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My Little Chickadee (1940)
Topic Started: Aug 5 2018, 07:54 AM (224 Views)
Laughing Gravy
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My Little Chickadee (1940) Dir. Eddie Cline
A Universal Picture
83 min. / B&W / 1.33:1
DVD: Universal

After a rendezvous with a masked bandit, Flowerbelle Lee (Mae West) is run out of town to protect the village's moral fiber. On the train she encounters one Cuthbert J. Twillie, dealer in Novelties and Notions, and mistaking him for a rich man, marries him (with a fake preacher) to gain the respectability she needs. In her new home of Greasewood City, however, she's wooed by Joseph Calleia, the town's dirty political boss; Dick Foran, crusading newspaperman; and that mysterious masked bandit. Meanwhile, her "husband" keeps trying to, er, unwrap his new bride.

Much has been written about this film, a little of it actually true. We're a-gonna try and set the record straight; it's what we do here in the Balcony, after all. Well, that and boisterous games of tiddly winks.

Taking up where the Fields story ended with You Can't Cheat an Honest Man: according to Fields' correspondence with Carlotta Monti back in the day, he'd hit upon the idea of a comic western with the at-large Mae West (who, like Fields, had recently been cut loose by Paramount), and Universal jumped at the idea. As with his previous film, Fields would have nominal control of the production, approval on this and that, etc. The deal cut ended up being Fields with $150,000 salary plus a percentage of the gross proceeds, with Miss West - then considered washed up in the film business - garnering $50,000 and a share of the net. In return, Mae received top billing and an option for a second film under more favorable economic circumstances. Many weeks went by with Fields and the writers hashing out a story that would suit both film legends; the only script idea Mae liked was the one that offered her two suitors, one masked, who turn out to be the same guy. She ran with that one, and wrote her own damn script, including some fine lines for Fields but recognizing he'd probably supply his own bits. Producer Lester Cowan - who had brought Fields to the studio - pushed for one of the other scripts to be used, and Fields used his clout to have him fired from Universal (there's gratitude for you). Bill thought West's script was great, added his own malarkey and a major scene where he steps in as bartender and relates an uproarious tale about Chicago Molly, and off they all went.

Although filming went over time and a bit over budget, it was a smooth shoot. West was a teetotaler but Bill never drank as much as was reported and wasn't tipsy during filming, so that was okay. The picture was wrapped by the end of '39, previewed well, was released to okay reviews and good box office and there you go.

Except Miss West lived long enough to resent a lot of things about it, including Fields being co-credited on the screenplay. She maligned the film a lot and Bill Fields personally often over the years; the film's success had not boosted her career one iota: Universal had declined her option and she was off-screen for three more years before making a flop for Columbia and that was that. The film's legend is larger than it seemed to warrant; it's always been in print on various home video formats and is considered one of the screen's classic comedies albeit "not as funny as you'd hope."

Yeah, except by me.

I've always loved the darn thing; for one thing, it lets West be West and Fields be Fields. There are major laughs in it (nearly all of them belong to him, not her) and so many bits of silliness (including an Indian brave named Milton) that I simply like to revisit Greasewood City every once in a while to spend some time with these folks.

Million-dollar Dialog:
Fields, about to be hung: "This is gonna be a great lesson to me."

Mr. Calleia: "I wonder what kind of a woman you really are."
Flowerbelle: "Too bad, but I can't give out samples."

The supporting cast includes the wonderful Margaret Hamilton as the town busybody; Fuzzy Knight as comic cousin Zeb; and Donald Meek as the fake preacher.

So go ahead, disparage My Little Chickadee all you want - it's still the only teaming of two of the screen's biggest personalities and it's a gem. I howl every time Fields relates that Chicago Molly story.

Basking in its success, Fields next decided he'd return to the henpecked husband routine that had done so well for him in his earlier Paramount comedies like It's a Gift, and began work on what is considered today his masterpiece.
"I'm glad that this question came up, because there are so many ways to answer it that one of them is bound to be right." - Robert Benchley
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CliffClaven
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The impression I had was that West's biggest problem was still the Production Code. I wonder if the "unwrapped" line would have survived if West delivered it herself.

There was also the matter of her being so firmly identified with old-timey settings (even though she did have some hits in modern dress). She might have prospered in westerns, typecast as the "saloon" proprietress, but she'd never get the hero (imagine Roy or Gene following her upstairs).

She also might have scored in gangster flicks before they gave way to less flamboyant film noir. But sooner or later she'd have to shed her outsized star persona, the way some silent clowns shed their fake mustaches and settled in as character actors. She probably had the chops to do so, but she elected to remain Mae West forever.
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Frank Hale
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Mae was always completely over the top for me. Someday I hope to see "Myra Breckenridge".

And for me Mr. Fields was more successful when he portrayed a character somewhat recognizably human, rather than the unrepentant drunk and child-hater that everyone remembers. (I think Mort had a post on this once taking the opposite side, but I couldn’t find it.)

I was reminded of this again recently watching the two new Kino Blu-Rays of "Running Wild" (milk-toast employee) and "It's the Old Army Game" (more-or-less timid pharmacist, but a real jerk in one long sequence).

