Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Old-Fashioned Way (Paramount, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After spending 2 ½ hours on The Great Gatsby I wanted a fundamentally different sort of film, and I ended up showing The Old-Fashioned Way, the greatest movie William Beaudine ever directed and one of W. C. Fields’ best comic vehicles. It’s set during the 1890’s and based on a story by “Charles Bogle” (i.e., W. C. Fields), scripted by Garnett Weston and Jack Cunningham, which casts Fields as The Great McGonigle, leader of a touring theatrical company that plays such standards of the 1890’s repertoire as The Drunkard and East Lynne. Indeed, scenes from The Drunkard appear in the film — the cast members playing in the play-within-the-film get their own section in the credits — and Fields does the villain’s role to perfection. He also gets a spectacular juggling scene in which he immortalizes the famous cigar-box trick, which he invented shortly after he ran away from home in his teens to become a traveling entertainer because he couldn’t afford professional juggling equipment and so he had to go D.I.Y. The cigar-box routine Fields invented became incredibly popular — Charlie Parker remembered seeing Black vaudevillians on the TOBA (Theatre Owners’ Booking Association, though nicknamed by its performers “Tough on Black Asses”) circuit perform it in his childhood, and in the 1970’s I saw a live juggler reproduce it on stage and give Fields the credit (and he probably learned it from watching this movie!) — and it’s a real blessing we have it captured on film.

 The Old-Fashioned Way, like most of Fields’ films, is more a succession of great scenes than a unified plot, but the gags are hilarious and come right after each other in a way we hardly get in today’s so-called “comedies.” From the opening — in which Fields sets fire to the summons a county sheriff is about to serve him, uses it to light his cigar and thanks the man for providing a light — throughout the film, Fields is in lovable-rogue mode, stealing a sleeper-car ticket from a fellow train passenger and getting indignant when his ownership of the ticket is challenged (and literally stepping into the copious nightgown of the passenger in the berth below him, played by an uncredited Billy Gilbert); talking wealthy widow Cleopatra Pepperday (the marvelous Jan Duggan) from the town of Bellefountaine into paying off his debts by promising her one line in the play (which she rehearses — “Here comes the prince!” — incessantly in a gag Fields and his writers might have borrowed from Winnie Lightner’s role in Gold Diggers on Broadway) and then stiffing her; and Fields’ by-play with the infamous Baby LeRoy as Pepperday’s son. Baby LeRoy throws food at Fields over the Pepperday dinner table every chance he gets, and when Cleopatra says she can’t understand why he’s behaving that way around McGonigle — “You really should see him when he’s by himself!” — Fields mutters under his breath as only he could mutter, “I’d like to catch him when he’s by himself.”

There’s a hair’s-breath of a plot to this movie: it has to do with Fields’ daughter, Betty McGonigle (Judith Allen, who has some of the marvelous tremulous quality of Barbara Stanwyck and on the strength of her performance here should have had more of a career than she got), who’s part of dad’s troupe and who also has attracted the attentions of Wally Livingston (Joe Morrison, who had the misfortune of being a quite good Irish tenor just when the bottom was dropping out of the market for Irish tenors). Wally is the son of a rich manufacturer (Oscar Apfel) who wants him to abandon his dreams of the theatre and go to college — and Betty actually feels the same way, but Wally is determined that he won’t leave the theatre unless Betty agrees to marry him and dad blesses the union. (Fields was obviously thinking of the incredible disrepute actors were held in during the 1890’s, something he’d experienced personally. He was fond of telling a joke from the period in which a young man runs away from home and, years later, comes back to his parents with his tail between his legs. They ask him what he’s been doing while he’s been away, and after a lot of hemming and hawing he tearfully confesses, “I’ve been … an actor!” His parents say, “An actor! And to think we thought you’d become a nice, respectable burglar!”) Fields completes his troupe’s run in Bellefountaine but then receives a telegram that ticket sales are so poor the rest of his tour has been canceled, and in a scene that shows that Fields — as much as he loathed Chaplin in general and Chaplin’s celebrated pathos in particular — could be a quite good actor and do pathos of his own, he puts on a good face and tells his daughter he’s got a New York offer that doesn’t include her, so she should marry the nice young man, get him to go to college and settle down with him. In a memorable final scene, we see what he’s really doing for a living: hawking a patent medicine supposedly invented by the Yack Wee Indian tribe, pushing it as a cure for hoarseness and faking hoarseness himself so he can drink some of the stuff, then boom out at fortissimo volume, “IT CURES HOARSENESS!”