more haste, the less speed”). He exasperates the ol' ball-and-chain by taking forever to put on his socks (he even blows into them) and becoming distracted by items in a drawer (a pair of gloves, walnuts) while looking for a pistol he keeps on the premises. At one point during this drama he decides to phone the neighborhood patrol for assistance…and ends up dialing the wrong phone number by mistake. When Mrs. Wolfinger learns that Ambrose was talking to a woman on the other end, the burglar situation is shoved to the side as she scolds her husband for talking to strange women in the middle of the night!

The wonderful facet of Fields’ film characters is that as exasperating as they are in their habits, by the end of the film they emerge as heroes, staying true-to-form to their nature while neither losing their patience of attempting to reform. And although the wives in the comedian’s film do their darndest to try and mold him into something different they end up loving him for his infuriating tendencies.

There’s no shortage of vintage Fieldsian one-liners in this film, either:
MRS. NESELRODE:When I was a young and pretty girl I always vowed to my parents that lips that touched liquor would never touch mine…
AMBROSE: Oh, yeah…pretty sentiment…very nice…that was fine…needed to say that…

(Upon hearing the drunks’ singing)
PATROLMAN: Do you remember that tune?
AMBROSE: We used to sing it up at the old Tehachapi Glee Club many years ago…brings back fond memories…before I was married…

(Locked in with his cellmate)
MANIAC: I had three wives…
AMBROSE: Oh, yes…
MANIAC: But this is the first one I killed in all my life!
AMBROSE: Oh, that's in your favor, yeah…they have no more case against you than a sheep has against a butcher…

HOPE (on the subject of Ambrose’s brother-in-law): He stole that ticket out of your pocket…I despise him, Dad…the lazy, good-for-nothing, fat, overfed monkey!
AMBROSE: He…uh…he isn't too fat...

AMBROSE (describing the sons of one of his boss’ clients): One is a champion tennis player, and the other is a manly little fellow…

AMBROSE: My poor mother-in-law died three days ago...I'm attending her funeral this afternoon...
SECRETARY: Isn't that terrible, Mr. Wolfinger!
AMBROSE: Yes, it's terrible...it's awful...horrible tragedy...
SECRETARY: It must be hard to lose your mother-in-law...
AMBROSE: Yes, it is, very hard...it's almost imposs...it's very diffi...it's hard to lose a... (His voice trails off)

Fields’ screen persona was so firmly established that although his vehicles were directed by comedy veterans like Norman Z. McLeod, George Marshall, Erle C. Kenton and Eddie Cline, the term “direction” in this instance is sort of a euphemism for “traffic cop” because Fields essentially directed himself. But Flying Trapeze is an exception to this — though the film is credited to writer-director Clyde Bruckman, Fields ended up having to take over for his old friend when Bruckman became too sick (as a result of Bruckman's alcoholism) to continue. Bruckman has always been a curious figure in the history of film comedy; he wrote and directed films for the likes of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, the Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello, but it’s often debated just how much input he had on their actual work…particularly because, again, those individuals possessed such well-known screen identities. Bruckman’s habit of borrowing from his earlier scripts (often verbatim, as in the case of the “magician’s coat” sequence from Lloyd’s Movie Crazy [1932] turning up a 1942 Stooges short, Loco Boy Makes Good) didn’t do much for his reputation, either; in fact, he lifted bits from Flying Trapeze and used them in Columbia two-reel comedies such as Nothing But Pleasure {1940; Keaton) and Andy Plays Hookey (1946; Andy Clyde).

Many of Fields’ familiar cronies are on hand here in Flying Trapeze, notably Tammany Young (who “caddies” for W.C. in Telling and plays the dimwitted store assistant in Gift) and Howard, who was Fields’ wife in Gift and “Mrs. Murchison” in Telling. But the film is significant in that it features one of the earliest appearances from one of the comedian’s favorite utility players, character great Grady Sutton. Sutton can be glimpsed in Fields’ 1933 two-reeler The Pharmacist, and he would later be put to good use in You Can’t Cheat a Honest Man (1939) and Bank (as Fields’ prospective son-in-law, Og Oggilby). Sutton would remark in later years that Fields’ insistence on using him in his films (the comedian liked how Grady reacted to him) put him in particularly bad odor with Paramount, who had someone else in mind for the roles. Sutton is hysterical here as the babyish and pampered Claude, a man so lazy he takes naps after breakfast...and when Wolfinger punches out the sponger toward the film's end audiences seeing the film in a theater have been known to cheer.

I think that perhaps the main reason why Man on the Flying Trapeze is my favorite Fields romp is that because for many years the film wasn’t as accessible as some of the other celluloid greats—but fortunately, the release of the feature on Universal’s DVD collection W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Volume 2 in March 2007 rectified this injustice. Still, there are a few wonderful Fields titles MIA on disc — including Million Dollar Legs (1932), Tillie and Gus (1933) and Mississippi (1935). Fields fans will need to purchase the Region 2 box set W.C. Fields Collection to get their full flask of Fields…suffering sciatica!


Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. sweeps the floors at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and considers W.C. Fields to be one of the funniest men to have ever walked the planet.

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When I read the quotations I can hear Fields' voice saying them. He was truly unique. No one has done as good a job at developing both comedic phrases and comedic visuals that stick in the memory and still bring laughter so many decades later. - Tyvor Winn
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