While now thought of as a comedy classic starring two Hollywood legends, the reality at the time of its production and release was a cole slaw of complications. In 1939, Universal was looking for a follow-up to the successful Jimmy Stewart/ Marlene Dietrich comedy western team-up Destry Rides Again. Fields and West were in very different positions at the time. Fields was under contract at Universal, experiencing a kind of Indian summer of his career, in the midst of what has come to be regarded as his creative peak as a comedy star. West, on the other hand, hadn’t made a movie in nearly three years. Like Fields, she had parted ways with Paramount acrimoniously. Unlike, Fields, she really had nowhere to go. Her screen character had been based in part on sexual desirability and she was now in her late forties. And she was refusing to re-invent herself. (Indeed, she would refuse to do so until her dying day, which is why the world can now enjoy the tin-foil gilded freak show known as Sextette, made nearly 40 years after My Little Chickadee).
The screenplay is credited to both Fields and West, and there were contributions from various studio scribes. Fields definitely wrote several early treatments. The idea of a marriage of convenience seems to have been his. Certainly all of his characteristically flowery lines and his bits of physical business are his. And Mae’s plot seems to be mostly her handiwork. Mae’s comedies, just like most westerns of the time, have one foot planted squarely in the old “Mellers”, so she takes to this genre well. Criminality is a theme throughout her work. It’s a simple matter to transplant the lawlessness of the Bowery to the frontier. Most of the co-stars’ scenes are separate; the two comedians didn’t get along very well. West always hated the film, and Fields downplayed his own involvement in the screenplay.
In this film, Mae plays a Chicago saloon singer named Flower Belle who comes westward on the lam, all on account of her romantic involvement with a masked bandit. On the train she meets con man Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields) whom she mistakes (thanks to his bag of counterfeit bills) for a moneybags. She “marries” him and they settle into Greasewood City. If Fields hopes to consummate the marriage (and he does) he is sorely disappointed. A goat shares his bed, while Flower Belle sees the Masked Bandit on the sly. (It’s okay. It turns out Fields and West aren’t married, after all. They guy who married them, played by the ubiquitous Donald Meek , merely LOOKS like a minister). Fields get busted when he is caught sneaking into Flower Belle’s room disguised as the Masked Bandit in order to get some action from his wife, even if he has to trick her. He is about to be hanged when Mae saves the day.
Mae’s double entendres are pretty toothless in the film; the censors had begun taking the bite out of her character years before. Latter day fans have cherished this film since at least the 1960s — from a distance. But in 1940, the comedians’ playful self-parody looked to a lot of critics like more of the same, just a rehash, and exhaustion. This didn’t stop the film from being popular with audiences though. Still, it couldn’t help poor Mae. Her next film was the exceedingly weak The Heat’s On three years later, and that was the end of her original Hollywood career.
For more on comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.