Saturday, July 5, 2014

My Little Chickadee (Universal, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was My Little Chickadee, the 1940 Universal production that became the first and only film to co-star Mae West and W. C. Fields (that’s the order in which they’re billed). At the time Universal was working to upgrade the level of its productions, and one of their strategies was to raid the Paramount contract list for stars who had burned out their careers there, which included Fields, West and Marlene Dietrich (who after being named to the infamous Harry Brandt “box-office poison” list in 1938 made a smashing comeback in 1939 in the Universal comedy-Western Destry Rides Again). Mae West had started in films in Paramount’s Night After Night in 1932 (the stars were George Raft as a speakeasy owner and Constance Cummings as the society woman he goes after, but no one watched them; West had only a supporting role but she was allowed to write her own dialogue, and in the film’s most famous scene West strolls into the speakeasy, dripping with diamonds — they were real, and her own — and one of the other patrons says, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds.” “Goodness had nothing to do with it, honey,” West fires back, in a line that became so associated with her she used it as the title of her autobiography) and then had back-to-back blockbusters in 1933, She Done Him Wrong (based on West’s own stage play, Diamond Lil) and I’m No Angel, both with a young Cary Grant as her leading man. (The story West told was that she lined up all the young juveniles who were under contract to Paramount, walked up and down the line, finally decided on which one she wanted, tapped Cary Grant on the shoulder and said, “This one.” It’s probably apocryphal; Grant had already been under contract to Paramount for over a year when he made She Done Him Wrong, and among his roles had been the male lead in a non-musical Madame Butterfly opposite Sylvia Sidney and a showcase role opposite Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus.) West’s films generally had weak directors — Lowell Sherman in She Done Him Wrong and Wesley Ruggles in I’m No Angel — but that didn’t matter because West herself was the auteur: not only did she insist on writing her own scripts, she stipulated that her credit as writer be in type 75 percent the size of her credit as star. West’s success helped pull Paramount Pictures out of Depression-era bankruptcy in 1933 (though another new Paramount signing around the same time, Bing Crosby, also helped), and she looked headed for a long and prosperous screen career when disaster struck in the form of a Roman Catholic pressure group called the Legion of Decency.

In the four years since the motion picture industry had promulgated its Production Code — an effort at self-censorship to ward off direct government censorship of movies (which was perfectly legal since in 1912 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that movies were strictly “a business” and therefore the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech didn’t apply to them; that wasn’t reversed until 1953) — it had been honored more in the breach than the observance, giving the films of the so-called “pre-Code” era a sassy, openly sexual verve the movies didn’t recapture until the 1960’s when the Code broke down completely. Alas, this also triggered a counter-revolution, and though she wasn’t the only one who was pushing the “moral” envelope in films, Mae West became the would-be censors’ public enemy number one. She was not only out-front about playing a woman with a cheery disregard for propriety in general and monogamy in particular (in one famous exchange in She Done Him Wrong Cary Grant asked her, “Haven’t you ever met a man who could make you happy?,” and she fired back, “Sure — lots of times”), she was doing so in scripts that had her name on them in letters 75 percent the size of her star credit so she couldn’t claim (not that she would have wanted to!) that she was being made to say dirty stuff by some sinister manipulators behind the cameras. The Legion started rating films as either “A” (“morally unobjectionable for all”), “B” (“morally objectionable in part for all”), or “C” (“condemned — morally objectionable for all”). West’s fourth film was in production when the Legion hit, and the Legion and pressure from the movies’ own Production Code Administration (which now had the power to censor movies twice, once in script form and once again after they were shot) led not only to a sequence of title changes, from It Ain’t No Sin to St. Louis Woman to the anodyne Belle of the Nineties (West gravitated to the 1890’s as a setting for most of her films because it was when her sort of zaftig figure, bound into an hourglass shape by tight-fitting corsets, was considered the epitome of female sexiness), but to the film’s evisceration, including the all too obvious editing out of one of the verses of West’s big song, “When a St. Louis Woman Comes Down to New Orleans.” After that, West’s subsequent films for Paramount (Goin’ to Town, Klondike Annie, Go West Young Man — note the absence of a comma in the official title — and Every Day’s a Holiday) plummeted in both the ribald raciness that had been West’s pre-Code trademark and in their box-office returns.

