It’s time to begin my look at the best of 1941…
This is one of the weirdest, most surreal comedies to have been churned out of the Hollywood assembly line. W.C. Fields plays a version of himself, only billed as The Great Man, and that is about all I can say about the movie with any certainty. Fields spends most of the picture supporting his opera singing niece Gloria Jean and trying to sell a nonsensical script to The Producer (Franklin Pangborn), a big shot (maybe the head?) at Esoteric Studios. Much of the film replays the script as Fields imagines it complete with an open air observation deck on an airplane, an idyllic Russian village, and an isolated mountain home where the imposing Mrs. Hemoglobin (Margaret Dumont) has hidden away her beautiful young daughter away from the corrupting influence of men.
If none of this makes sense, not much in the rest of the picture does either. Like why would Producer Pangborn want Gloria Jean to sing a snooze-inducing operatic aria for his film? I don’t think, even in 1942, that opera was a hot commodity in film. (Of course it is Esoteric Studios.) Or could a even a super soft bed really break Fields’ fall from an airplane? Or if the food is so bad at Fields’ regular diner, why does he go there? Or why is there a gorilla in the mountains of the Russian village? And why does no one seem to be Russian there?
None of these questions matter, nor do they detract from the fun. In fact, they might even enhance the experience. What we are seeing is the ultimate W.C. Fields absurdist comedy. He’s throwing in all the stops as though he was aware that he didn’t have much time left and any idea he had better be used now. (This would be his last film.) Fields wasn’t hamstrung by the usual conditions of plot or character, but opted for a more free flowing situational comedy, set specifically in a world that makes no sense.
This strategy could have backfired, resulting in a burdensome mess, but Fields packs in enough genuinely funny gags and routines that we relishing the nonsensical plot. Especially funny is a scene where Fields sits at a soda fountain counter then turns to the camera and says, “This scene’s supposed to be in a saloon but the censor cut it out.” But don’t worry, he assures us, “It’ll play just as well this way.” He goes on to wrestle with getting a scoop of ice cream from his glass to his mouth, but the straws he uses to scoop out the ice cream bends away from his mouth. He also has a wonderful scene in a diner with a waitress who finds him insultingly unfunny. Their banter is classic W.C. Fields comedy. “And another thing,” the chunky waitress admonishes, “Don’t be so free with your hands.” Fields replies: “Listen, honey. I was only trying to guess your weight. You take things too seriously.”
There are many W.C. Fields movie I love and though this one may not be the best, it certainly ranks high up there for its inventiveness, its audacity, and, most importantly, its hilarity.