Saturday, February 6, 2016

Man on the Flying Trapeze (Paramount, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Man on the Flying Trapeze (no article at the start of the title, by the way), made by Paramount in 1935 and directed by Clyde Bruckman from a script by Ray Harris and Sam Hardy based on an original story by Hardy and “Charles Bogle” (i.e., W. C. Fields). According to a trivia item on, Fields himself directed much of this film because Bruckman was by then a hopeless alcoholic who didn’t show up much of the time and was pretty far out of it when he did try to work. The idea of W. C. Fields, with his legendary alcohol intake, having to cover for someone even more fond of the bottle than he is bizarre — particularly since the film begins with a drinking scene: two burglars (Tammany Young and the young Walter Brennan, a year before his breakthrough role in Sam Goldwyn’s production Come and Get It which won him the first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) are sent, independently, by the same crime boss to break into the cellar of the Wolfinger home and steal the silver. The residents are Ambrose Wolfinger (W. C. Fields), who works as a memory expert for a woolen mill and whose encyclopedic knowledge of every buyer the company deals with is crucial to its success; his wife Leona (Kathleen Howard, who also played Fields’ nagging wife the year before in It’s a Gift); Ambrose’s daughter (by a now-dead previous wife) Hope (Mary Brian, who was on her way up to a major ingénue career in the late silent era and never quite cracked the “A”-list but did make the transition to sound O.K. — she’s the normal girl reporter Hildy Johnson [Pat O’Brien] wants to give up his career to marry in the 1931 version of The Front Page); Leona’s mother Mrs. Neselrode (Vera Lewis); and her no-account son Claude (played by Grady Sutton in a surprisingly unsympathetic role for him — when Fields used him again in The Bank Dick he was the juvenile lead, but here he’s playing a lazy bum who’s living off Ambrose’s money and laughing whenever he has a misfortune).

Leona hears the burglars harmonizing on the song “On the Banks of the Wabash” and first asks Ambrose if he left the radio on; when he mutters, in Fields’ trademark mutter, that he didn’t, she leaps to the conclusion that there are burglars singing in their cellar. The burglars, it seems, are helping themselves to Wolfinger’s stash of homemade applejack and singing more loudly and enthusiastically as they get more and more drunk. When Ambrose finally calls the cops, the policeman who responds also samples some of the homemade applejack, gets drunk and joins in the song — as does Ambrose himself when he crashes through the cellar door. Eventually the cop takes both the burglars and Ambrose down to the police station — and the night-court judge sentences Ambrose to $30 or thirty days for having made an alcoholic beverage without a license. (Some of the dates on his bottles show he was already making the stuff during Prohibition.) Leona decides that leaving her errant husband in jail will teach him a lesson, but daughter Hope bails him out using her own savings. Ambrose has bought a $15 front-row ticket to an upcoming world wrestling championship match between reigning champion Tosoff (Tor Johnson, getting to show his face — at least what we can see of it through the outrageously phony beard plastered on him to make him look “Russian” — in a classic film with a legendary star two decades before those bizarre films he made for Ed Wood) and Iranian challenger Hookalakah Meshobbab (Harry Ekezian). Only while he’s in jail, still wearing his pajamas and bathrobe, Claude lifts the ticket and goes to the match himself. Still determined to go, Ambrose asks his boss, Mr. Malloy (Oscar Apfel), for the afternoon off — only he lies and says he’s going to attend his mother-in-law’s funeral.

Malloy immediately decides that Mrs. Neselrode must have died from drinking poisoned liquor — of course, the real Mrs. Neselrode is not only very much alive but hasn’t drunk in her life! — and directs his assistant, Mr. Peabody (Lucien Littlefield), to announce it to the staff and encourage them to send flowers to the Wolfinger home. He also places a story about it in the local paper. Meanwhile, Ambrose is put through the trials of the damned in his attempt to attend the wrestling match, including three, count ’em, three cops who all write him tickets for the same offense (one of the cops stops him and has him pull into a no-parking zone which the other two ticket him for parking in), a supercilious chauffeur who blocks his way as he’s trying to get out, a large trunk dumped in the middle of the street blocking his way in the other direction, a flat tire and a runaway spare which, in the film’s most bizarre scene, Ambrose has to chase down as it bounds onto a railroad track and several times Ambrose has to dodge an oncoming train (the wheel switches tracks just before he does!) while he’s chasing it down so he can bring it back and put it on his car. By the time he gets to the match — which his secretary (played by Carlotta Monti, Fields’ real-life girlfriend) is also attending — it’s sold out and, standing at the entrance futilely trying to get in, Ambrose is knocked down as Meshobbab throws Tosoff out of the ring and Tosoff lands squarely on Ambrose’s body. His secretary is knocked down, too, and Claude — just coming out of the match he attended on the ticket he stole from Ambrose — sees the two of them in the gutter and reports back to his mom and sister that Ambrose took his secretary to the match and both of them were obviously drunk. When Mr. Peabody learns that Ambrose’s mother-in-law is alive and he lied about her death to get the afternoon off, he fires him — only, in the sort of worm-turning scene that had to end these productions, Hope gets on the phone with a desperate Malloy, who needs Wolfinger not only for his memory but also because Wolfinger’s papers are filed in a totally disorganized-looking system and therefore he’s the only one who can find anything in the mess, agrees to daughter Hope’s demand that Ambrose not only be rehired but given four weeks’ vacation and a raise. The final shot is of Ambrose offering his family a ride in his new car — Hope and his wife Leona are allowed to sit with him but the Neselrodes are forced to ride in the rumble seat during a torrential rainstorm.

