Directed by Clyde Bruckman (and W. C. Fields)
Story by “Charles Bogle” (W. C. Fields), screenplay by Ray Harris and Sam Hardy
Starring W. C. Fields, Mary Brian, Kathleen Howard, Grady Sutton, Vera Lewis, Walter Brennan, Carlotta Monti
The image of W. C. Fields is that of the snarling con man, the man who kicked babies and thought “anyone who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad.”* But, unlike the other great film comedians,** Fields didn’t always play the same character. His characters are on a continuum, with some being what people think he’s like, but others being exceptionally meek and mild and willing to tolerate any indignity. Some of his best films show that side of him, including The Man on the Flying Trapeze.
In the movie, Ambrose Woolfinger (Fields) is introduced sneaking a sip of whiskey under the nose of his wife Leona (Kathleen Howard). Ambrose is a “memory expert”; his job involves remembering people and events for his boss, and keeping track of important papers (on a giant pile on his desk, though he can find anything instantly). Ambrose has to endure the jibes of his mother-in-law (Vera Lewis) as well as his lazy brother-in-law (Grady Sutton). Ambrose is a fan of wrestling, and decides to take his first day off in years in order to go to the big match. Naturally, things get complicated from there.
Fields portrays Ambrose as a henpecked husband, putting up with the insults and indignities of life (in one sequence, he gets one traffic ticket after another as he tries to comply with the requests of various cops) until he finally snaps. Fields the writer and director*** may have sneered at the people around him, but Ambrose wouldn’t think to do it. Fields goes a long way to be the sympathetic character.
Two minor casting notes. Carlotta Monti, who plays Ambrose’s secretary, was Field’s mistress; she gives a speech where she defends Ambrose when he’s fired for taking the day off. And Walter Brennan plays a bit part of a burglar who Fields finds in his house and drinking his applejack.
Like most of Field’s films, this was not a big success when it was released. It made money, but Fields’s comedy was too bitter for the 30s. His persona started getting wide notice after his death, as impersonators started showing the popular version of his characters.
The Man on the Flying Trapeze remains relatively obscure Fields. It has been overshadowed by films like It’s a Gift and The Bank Dick**** and My Little Chickadee. It also seems to have taken its time to have a DVD, meaning contemporary audiences have overlooked it. But it’s one of his comedy classics.
*Which he never said. The comment was made about him by Leo Rosten at a roast at the Masquer’s Club.
**My list would be Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fields, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Jacques Tati, and Woody Allen. They all were consistently funny, and also were in control of their onscreen images, usually by writing or directing the role. Only Chaplin showed much variation, and in his case it was an evolution of the character to make him more sympathetic; Fields would switch personas from film to film as necessary.
***Fields took over direction from Clyde Bruckman when the latter fell ill.
****Both of which portrayed characters similar to that in The Man on the Flying Trapeze.