Cinevent Notes Past: MISSISSIPPI (1935) with W. C. Fields

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Richard M Roberts
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Cinevent Notes Past: MISSISSIPPI (1935) with W. C. Fields

Postby Richard M Roberts » Tue Jul 01, 2014 1:24 pm

W. C. Fields played Captain Andy in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's SHOWBOAT only once, for two weeks in August 1930 for the St. Louis Municipal Opera Company. The lucky people of St. Louis and outlying areas were the only ones to be so blessed as to see a man play a role he was born to play.
There were many roles Fields was born to play, Eustace McGargle, Mr. Micawber, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Pickwick, Cap'n Andy, what a wonderful Falstaff he would have made. Some of those roles he got to play, others, though plans may have been in the works, never came to fruition. Ziegfeld might have offered Fields the original Broadway role of Cap'n Andy had the two not been feuding at the time and Fields working for
Ziegfeld's rival Earl Carroll.

When Fields became a Paramount star for the second time in the early 1930's,there was talk about remaking SHOWBOAT with Fields as star. But Universal owned the film rights, paid a pretty penny for them, and certainly weren't going to part with them, planning their own 1936 remake that Fields was too ill to participate in even if Paramount had been willing to loan him out. So Paramount finally said the heck with it, if Fields can't captain the Cotton Blossom, he'll pilot some other damn showboat!
Casting about their own properties, the studio came upon Booth Tarkington's MAGNOLIA, which they had already made as THE FIGHTING COWARD a successful silent with Cullen Landis in 1924 under its own name, and remade with Buddy Rogers as RIVER OF ROMANCE in 1929 (featuring Fred Kohler Sr. as Captain Blackie, the same part he plays in MISSISSIPPI). Set among the Old South, with its tale of a Northerner unfairly branded a coward by an Old Southern family who sets out to prove himself otherwise. Well okay, it didn't actually have a showboat in it, but no reason one couldn't be added to the mix. So Paramount promoted Fields over Cap'n Andy and made him Commodore Jackson, commander of the River Queen, giving him the perfect opportunity to troll his way down the Mississippi and the cotton fields and the plantations, mint julep always in hand, of course.

Fields as Commodore Jackson was brilliant casting, but the part of the Fighting Coward was still open, and if this was going to be a musical like SHOWBOAT----that would require someone with a bit more singing ability than endless choruses of "GRUBBING!". Paramount was then grooming a radio crooner named Lanny Ross, singing star of NBC's MAXWELL HOUSE SHOWBOAT, so it seemed like a perfect fit. Production began in early 1935 under Edward Sutherland's direction, an A-picture budget, and Rodgers and Hart signed on to supply the music. From all standpoints, this looked like a winner.
All standpoints but one. Early in shooting, it became obvious that the colorless Ross was not up to the role. The powers that be at Paramount then decided that Ross would be replaced with another more proven Paramount star—Bing Crosby!

Was there ever a better trade-up in the History of Movies? Did Fields and Crosby seem as natural at the time as it does now? This was years before Der Bingle had proven time and again his ability to mesh his talents with practically everyone from Bob Hope on
down, and for a comic as idiosyncratic as Fields, he had already teamed with Chester Conklin, Alison Skipworth, and Burns and Allen, much less Mae West and Bergen and McCarthy later on. Fireworks may have been viewed on the horizon.
Crosby did not join the project without a few reservations. Apparently he was not completely impressed with the Rodgers and Hart score (don't scoff, they did have their ups and downs, remember THE PHANTOM PRESIDENT), and requested several new songs, including a new ballad and an interpolation of Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home" now rechristened "Swanee River". This caused immediate friction between the composers and the singer, which unfortunately robbed us of Crosby recordings of many a Rodgers and Hart tune in his prime recording period.

But Crosby may have been right, for the new ballad Rodgers and Hart grudgingly supplied him was "It's Easy to Remember", one of their finest tunes, and Crosby's rendering of "Swanee River", despite some uncomfortable political incorrectness today, is an emotional and effective scene in the film.

Rumors of rivalry between the two stars were blatantly untrue. Crosby was a great Fields fan, and when warned by Sutherland that Fields was stealing the picture was reported by Sutherland to have said "Forget it, it's got my name on it, what do I care what Fields steals? I'm not a fundamentalist. This is business. If it's funny, okay. I think he's great!". In reality they were bound by the good ol' game of golf, and had known each other on the links since they had both come to Hollywood in the early thirties.

Fields does indeed steal the picture at every turn. Since his character's involvement with the plot of the original Tarkington story is tenuous to say the least, we're treated to some classic Fields bits as he strolls in and out of the picture. Telling his tales of Indian fighting to the innocent passengers ("I unsheathed my bowie knife and cut a path through a wall of human flesh—dragging my canoe behind me!), but cowering when a cigar store Indian appears on the boat, denouncing "Swanee River" as a tune no one will remember, then humming it through the rest of the film. Then there's the poker game sequence that fits nicely between his pool and golf games. In 1935, W. C. Fields was at the top of his career. Just finishing DAVID COPPERFIELD for MGM, and off to make THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE afterwards, Fields was making his best work before age, illness, and the hair of the dog began his long, slow, final decline. With his and Crosby's name headlining MISSISSIPPI, there was no question of it being a hit, and it was.Today (written in 2004), political correctness and rights problems kept MISSISSIPPI off TCM's otherwise complete tribute to W. C. Fields a few years ago, Cinevent happily gives you the opportunity for another roll down the river with Der Bingle and William Claude. Don't miss it!


