Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): It's a Gift

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

It's a Gift

W.C. Fields plays Harold Bissonette (pronounced "Bis-o-nay" at his pretentious wife's behest), a henpecked husband and besieged shop owner who's also a man with a dream. When his uncle dies and leaves him a bit of money, Mr. Bizonet, er...Mr. Bis-o-nay doggedly ignores his wife's blistering putdowns and admonishments, and buys an orange grove in California. The family sets off for the promised land in their old jalopy, wreaking havoc along the way; needless to say, when they arrive at their destination it isn't exactly Solla Sollew. But there's one more surprise awaiting them; in the end, Harold will have oranges aplenty, all the better to add a touch of flavor to his tall glasses of gin.

The above describes the plot, all right, but if it conveys a humorous situation comedy in which the gags all arise from the premise, then I've given the wrong impression. One's sense of It's a Gift will be determined in the early scene when Fields attempts to shave. His teenage daughter charges into the bathroom and commandeers the mirror. W.C. bumbles around the room trying to determine a new way to cut his whiskers, but the humor arises not so much from his solutions, which are nonetheless amusing, as from the man himself. I watched for a minute or two and found myself thinking, "This isn't really very funny." Then, unexpectedly, I began to chuckle. And the mirth quickly became bountiful: Fields is so offbeat, so singular in his timing and expressiveness, that he's hysterical. He never seems to be milking a gag for laughs: he's like the juggler who keeps several balls in the air while drinking a glass of milk (spiked in this case) and talking to a friend - the comedy is simply effortless and natural. The constant assaults of the outside world - the family first and foremost - are never-ending, and the humor is to be found in Fields' flailing endeavors to fend off these assaults, particularly the incessant verbal volleys of his withering wife. All of which can only be truly appreciated by watching the man in action, and as such, It's a Gift comes highly recommended.

It's a Gift is also wonderful for how it situates Fields' wild, desperate humor in the context of Depression realities, from the hardscrabble Jersey town where Bissonette raises a family, works, and suffers (all the same, really) to the Californian Eden of parched orange groves and sequestered mansions. In the end, Fields is a man who's achieved the American Dream in true individualist style: by being his own cantankerous, ever-enduring, ever-soused self.

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