Ambrose Wolfinger wants the afternoon off (his first in twenty-five years) to go to a wrestling match. He tells his boss that he must attend his mother-in-law's funeral. The afternoon is no joy. He tries to please a policeman, assist a chauffeur, chase a tire, and ends up getting hit by the body of a wrestler thrown from the ring. A series of mishaps leads his boss to send floral tributes to the house and notify the papers of the death (due to poisoned liquor). His shrewish wife, judgmental mother-in-law, and good-for-nothing brother-in-law add to his burdens. In the end he enjoys their fawning loyalty, a raise in pay, and his first vacation.
W.C. Fields ... Ambrose Wolfinger
Mary Brian ... Hope Wolfinger
Kathleen Howard ... Leona Wolfinger
Grady Sutton ... Claude Neselrode
Vera Lewis ... Mrs. Cordelia Neselrode
Lucien Littlefield ... Mr. Peabody
Oscar Apfel ... President Malloy
Lew Kelly ... Adolph Berg
Tammany Young ... 'Willie' the Weasel
Walter Brennan ... 'Legs' Garnett
Edward Gargan ... Patrolman #1
James Burke ... Patrolman #2
Carlotta Monti ... Ambrose's secretary
This was one of W.C. Fields' favorite films, and in fact was closest to his own family situation, or at least his version of it. It also reprises many of his skits worked out with the writer J.P. McEvoy, which he also replays in It's A Gift and other W.C. Fields' movies of the domestic type, like The Bank Dick.
I love this movie; it contains much of the actual W.C. Fields. The son, Claude, for example. W.C. Fields' and Hattie Fields, his wife, were estranged while their son, William Claude, Jr., grew up. Fields believed, according to biographers, including his grandson, that his wife turned his son against him. He always believed that if he'd had a daughter, she would be a more loyal child. In this movie, the son, Claude, is awful to him, while the daughter, Hope (!), is loyal and loving.
The gags fly: "How can you hurt a person by throwing him on his head?" "It must be hard to lose your mother-in-law." "Yes, it is, almost impossib-, um, yes." Or my favorite exchange, the most brilliantly poignant comment on an unhappy marriage, I think, ever portrayed in a movie. "Is your toast warm, Dad?" "No, dear, it's cold. But it's all right. I've been eating cold toast now for eight years; I like it." All the while looking as miserable as anyone ever could. God, he was brilliant.
There's also the sense that Ambrose, the character The Great Silly plays, is someone lost in a world that he doesn't understand. The scene where instead of the burglars, HE is the one sent to jail. Or the scene where he's parked in a no parking zone, and the painful exchanges with the cop, the chauffeur, etc. Or when he loses the car's wheel and chases it down the hill, over the dale, down the railroad tracks, barely escaping death twice.
His actual mistress (W.C. and Hattie, Catholics, never divorced), Carlotta Monti, plays his secretary, and is the one who explains that her mother is good friends with Hookalakah Meshobbab, somehow without howling with laughter.
Ambrose Wolfinger, memory expert & severely henpecked husband, sometimes feels like he's going to lose his grasp on life and fall into very deep trouble - kind of like that old MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE.
W.C. Fields was at a lofty point in his career when he appeared in this hilarious little comedy. The second highest paid star at Paramount - only Mae West received more - he had just returned from MGM where he was featured as Wilkins Micawber in the all-star version of DAVID COPPERFIELD. Ill health would soon begin to stalk him again as a result of his dipsomania, but here he was wonderfully whimsical, whether dealing with spiteful in-laws, bullying traffic cops or bungling burglars in the cellar. With a handful of performances like this, Fields was to take permanent possession of a unique place in American film history.
Playing the two she-dragons Fields must face & fight are Kathleen Howard as his wife, and elderly Vera Lewis as her mother. Both excellent actresses, their scenes are waspish & wickedly funny and it is easy to see how together they could drive a normal male to distraction. It is unfortunate that these two skilled ladies are now nearly forgotten.