Whatever the extent of Clyde Bruckman’s involvement in this film, Man on the Flying Trapeze certainly shows his “touch” — like the only other film in which he directed Fields, the screamingly funny Mack Sennett short The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), he and his writers lard on the complications to almost surrealistic levels. Fields’ character emerges as an almost Kafka-esque Everyman kept from doing what he wants to by forces not only beyond his control but seemingly arrayed against him by a supernatural power. I remember when I first saw this film in the early 1970’s on Channel 36, the San José station we inexplicably got over the air with seemingly better signal quality than some of the local channels, I decided it was Fields’ best movie ever — and while I’m not sure I would rate it that highly this time around, it’s certainly one of his best, distinguished (like The Fatal Glass of Beer) by Bruckman’s mordant sensibility. Bruckman had a sad later life — in the 1920’s he had worked as a writer for Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy, among others, and had risen to director status (Bruckman and gag writer Al Boasberg are credited as the directors of Keaton’s 1926 masterpiece, The General, though with that movie one suspects that Keaton himself was the real auteur; and certainly Bruckman’s experience with Keaton and trains is readily apparent here in that gag of Fields chasing the tire down the railroad tracks!) but after directing some of Lloyd’s first talkies (Welcome Danger, Feet First, Movie Crazy) he ended up at Universal in the 1940’s writing gags for the vest-pocket hour-long cheapie musicals that were a large stock of Universal’s stock in trade. In 1950 he worked on Keaton’s local TV show on KTLA-Los Angeles but couldn’t get any work anywhere else, especially once Lloyd sued him for plagiarism for having recycled a gag he’d created for Lloyd in one of the Universal musicals. In 1955 he asked Keaton to loan him a gun and used it to kill himself. So one isn’t surprised to see his name as the credited director on a movie about a man whose fates seem bound and determined to make him as miserable as possible! Man on the Flying Trapeze certainly has a family resemblance to Fields’ other movies playing a put-upon husband — the presence of Kathleen Howard as his wife certainly points back to It’s a Gift, where she played essentially the same role — but it ramps up the tropes to an almost surrealistic level of misery, and for that I tend to credit Bruckman more than Fields himself or the other writers.

Man on the Flying Trapeze is also quite well acted — not only by Fields himself, who for all his hatred of Chaplin was quite good at his own brand of pathos, but also by Mary Brian (in what could have turned into just another stick-figure ingénue she turns in a performance of real power and drive), Grady Sutton (seizing his rare chance to play an unsympathetic role instead of a charming if ineffectual milquetoast) and even Walter Brennan in that short role at the beginning as one of the burglars — and whoever plays the third and nastiest of the cops Ambrose gets ticketed by is also quite good in his dreadful, patronizing snottiness. But it’s the overall mise en scène that sets this one apart from Fields’ other henpecked-husband films (with the arguable exception of The Bank Dick); Bruckman and the writers make Fields so put-upon we can’t help but root for him. Man on the Flying Trapeze is a glorious movie, well cast top to bottom (Rosemary Theby, who played Fields’ wife in his other film with Bruckman, The Fatal Glass of Beer, appears here in the tiny role of “Helpful Passerby,” and the screen’s very first movie star, Florence Lawrence (at least the first who was billed on screen by name and publicized to “sell” her films), supposedly has a minor part in here even though lists her in the back end of their cast list and doesn’t credit her role. This is a great film — maybe I will still call it W. C.’s best! — and an excellent example of how much funnier comedies used to be than they are now. One humorous (unintentionally) mistake was when the boss orders Mr. Peabody to look up Ambrose Wolfinger in the phone book — and he opens the book to the middle. A real name beginning with “W” would, of course, turn up towards the end. And I still don’t know why the film has the title it does — unless the original plan was to have Wolfinger, the burglars and the cop sing “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” and it was only at the last minute that they decided to have Fields and company sing “On the Banks of the Wabash” instead. (This and the other Fields/Bruckman collaboration, The Fatal Glass of Beer, are the only films I know of in which W. C. Fields sings — if you can call it that.)