March 26, 2018
$19.95 DVD; $29.95 Blu-ray;
Stars W.C. Fields, Marie Shotwell, Mary Brian, Barnett Raskin.
Getting a simultaneous release with Kino’s Blu-ray release of the W.C. Fields-Louis Brooks pairing It’s the Old Army Game from 1926 — which arrived too late to include here, though it’s long been a personal want-to-see — the following year’s Running Wild saw Fields working with Gregory La Cava, the director he is said to have most admired. A decade later, La Cava delivered one of the more potent consecutive 1-2 punches from any filmmaker in the 1930s: My Man Godfrey and Stage Door, which is not to suggest this one is like either of those. Nor, in the unlikely case you’re wondering, does it resemble Mamie Van Doren’s j.d. mammary melodrama Running Wild from 1955, though it absolutely follows the blueprint of some of the comedian’s Paramount talkies.
Or to put it another way, we get a slightly softer version of the standard harridan wife, a worthlessly doughy inherited stepson who’d like to outdo Jaws as an eating machine, an attractive daughter from a previous marriage who loves him, plus, as expected, headaches at work. The movie is very much like 1935’s The Man on the Flying Trapeze, a big favorite of mine from the middle chunk of its decade and probably my preferred Fields of all except for the incomparable It’s a Gift, which is a contender for my No. 1 guffaw-maker of all time.
Wild, as is noted on the bonus commentary track by historian/author James L. Niebur (The W.C. Fields Films), may be more familiar to some moviegoers than other Fields silents because Paramount Home Entertainment — in a rare acknowledgment it had had ever even heard of titles in its “deep archive” — included this title as one of the releases it issued to celebrate the studio’s 75th anniversary back in the VHS era. Even without comparing the Paramount reality to the heroically yeoman effort by Ted Turner and his colleagues in preserving and easily making available the MGM library, horrifically few Paramount silents even exist terms of numbers — a jinx forever exacerbated when some genius also sold the studio’s 1929-49 early-talkie library (the greatest single TV movie package of all time) to MCA in the late ’50s, which is how Universal eventually ended up owning them. But at least controlling Paramount has now leased some of these onetime VHS silents to Kino for Blu-ray distribution, which is how Army Game is also getting a fresh higher-def release and how 1923’s The Covered Wagon got one a few weeks ago. Were the latter Western milestone not such a certified stiff despite its onetime prodigious popularity, acclaim and impressive location atmospherics, I’d probably write about it here. After all, it was said to have been Warren G. Harding’s favorite movie — adjust the marquee for the blurb — though I notice that he died just a few months after seeing it.
But: La Cava’s crowd-pleaser is anything but a stiff and even funnier than I expected, given that Fields without his vocal deliveries would seem to be an ultimate in cramped style. And yet, he was such a physical performer — and, at his best, La Cava was a deft visual director even in cramped spaces — that surprising little is missed here. A big difference to fans of Fields talkies will be the caterpillar mustache he sports — and an overall appearance that doesn’t look young, exactly, yet subtly different. Like, say, Spencer Tracy, Fields was seemingly born on the senor side — and even were he 24, we’d look at Mary Brian, who plays his comely daughter and immediately wonder, “Uh, what did mom look like?”
The deal here is that Brian needs something than more than a housedress to wear to an upcoming rug-cutting event she’ll be attending with the son of her father’s boss, with Fields unable to come through with the payment because he hasn’t had a raise in 20 years from his novelty-wares employer. Wife No. 2 is no help, given her lack of sympathy for any daughter from a previous marriage — and she, in fact, laments her vanished past life by decorating the living room with a huge framed picture of her original spouse. The manner in which the worm turns for Fields is not just funny but sustained-funny, and a movie that’s amusing enough in the early going turns outright riotous in its second half. The catalyst here is a professional hypnotist who works his magic on Fields in front of a theatrical audience, the kind of mass entertainment that only a limited few can claim to have witnessed. (As late as 1960, I can recall one of my town’s mammoth movie houses presenting “The Amazing (Joseph) Dunninger” — a nationally known mentalist who made frequent TV appearances during my gleefully misspent ’50s childhood and got spoofed by a young pre-Carnac Johnny Carson on daytime TV as “The Amazing Dillinger.”)
The print here is in very good shape for its age, and Niebur’s commentary has the germane info about the supporting players one would hope for one these kind of backgrounders — including the fact that this is the only screen credit of Barnett Raskin, who plays the eating-machine stepson. He’s a standout here both in terms of physical perfection for the role and his own expressive abilities, and one would think he could have rated subsequent employment, at least in this kind of role (Grady Sutton would kind of take over this franchise in the talkie era). Teenaged Raskin is an even better foil for Fields than Marie Shotwell as the Mrs. (and she’s quite good), figuring in a satisfying adversarial wrap-up in which Donald Sosin’s piano accompaniment is at its jauntiest.