August 3 is the anniversary of the release date of the W.C. Fields classic Man on on the Flying Trapeze (1935), co-written by Fields and directed by Clyde Bruckman. Simon Louvish very astutely named his biography of Fields after this movie, which incidentally has nothing to do with circuses or acrobats. It has to do with the minefields all of us walk in our daily lives, trying to hold onto our jobs and keep our families together in the face of disasters large and small. This is a fairly flawless comedy, hilarious from beginning to end. Interestingly it has almost no plot, it’s a comedy of character and situation, just a chain of little things. It has the archetypal Fieldsian domestic situation, a battle ax second wife, a battle ax mother in law, a worthless sponging brother in law (played by the inevitable Grady Sutton), and an angelic loving daughter (Mary Brian) from his first marriage.
The first set piece happens when two burglars (one of whom is Walter Brennan!) break into Fields’s basement, find his casks of apple jack, get drunk and start singing. Fields take a hilariously long time getting downstairs to deal with them. By then a cop has joined the other two and the three are all drunk and singing. Then Fields joins in. Then they all go to the police station where Fields gets arrested (instead of the burglars) for manufacturing apple jack. Meanwhile the worthless brother-in-law has stolen Fields’ expensive ticket to the wrestling match the whole city has been talking about. The next day in order to go to the match, Fields tells an ill conceived lie that his mother-in-law has died. The gambit immediately backfires—an obituary goes in the paper and tons of people send flowers to the house. Meanwhile Fields cant even get to the wrestling match. First a hilarious episode in the street where he deals with three separate traffic cops all at the same time. Then he loses his wheel, chases it down the hill, is almost killed by a locomotive, and then gets knocked out by one of the wrestlers and is found unconscious outside the wrestling match (with his secretary trying to revive him) by the brother-in-law. It looks most incriminating. Fields comes home to find that he has been exposed and fired. He punches out the brother-in-law, and nearly attacks the wife and mother-in-law. The next day he is re-hired – he is too valuable to the firm. The wife reforms in the end and the family all get back together.
Two very special people to look for in this film: the gal who plays his secretary and confidante at work is none other than the woman who become Fields’ live-in assistant, mistress and author the book W.C. Fields and Me, Carlotta Monti. And, as one of the wrestlers: the one and only Tor Johnson!
Please join the campaign to vote for Man on the Flying Trapeze as the next W.C. Fields film added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Go to to www.wcfields.com where the nominating form is on the Home page column to left – National Film Preservation Board!
For more on classic comedy don’t miss 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