Unlike many of the other so-called “classic comedians”, for many years Fields was often cast in, and was excellent in, “real films”, i.e. more subdued, conventional films with a dramatic component which required him to interact with an ensemble of actors. (For contrast, think of the debacle that occurred the one time the Marx Brothers tried to do such a thing, in Room Service). In Mississippi, Fields plays riverboat captain Commodore Jackson, who makes a project of trying to toughen up gentle young Bing Crosby, who abjures confrontation in favor of singing Rodgers and Hart songs. The story is based on the Booth Tarkington novel Magnolia.
Fields’ vessel in the film is a showboat; among the movie’s myriad pleasures is that it gives us a chance to see what he might have been like as Captain Andy in Edna Ferber’s Show Boat, a part intended for him in the original Broadway production, but which he didn’t get to play until a couple of years later regionally. Highlights in the film include a recurring bit where Fields (much like a Mark Twain character) boastfully recounts his Indian fighting exploits, in which he “took a knife and carved through a wall of human flesh”, and a funny episode where he attempts to cheat at cards. Like all Hollywood films at the time with such a setting it glosses over and idealizes slavery and black servitude in the Old South, not one of its finer points. It also interesting to see Bing so early in his career, still a young heart throb and not yet a middle aged one. Interestingly, Bing’s sometime screen partner Bob Hope, also had a chance to co-star with Fields at this early stage, in The Big Broadcast of 1938.
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.