Grady Sutton is well cast as Fields' indolent, pouting brother-in-law; his comeuppance is richly deserved. That's Walter Brennan & Tammany Young as the crooning crooks who find themselves far from the banks of the Wabash.
It is interesting to note that the two women in the film who vigorously defend Fields also had close relationships with him outside the Studio. Mary Brian, as his daughter, was a longtime friend & neighbor of Fields. They had appeared together in the silent version of the story - RUNNING WILD - and Fields insisted on her inclusion in the talkie remake. Carlotta Monti, as Fields' faithful secretary, was also his longtime mistress. A part of his life for many years, she was at his side when he died on Christmas Day, 1946.
Despite his marvelous comic con-men, who always outwits the rubes and dolts about him, there is a side of W.C. Fields that few people ever notice: he is usually a hopeless, henpecked husband when he is married. His Ambrose Wolfinger (in MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE) is probably the most helpless married man that he ever portrayed.
Ambrose has actually been married (presumably more happily) to a previous wife, who has died. But they had a little girl (now grown up) named Hope (Mary Bryan) who is his one total ally in the family. His second wife, Leona Wolfinger, née Nesselrode (Kathleen Howard) is strict and shrewish with him. And his mother in law and brother in law Claude (Grady Sutton, playing a totally disreputable liar, trouble-maker, leech, and thief for a change) make his hell total.
In this film Fields is controlled by events and people - he rarely shows any of the spunk and cleverness that his Great McGonigal or Egbert Souse or Larson E. Whipsnade show. He tries to get two burglars charged in court, but they were drinking apple jack that he had allowed to ferment, so the idiot crabby judge ignores the burglary and charges Fields with violating the prohibition laws! He tries to see a wrestling match, but is delayed by traffic problems, a tire that runs away from him, a set of traffic cops, and arrives too late to see the match, only to be knocked down by one of the wrestlers being thrown on him. To make the situation even more absurd, he did not realize this ticket was stolen by Claude, who seeing him lying on the ground sneers at him as "Drunk again!"
He is also harried by his boss (Lucien Littlefield) at work, and he has to lie to get a miserable afternoon off to see the match (he says his mother-in-law died). When the truth comes out, Littlefield (on his own - as he subsequently regrets) fires him.
This is how it goes throughout the film. Except for Mary Bryan and for his secretary (Carlotta Monti, who has a nice moment at Littlefield's expense), all of the characters use and abuse Fields. He is only finally aroused when Claude tries to slap Hope, and Fields defends her, knocking out Claude. But even after that he still seems lost regarding what to do to pick up his life.
The film is funny - witness the business about Field's filing system at the office (he's a memory expert). When the actual head of the firm (Littlefield's boss - Oscar Apfel) tries to find things without Fields around, he goes nuts with the system. Littlefield tries to defend his action, only to be told by Monti that he has libeled her by suggesting Fields and she were out together at the match. Littlefield is then informed that if he can't get Fields back he'd better start looking for a new job (in the depression).
Howard's role is curious. Like her performance in IT'S A GIFT, she is extremely strict and suspicious. At one point, when Fields is getting ready to go down and check for burglars, she is begging for him to hurry and not to forget his gun. He takes the gun out, and accidentally fires it. High strung by the situation, the shooting scares Howard into a faint - Fields looks at her and with a slight trace of hope in his voice he asks, "Are you dead?" Yet, he did marry her, and at the end, when stuck alone with her mother and brother (who won't look for work), she seems to realize that - for better or worse - Ambrose was a good provider. In the end she is reunited with him and with her step-daughter.
It is a good comedy, and if it lacks the polish of THE BANK DICK and IT'S A GIFT and THE OLD FASHIONED WAY it is still worth watching.
# Mr Wolfinger's secretary is played by Carlotta Monti, who in real life was the mistress of W.C. Fields.
# This was the last film directed by Clyde Bruckman. Although Bruckman's name appears on the credit, this film was actually directed by W.C. Fields, who took over after Bruckman had to quit early in the shoot due to the effects of his alcoholism. This is the only film on which Fields technically worked as his own director.
# One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since.
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