At the same time Paramount was having problems with their great comedy star, W. C. Fields — though less due to censorship (one of Fields’ peculiar talents was his ability to say innocuous things like “Godfrey Daniel!” and “Drat!” and make them sound dreadfully obscene) than his growing alcoholism and bouts of ill health that forced the studio to shoot a lot of his last two films for them, Poppy and The Big Broadcast of 1938, with his stand-in Bill Oberlin and others doubling for him. Universal signed both West and Fields after Paramount was done with them, and immediately put Fields into a film called You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy characters, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Fields and Bergen had already done a series of radio shows together in which Fields wisecracked a series of insults and Bergen (whose own character remained generally lovable but used Charlie McCarthy as an outlet for the savage, more insulting aspects of his persona) gave back as good as he got: they were full of lines like Fields saying, “Quiet, wormwood, or I’ll whittle you down to a coat hanger,” and McCarthy saying, “I’ll stick a wick in your mouth and use you for an alcohol lamp.” Unfortunately, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man didn’t reproduce the anarchic spirit of the Fields-Bergen radio shows; though Fields (under his alias “Charles Bogle”) wrote the original story, it was yet another movie of Fields trying to pave the way for his daughter (whom he was raising as a single father — in the original story Fields wanted to show the mother, trapeze performer Madame Gorgeous, die in a fall during her act, and he tried to get that scene into two other Universal movies but the studio kept saying no way, what’s funny about that?) to marry into an upper-class family that wants no part of him or his carnie background, and it previewed so badly that Fields was called back for extensive retakes and therefore had to give up a part he’d really wanted to do, the title role in The Wizard of Oz. (As everybody knows, Frank Morgan replaced him, beautifully.) Universal’s next attempt to revive both Fields’ and West’s careers was to pair them, but Fields and West got along off-screen as well as Fields and Bergen had, which was about as well as the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The original idea was for the two stars to collaborate on the screenplay, since both were used to writing for themselves (though Fields usually took his writing credits under preposterous aliases like “Otis J. Criblecoblis” or “Mahatma Kane Jeeves”), but according to a 1969 interview West gave to Life magazine, she wrote the entire script except for one scene in which Fields takes over as bartender in the local saloon. What’s more, instead of a simple framework to set off lots of ribald comedy and songs, West created an elaborately plotted story of skullduggery and mistaken identity obviously inspired by David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West. In the opening scene, Flower Belle Lee (Mae West) is being romanced by a masked bandit, who has ostensibly kidnapped her from a stagecoach he and his gang were robbing but who later turns up in her bedroom, obviously invited, and is spied therein by town busybody Mrs. Gideon (Margaret Hamilton, who unlike Fields did get to be in The Wizard of Oz and who turns in a marvelous comic performance equal to the ones she gave in Wizard and Judy Garland’s next film after it, Babes in Arms). As a result, the city fathers throw her out of the small town where the film opens and tell her she’s not to return until she’s both respectable and married. On a train to Greasewood, the lawless town where she’s been exiled, she meets con man Cuthbert J. Twillie (W. C. Fields) and spies a satchel full of what looks like legitimate currency but is only coupons advertising Twillie’s hair tonic. Thinking Twillie is a loaded pigeon she can pluck, she gets Amos Budge (Donald Meek) to pose as a minister and “marry” them (five years after Meek similarly impersonated a clergyman and “married” Ginger Rogers and Erik Rhodes in the 1935 Astaire-Rogers film Top Hat). The train is attacked by Indians and Flower Belle becomes an action heroine, grabbing pistols and shooting down the attackers like shooting-gallery targets, though later of course Twillie (who spent the whole attack in a dead faint) claims that he successfully defended the train against the Indians (in a scene written so much like Sir John Falstaff’s description of the Gadshill Robbery in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 that it underscores once again what a cultural tragedy it is that Fields never got to play Falstaff on film: the character and the performer were made for each other!). During the attack the man who was supposed to take over as Greasewood’s new sheriff is killed, and when they arrive town boss Jeff Badger (Joseph Calleia) decides to make Twillie the sheriff, on the ground that he’ll be totally incompetent and cowardly and allow Badger to operate his illegal enterprises to his heart’s content. Meanwhile, honest newspaper editor Wayne Carter (Dick Foran) is trying to expose Badger and establish law, order and honest government in Greasewood.