So I've never really been a fan of this film. The two leads seem to be vaguely at odds, and I just never found it that funny. In a lot of ways I always thought Joseph Calleia was the best thing about it since he sort of grounds the whole thing.

But as Mr. G noted, it's been perennially popular.

I enjoy "It's A Gift" and "The Bank Dick", the others less so. Maybe I just like henpecked husbands. It worked for Laurel and Hardy.
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Laughing Gravy
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Working on this month's DVD/BD Calendar, I was thinkin' about how the Universal catalog has proven to be a regular money-maker for the big U from decade to decade, with new editions of the Fields films, the monster pictures, and Abbott & Costello marching on and on and on, not to mention its Paramount acquisitions. Money in the bank.
"I'm glad that this question came up, because there are so many ways to answer it that one of them is bound to be right." - Robert Benchley
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Frank Hale
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Yes, but the films they select for revival and the marketing have pretty much all been the same old corporate group-think. They could have done a lot more with it all.

I keep hoping that someday they will just sell the Paramount library to WB, where George Feltenstein could put it to better use.

And who knows what Disney will do with the Fox library?

OTOH, who knows what will happen to WB now that they have a new corporate master?

"Grab 'em when you can" seems to be the only workable stratagem for the time being.

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Laughing Gravy
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Well, things like that are out of my control. Warner Archive has been busier than ever lately, and whether it's because sales are good or they're trying to get as much physical media out there before they shut it down, I don't know and there's nothin' I can do either way except buy titles what appeal to me. I rarely buy DVDs anymore (BDs for practically anything good come out at the same time) but I did buy The Steel Fist from the Archive 'cause, gosh, it's a Monogram plus it looked interesting.

I wonder if we'll ever get a nice Blu-ray of Disney Silly Symphonies.
"I'm glad that this question came up, because there are so many ways to answer it that one of them is bound to be right." - Robert Benchley
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Laughing Gravy
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AND we're seeing more licensing to smaller boutique labels, and more companies stepping up to the bat to release rarities, and what not and so on. Plenty of good stuff to watch out there.

What's missing?

An awful lot of classic cartoons, including Terrytoons, the long-out-of-print Disney shorts, and Columbia cartoons of the 1930s-40s.
American-International Pictures goodies from the '50s, from the ones the Arkoff estate owns to the ones it doesn't.
American Hot Wax.
RKO comedy shorts in good prints.
"I'm glad that this question came up, because there are so many ways to answer it that one of them is bound to be right." - Robert Benchley
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mort bakaprevski
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Cliff, enjoyed your review of the subject film. Got me thinkin' about how long it had been since I last viewed it. Natch, I ended up watching it instead of doing several chores I had laid out for myself.

I think my criteria for Fields' films is the number of opportunities they give him to do one of his set-pieces. Story construction doesn't enter into the litmus test at all. As a matter of fact, I'd say the less plot the better. It just gets in the way!!

Most people seem to like his domestic comedies the best with IT'S A GIFT & THE BANK DICK being the favorites. I prefer the 3 where he's in a show biz milieu: THE OLD FASHIONED WAY (traveling repertory company), YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (carnival) & NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (film production).

As for Mr. Hale's comment regarding Fields being recognizably human, I recently watched NEVER GIVE A SUCKER... & YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN back-to-back & in that order. I was really surprised at the change in the Fields persona in the two films. He seemed much warmer in SUCKER than he was in HONEST MAN. Wonder if that softening was due to Ms. Schoonover or simply the mellowing of age???
"Nov Shmoz Ka Pop."
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Laughing Gravy
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Fields thought his character played best when there was a reason he was such a curmudgeon. His story for You Can't Cheat an Honest Man had him scheming to save the circus after the death of his wife in a trapeze accident; cut out in the pre-production stage. His story for Never Give a Sucker an Even Break had him trying to be a father figure to Gloria Jean after the death of her mother in a trapeze accident; cut out in post-production.

Some guys never can get a break. And some trapeze artists refuse to die.
"I'm glad that this question came up, because there are so many ways to answer it that one of them is bound to be right." - Robert Benchley
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Frank Hale
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"Fields thought his character played best when there was a reason he was such a curmudgeon."

No doubt about that in my mind.

If you compare the two "back porch" sketches in "It's the Old Army Game" (IIRC just wrangling with the family and pretty blah), and in "It's a Gift" (comedy genius), the difference is clearly Carl LaFong, the insurance salesman that any normal person would love to kill with a shotgun if he thought he could get away with it.
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mort bakaprevski
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Laughing Gravy
Aug 7 2018, 09:20 PM
His story for Never Give a Sucker an Even Break had him trying to be a father figure to Gloria Jean after the death of her mother in a trapeze accident; cut out in post-production.
Ahhh yes, “The Mystery of the Missing Madame Gorgeous.” But, this kinda proves my point. What would have been added to the film by having the charming Ms. Nagel tragically dying? Certainly nothing for me!!
"Nov Shmoz Ka Pop."
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