Friday, March 18, 2016

Poppy (Paramount, 1936)

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

The film was Poppy, W. C. Fields’ next-to-last movie for Paramount, made in 1936 when age, alcoholism and injury (he was apparently in back pain through much of the shoot and virtually all the long shots featured a double — Robert Lewis Taylor’s 1949 biography of Fields said it was his stand-in, Bill Oberlin, but lists John Sinclair as his double) were all catching up to him and making it harder for him to work. Indeed, even though he was still popular, he was getting so difficult to work with that Paramount dropped him after one more movie (his overbearing performance in The Big Broadcast of 1938) and Universal picked him up. One odd thing about Fields’ films is that, though still shot on a budget and with relatively short running times (Poppy runs just 71 minutes), his Paramount films have excellent production values — far better than the Universals, which are screamingly funny (especially the last two, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break — a title cribbed from the final line of Poppy) but wretchedly photographed with nary a hint of atmosphere. (Universal was capable of great atmospherics but seemed to reserve them for their horror films and, starting in the mid-1940’s, their noirs.)

Poppy began life as a Broadway musical in 1923 that for the first time gave W. C. Fields the chance to play an actual character instead of just doing comic sketches and juggling routines in a revue. He’s “Professor” Eustace McGargle (a classic Fields moniker), a traveling carnie who worms his way into small-town festivals and is devoted to his young daughter Poppy (Rochelle Hudson), whom he’s raised as a single parent and cared for as best he can given the economically marginal existence they’ve been sharing. In the film’s opening scene — it’s set in 1883 and set designers Hans Drier and Bernard Herzbrun create a beautiful pastoral atmosphere on extensive and elaborate “exteriors” built inside Paramount’s soundstages, while director A. Edward Sutherland and cinematographer William C. Mellor (a considerably more prestigious cameraman than usually shot a Fields movie) give the show a rich, dappled visual look that suffuses the film in a nostalgic, autumnal glow — Eustace and Poppy are on a roadside and she’s lamenting the fact that she’s hungry. “We’re like Robin Hood,” he tells her. “We steal from the rich and give to the poor?” “Which poor?” she asks. “Us poor,” he replies. He gets his chance when they stumble into a small town where a carnival is taking place; he starts working as a barker even though the town’s mayor (Granville Bates) — the event is being sponsored directly by the city — has no idea who he is. McGargle fakes an injury and demands a settlement of $10,000 and a carnival booth; he gets the booth and $10 (though he doesn’t seem to get the money because in the next scene he and Poppy are shown mooching two hot dogs from a carnival vendor and, when the man demands immediate payment, giving him back what’s left of them; “What am I going to do with these?” the vendor asks, and Fields answers, “First you insult me, then you ask for my advice on salesmanship!”), and even before he arrives at the carnival he’s made $20 by selling a bartender a talking dog (McGargle is a ventriloquist), then having the dog say that because he’s so insulted at being sold for so little, “I’ll never say another word again!” (“He probably means it, too,” Fields mutters in his own voice in an aside as he leaves.)

Poppy is so disjointed a movie (Fields almost never made a movie that wasn’t disjointed) that it’s only halfway through the film that we get to the main story: it seems that the largest house in the town is occupied by the Contessa de Puizzi (Catherine Doucet), who’s really an ex-showgirl named Maggie Tubbs who either genuinely got married briefly to a European count or just faked having done so (the script writers Waldemar Young and Virginia Van Upp — also more prestigious names than we usually see on the credits of a Fields film — never quite explained which). When McGargle is introduced to her he says, “Ah, the Countess de Pussy, eh?” — a line whose cheeky audacity is amazing, especially in a “post-Code” film — and there’s a great scene on her croquet lawn in which McGargle pretends to be the world’s greatest croquet player but hasn’t a clue about the game. (The funniest bit is his line, “Who left all these wires all over the lawn?”) But she’s not the rightful owner; it really belongs to Elizabeth Putnam, who ran away from town to join a circus two decades earlier, and this gives McGargle an idea: he’ll fake a marriage certificate between himself and Elizabeth Putnam, claim that Putnam is dead but Poppy is her daughter and therefore the rightful heir. Only the local attorney, Whiffen (the marvelous light comedian Lynne Overman, who got stuck in character roles while two of his friends from his days on Broadway, James Cagney and Spencer Tracy, became major stars), catches him at it and demands to be included in the deal — then double-crosses him. In exchange for de Puizzi’s agreement to marry him (though why he would want to marry her is a mystery), he exposes the McGargles as frauds — only Sarah Tucker (the great Maude Eburne from Ladies They Talk About), the only local who’s sympathetic to the McGargles, discovers a locket among Poppy’s possessions that proves she is Elizabeth Putnam’s daughter after all, so Poppy gets her fortune, the stability of small-town life she’s yearned for after all those years on the road with her dad (who tearfully admits he’s not her dad at all; he took her in when she was 3 after her mom died), and the rather dubious affections of Mayor Farnsworth’s son Bill (Richard Cromwell, who’s tall, gawky and comes off as Paramount’s attempt to clone their own Robert Montgomery).

Fields had filmed Poppy a decade earlier as a Paramount silent called Sally of the Sawdust, with D. W. Griffith (of all people!) as his director, Griffith’s wife Carol Dempster as the female lead (she’s considerably better than the film historians would have us believe) and Alfred Lunt (again, of all people!) as the local boy she falls for — and Lunt in the role was so wretchedly miscast he’s just as gawky and awkward as Cromwell. The silent version was actually longer and contained an elaborate chase scene at the end, though Poppy has one marvelous moment in which Fields (actually Sinclair — the doubling is especially obvious, and though we hear Fields’ voice the camera is so far away it’s clear either post-dubbed the lines or pre-recorded them “wild”) leaps onto a high-wheel bicycle in an attempt to escape after having been exposed. I suspect Dorothy Donnelly’s original script for the stage version was longer than either movie and explained the plot points better, and I also wish they had kept at least some of the original songs; instead all we get in the way of music is an opening choral number by Frederick Hollander (Marlene Dietrich’s favorite songwriter) and Sam Coslow extolling Poppy’s charms, and her big feature at the carnival, “A Rendezvous with a Dream,” credited to Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin but strongly reminiscent of the barbershop-quartet classic “On Moonlight Bay.” Fields is marvelous (even with all the doubling, which is pretty obvious every time the character has to take a pratfall); Rochelle Hudson is winsome (though I suspect her voice was doubled and Mary Brian, the juvenile heroine from Fields’ immediately previous film The Man on the Flying Trapeze, probably would have played it better), and the film filled with juicy supporting roles played by fine character actors like Overman and Jerry Bergen (as a gardener whom Fields repeatedly cheats out of money using the same stratagems Bud Abbott later pulled on Lou Costello in film after film after film). Fields made funnier films in his career both before and after this one, but Poppy is a lovely nostalgic pastoral that’s warm, amusing and a welcome entry in the Fields canon — even though one suspects Donnelly’s original musical had a potentially better film in it than either of the ones that got made.