Of course, since they’re both males in a Mae West movie, they fall for her instantly — as does just about everybody else with a dick in the dramatis personae, including a grizzled old Civil War veteran and a gang of young hooligans who’ve scared their schoolteacher into a faint (an awful lot of people faint in this movie!). Flower Belle replaces her and enchants them with both her charms (West was 46 when she made this film but heavy makeup and Joseph Valentine’s gorgeous cinematography makes her credible as the irresistible ingénue she’s supposed to be playing) and her salty comments on arithmetic, history and values (as she exits the classroom she sees written on the blackboard, “I am a good boy, I am a good man, I am a good girl,” and snarls, “What is this — propaganda?”). The main intrigue between West and Fields consists of a running gag in which he keeps trying to get into the huge bridal suite in Greasewood’s one hotel for marital relations, and she keeps fending him off, eventually tricking him into going to bed with a goat. My Little Chickadee isn’t quite the comic romp one could have imagined with two such powerful and charismatic stars — indeed, some of the stories that have circulated about the production suggest that Universal might have got a funnier movie if they’d turned the cameras around and filmed the bitter backstage rivalry between West and Fields — and it’s clear that the Production Code was still wrapping West’s character in its clammy embrace and forbidding her to do what she did best. (After My Little Chickadee, she did just one more film — The Heat’s On, a modern-dress comedy for Columbia in 1943 whose script, which West did not write, ripped off its basic plot from the 1934 Warner Bros. musical Dames, though given how much her career had suffered from censorship she was probably happy to be doing a movie lampooning it — and then went back to stage work, touring in a revival of Diamond Lil and then doing a show with musclemen, one of whom, Mickey Hargitay, married Jayne Mansfield, fathered Law and Order: Special Victims Unit star Mariska Hargitay and sponsored Arnold Schwarzenegger’s immigration to the U.S.)

It also doesn’t help that West gets to do just one song, “Willie of the Valley” by Ben Oakland and Milton Drake, on the stage of Badger’s saloon, and not only does it not make sense it’s hardly in the same league as “A Guy What Takes His Time,” “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone” (a traditional blues which West was the first white singer to perform), “When a St. Louis Woman Comes Down to New Orleans,” the awesome “Troubled Waters” and the other great songs West had done in her early Paramount films. Also, does it need to be said that Jeff Badger turns out to be the Masked Bandit — one of the least surprising twists in movie history since both speak with the same tacky Frito Bandito version of a “Mexican” accent — though this does set up a delicious ending in which Twillie disguises himself as the Masked Bandit and uses that guise in his latest attempt to get into Flower Belle’s room. Flower Belle calls him a cheat and Twillie snarls, in W. C. Fields’ great comic snarl, “A thing worth having is worth cheating for!” As the townspeople are about to lynch Twillie for being the Masked Bandit, in a spoof of the rescue scene at the end of The Girl of the Golden West, Flower Belle’s well-aimed pistol shot severs the rope with which he was about to be hanged, the two say their farewells in the lobby of the Greasewood hotel, and Twillie says, “If you get up around the Grampian Hills, you must come up and see me sometime” — to which Flower Belle replies, with Mae West screwing up her voice to sound more gravelly and Fieldsian, “Thanks. I’ll do that, my little chickadee.” It’s an affectionate tribute between two stars who apparently felt everything but affection for each other for real!