(U.S., Clyde Bruckman)
At the height of his film career in 1935 W.C. Fields delivered another comedic gem with The Man on the Flying Trapeze. Like the previous year’s It’s a Gift, we watch a hapless fellow get bullied by life for no other reason than he had the audacity to get out of bed that morning. All Fields’ Ambrose Wolfinger wants to do is take the afternoon off and go to a wrestling match. But everything and everyone conspires against him, some maliciously, some unwittingly, and some just out of apathy. His wife Leona (Kathleen Howard) nags him for any minor infraction of decorum or good taste, bellowing like a community theater actor channeling Sarah Bernhardt. And if the impossible to please wife wasn’t enough, Ambrose has to contend with his wife’s brother and mother, both living in Ambrose’s house and enjoying his support. Unfortunately he doesn’t enjoy their goodwill. Mrs. Neselrode (Vera Lewis) despises her son-in-law’s drinking, as though that were the only thing that defined him. Her son Claude scrupulously avoids looking for work, preferring to take morning naps and snoop through Ambrose’s pockets looking for evidence of wrongdoing.
Luckily Ambrose has an ally in this picture. Hope Wolfinger (Mary Brian) is a sympathetic daughter from a previous marriage, as though Fields couldn’t stomach the idea of Hope emerging from the same genetic pool as Wolfinger’s wife and in-laws. She dutifully defends her father from her stepmother’s unwarranted attacks.
To make his persecution all the more unjustified, we find that Ambrose is not only good at his job, but he is the best, remembering every detail of meetings from several years ago. Furthermore, in 25 years of work he has never missed a day, hardly a souse unable to support his family. By making Ambrose Wolfinger a competent, productive member of society we instinctively want him to catch a break, something that seems reasonable enough. And each time it seems as though Ambrose can relax and enjoy himself another annoyance descends on him: when an officer tells him to pull over and writes him a ticket, another joins the fray and writes Ambrose another ticket for parking in a red zone; or when he goes to court to testify against burglars that were caught in his cellar, he is arrested for illegally making “applejack.” He can’t even play hooky without a major fuss from his family threatening his equilibrium. It’s no wonder he hides a jug of alcohol in the bathroom to sip from late at night when all the naggers and pests are snoring away.
W.C. Fields put together one of his best with this picture and it holds up well. Ambrose Wolfinger is one of several benevolent misanthropes he played and they were his most successful characters. His folksy good humor undermined the hucksters he played like the Great McGonigle in The Old Fashioned Way and Larsen E. Whipsnade in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. But in his best movies like It’s a Gift, The Man on the Flying Trapeze, The Bank Dick, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break Fields molded a persona with which any married man could identify and anyone else could empathize. The Man on the Flying Trapeze is, of course, great fun to watch, but it is also a reminder to everyone to go easy on that nameless guy on the street, just trying to take a nip or catching the last few minutes of the game or telling a tall tale before getting home to the wife and the monotony of real life.