Best Pictures of 1934 (#7) – It’s a Gift

It’s a Gift (U.S., Norman McLeod)

It says something about the number of great movies in 1934 that It’s a Gift only comes in on my list at number seven.  W.C. Fields stands as one of my favorite comedians of all time and this is a great comedy.  Fields’ timing was exquisite and the jokes he wrote are the kind that sneak up on you.  You hear it, but it might pass by or just make you smile, but the more you think about it the funnier it gets until you laugh to yourself coming out of the theater.  Fields’ comedy was insidious.  Like Mae West, Fields created a persona that he played at all times: the good natured boob who suffered through a string of bad luck, usually saddled with a wife unsympathetic to his penchant for alcoholic beverages and unappreciative children.

It’s a Gift is one of the best W.C. Fields films, chalk full of riotous humor, social criticism, and one of Fields’ best performances on screen.  We meet Harold Bissonette (pronounced Bis-son-ay, something his wife constantly needs to remind him, like Hyacinth Bucket, pronounced Bou-qu-ay, in Keeping Up Appearances), the owner of a grocery store in a small New Jersey town.  Harold is tormented by an overbearing wife (“What kind of tomfoolery are you up to now!”), a rambunctious son (What’s the matter Pop? Don’t you love me?), a self-centered daughter (“I never knew such an ungrateful father.”), an idiotic grocery clerk (“I told him I wouldn’t do it if I was him!”), not to mention the demanding customers including a man demanding 10 pounds of an unusual produce item (How about my kumquats?”) and a blind patron who swings his cane around as though he were battling off a swarm of bees, breaking everything in his path including the window on the store’s door (“You’ve got that door closed again”).

Harold, without consulting his wife, trades in his mundane and dead end life in New Jersey for a new life in a newly purchased orange grove in California.  Once the plan comes out she is horrified, but has no choice but to pack up her and the children and go with Harold.  But there are indications that the orange grove may be a dust bowl.  Is Harold taking his family down a path of ruin or has he made a shrewd deal, despite his wife’s doubts?

The movie is essentially a collection of gags recycled from Fields’ vaudeville days, strung loosely together with the sparse plot.  One of the best sequences is involves Harold taking refuge from his nagging wife on the back porch to get some sleep only to be kept awake by every possible (and impossible) little noise and disturbance.

Harold (and the entire W.C. Fields persona) is a man tormented by the banality of everyday life and other people’s sluggish mental processes.  He navigates through a world in which everything seems to have been put in place to annoy him, from a mischievous little child to an overly playful dog to an ill-placed trash bin to a noisy milkman to, of all things, a plowed field.  No wonder Harold always looks for an opportunity to have a drink; it’s his only respite from a life designed to annoy him.  W.C. Fields, who also wrote the screenplay, brought his masterful acting abilities to this movie.  We see everything he is famous for: the delayed reactions, drawn out double takes, awkward and uncoordinated tangles with everyday items, and barely audible mumbles.  He takes on the burden of the everyman, though there was nothing ordinary about W.C. Fields.  And there is nothing ordinary about this movie, a gem of 1930s comedy.

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6 Comments

Filed under 1934, Yearly Best Pictures

6 responses to “Best Pictures of 1934 (#7) – It’s a Gift

  1. Beautiful, enthusisastic work here Jason! This is surely one of the greatest comedies in all of American cinema, Fields’ best and most consistent film (ahead of FLYING TRAPEZE and THE BANK DICK) and one that – as you note – does a great job with social criticism. I can never get ‘Carl Le-Fong’ out of my mind, not that comquat routine, with the old man crossing the street and miraculously avoiding disaster. The entire deceit and mise en scene with the rich relative in California and the uproarious home life adds to make this one unforgettable. It deserves prominent placement and you have accomplished that with this amazingly perceptive piece.

    • Oh Carl LaFong, what a great gag. There are so many in this picture, but that one definitely stands out (along with the ipecac vs. syrup of squills debate). I think you are spot on about his other great films, but I would also add the surrealistic comedy, “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.” It might not be as polished (or coherent) as the others, but I still love it.

  2. Fields could be the ancestor of all sitcom husbands and dads, but while his descendants are usually portrayed as morons in their own rights, Fields plays for the empathy of men in the audience who feel the same nostalgia for bachelor life or a simple longing to be let alone. It makes sense that there shouldn’t be much of a character arc in It’s A Gift since Fields celebrates man’s resistance to domestication, however futile it proves. That may leave the film less than the sum of its parts, but the best parts still add up to a great comedy.

    • Well said Samuel. You made the point I was trying to make much more succinctly than I was able to in my post. I think it is accurate to identify Fields’ work as “nostalgia for bachelor life or a simple longing to be let alone.” Again well said (and nice to see you back)!

  3. Typically brilliant comment there by Samuel!

  4. Jason, I agree with you on NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK, and I could have added that to the lot.

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