Thursday, February 2, 2012

You're Telling Me! (Paramount, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was You’re Telling Me!, a 1934 Paramount vehicle for W. C. Fields. Basically Fields’ movies fit into one of two categories, the “husband” movies and the “carnie” movies, and this was definitely a “husband” movie. Fields plays Samuel Bisbee, professional optometrist (though we never actually see him working as such) and amateur inventor who’s been working for 10 years to perfect his latest, and most commercially promising, invention, a totally puncture-proof car tire. He’s also got the usual battle-axe wife he had to contend with in these films, Bessie Bisbee (Louise Carter), and their nice ingénue daughter Pauline (Joan Marsh, whose winsome manner and authority when the role calls for it should have marked her for biggers and betters) has fallen in love with the son of their small town’s richest people, the Murchisons.

Her boyfriend Bob (Buster Crabbe, billed as Larry “Buster” Crabbe before he got typecast in roles like Tarzan and Flash Gordon) is a down-to-earth guy but his parents (Fred Sullivan and Kathleen Howard) are insufferable status-conscious snobs; at one point Mrs. Murchison is willing to relent and allow the marriage when she learns that Bessie Bisbee’s maiden name was Warren and she was one of the Virginia Warrens — only to break it off again when Sam comes home unexpectedly, rolling an automobile wheel containing his experimental tire and acting like the down-to-earth working-class guy he is. You’re Telling Me! (the exclamation point is on the opening title card) began as a Redbook short story in the early 1920’s called “Mr. Bisbee’s Princess” by Julian Leonard Street (though the magazine’s name back then was Red Book — two words); it’s unclear when the magazine first published it but it appeared in book form as part a collection of Street’s stories, Mr. Bisbee’s Princess and Other Stories, in 1925. Unusually for a Fields movie, he isn’t credited as a writer, either under his own name or a pseudonym — though “Charles Bogle,” a name he commonly used later on for his writing credits (and before that he’d used as a gag in his stage act, drawing out the “o” in “Bogle” to unusual Fieldsian lengths), appears on the cast list as the name of a minor character.

It’s not clear just who thought this old story would be a suitable Fields vehicle, but he certainly put his stamp on it even though some of the movie’s funniest scenes either were or seemed to have been spliced in almost at random — in one sequence he’s told that he can square things with his wife by bringing her a pet bird, and he decides that he needs a bigger bird than his friend’s, so there are some screamingly funny scenes in which he’s attempting to lead an ostrich down the streets; and the writers contrive to have the film end on a golf course so Fields can do his famous “Golf Specialist” routine, first introduced by him in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915 and filmed on its own as an RKO short in 1930 (though that film presented it as it would have been on stage, in front of a painted backdrop representing the opening tee of a golf course, whereas here it’s filmed on an actual golf course — or at least a reasonable simulacrum thereof on the Paramount backlot). It’s also one of those movies whose plot resembles a bell-shaped curve, with Fields’ fortunes plummeting until at the midpoint he’s contemplating suicide — his wife is mad at him, his daughter has broken up with her boyfriend and blames dad, and his demonstration of the puncture-proof tire (which he tests by shooting a gun at it, itself leading to some very bizarre black-humor gags, with Fields telling the demonstration’s witnesses, “Stand back, the bullets bounce”) is a washout when, unbeknownst to him, the police tow away his own car (which he’s equipped with the special tires, but which he parked illegally) and park one of their police cars in its place.

He slinks home on a train and is about to commit suicide by drinking iodine (only he can’t keep his collapsible spoon from collapsing and folding in on itself just when he’s about to raise the fatal dose to his lips) when his deus ex machina appears in the form of Princess Maria Lescaboura (the suitably exotic-looking Adrienne Ames), who also has a bottle of iodine out — she’s only going to use it topically but he’s convinced she, too, is contemplating suicide and talks her out of it. She hears out his story and takes pity on him, insisting that her state visit to the U.S. include a stop at his town, Crystal Springs, and where he’s finding himself the talk of the town for all the wrong reasons — a couple of gossips saw him entering the Princess’s compartment on the train and assumed the worst. The film ends with the Princess (who’s being forced to marry her country’s crown prince even though she loves someone else) rehabilitating Bisbee’s reputation, reconciling him with his wife, getting Bob Murchison and Pauline Bisbee together and starting a bidding war with the National Tire Company over Bisbee’s super-tire (they found Bisbee’s car where the cops had towed it, tested the tires themselves and found they worked) and getting him a $1 million fee plus royalties. As the Princess drives out of town, Bisbee — convinced through all of this that she’s just an ordinary woman posing as a princess — drawls out to her, “We certainly put that princess stuff over, didn’t we?” “You’re telling me!” she says — the only explanation we ever get for the title.

You’re Telling Me! is one of Fields’ best movies, maybe not quite as relentless as his other “husband” movies (The Fatal Glass of Beer, It’s a Gift, The Man on the Flying Trapeze and The Bank Dick) but showing off his skill as a physical comedian as well as a verbal one — the opening is a long pantomime sequence in which a drunk Fields comes home shortly before midnight, takes off his shoes so as not to wake up his wife when he enters, juggles shoes and hat and can’t get his key in the door until he uses another one of his invention, a funnel-shaped device to aid inebriated latecomers in getting their keys in their locks — and also showing how surprisingly agile Fields was before he really got bloated from years of overdrinking. Frankly, it’s jarring to watch Buster Crabbe tower over him in their scenes together! It’s yet another indication of how much better movie comedies were in the classic era — as I’ve noted before, maybe one could make the case that movie dramas have benefited from the greater sexual freedom of the post-Code era, but somehow most of today’s “comedies” offer too few good laughs and too many tasteless “jokes” to be genuinely warm, human or funny. (The few exceptions are movies like Kabluey! that have deliberately sought to evoke older styles of comedy.)