RICHARD M ROBERTS

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Re: Cinevent Notes Past: MISSISSIPPI (1935) with W. C. Field

Postby Gary Johnson » Wed Jul 02, 2014 3:28 am

Fields as Cap'n Andy? It's not exactly a comedy showcase role, is it? I never saw the original Broadway production (Opening night I was tied up on the phone with my broker buying Amalgamated Steel) but every subsequent film production had him played as a benevolent showman with a twinkle in his eye. Oh sure, he is henpecked throughout, but he seems to spend most of the time wringing his hands over Julie and his own daughter. And then there is the hilarious scene from the novel where Andy falls overboard during a storm and drowns.

No, I much prefer this version of Fields as a riverboat captain (and it definitely outshines his earlier outing in TILLIE AND GUS, where he is still feeling his oats at Paramount and plays it much too gentle. He even heroically rescues Baby LeRoy from the river. How is that for an oddly ironic Fields moment?). From the opening shot of Fields and his cigar piloting the large riverboat steering wheel to his booming voice proudly announcing Bing as "The Singing Killer!", this movie is filled with career highlights of a great comedian. Bing was not yet the flippant, loose, light comedian that he would become but pictures like this would help him get to that next stage. There are scenes of the two actors together where you can see a slight smirk cross Crosby's face as he watches Fields act-up while playing poker. That would later become a Crosby mainstay when he would willingly break character and give out with a laugh whenever a fellow performer amused him.

My only quibble with this film is that Fields disappears from the climax so that Bing can wrap up the plot and win back the girl. As a kid I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. The Commodore is trying to talk Tom out of returning to his former fiancee's plantation, saying they will shoot him down on sight. And then he offers to go along to assist but Crosby turns down the offer saying, "I've got to do this alone'. And I'm at home yelling at the TV saying, "No, Bing! Bring Bill along. You wouldn't have left Bob behind (except maybe in ROAD TO SINGAPORE) and Bill is a much funnier comic than Bob (no offense, Bob).

As a side note, Welles produced a radio version of SHOWBOAT back in 1939 for his Campbell program. Orson narrated and played Cap'n Andy. He didn't play the Captain as comedy relief but as a dramatic character -- and yes, his Andy also went over the side during a storm and was not heard from for the rest of the play.

I'm thankful Bill Fields did not die in MISSISSIPPI.

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Re: Cinevent Notes Past: MISSISSIPPI (1935) with W. C. Field

Postby Mike O'Regan » Fri Jul 11, 2014 5:58 pm

It's high time I re-watched this.

My favourite Fields from the mid-30's would be You're Telling me and The Old Fashioned Way. Mississippi is a film I've seen once only.

Incidentally, for any UK mafiosi on here, this set is the bizness:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-W-C-Fields- ... fields+dvd

I have it; I'll die with it about my person.

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Re: Cinevent Notes Past: MISSISSIPPI (1935) with W. C. Field

Postby Richard M Roberts » Sun Jul 13, 2014 12:07 pm

Mike O'Regan wrote:It's high time I re-watched this.

My favourite Fields from the mid-30's would be You're Telling me and The Old Fashioned Way. Mississippi is a film I've seen once only.

Incidentally, for any UK mafiosi on here, this set is the bizness:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-W-C-Fields- ... fields+dvd

I have it; I'll die with it about my person.



Sounds like it's dangerous!

But I must agree, I love Fields as well and always have, and YOU'RE TELLING ME and THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY are two of my favorites (I'd add IT'S A GIFT to that and make it a trio, GIFT is one of the great audience laughing pictures).

I always considered myself fortunate to have gotten to see most of Field's films with live audiences in the late 60's-early 70'a when MCA struck new 35mm prints that hit the art house circuit (same with the Marx Brothers films as well) and they had found that NEW, counter-culture audience that really loved them. I then had prints of most of the films for years, which kept me able to enjoy them in the dark period when they practically disappeared from circulation, to the point where I had younger friends in the 1990's who thought they were the holy grail and wanted me to run them for them because they had wanted to see them for years and didn't have the opportunity. Sadly, by the time the majority of them returned to cable and video circulation in the zeros, political correctness had reared its ugly head and Fields comedy was looked down upon by a lot of the general population (at least the general population who gave a rats ass about any old black and white stuff). Ironically, what it meant was that the stiff's Fields rallies against in his films had returned (or most likely, never left, just got beaten back for awhile) and taken hold once again, the snobs, hypocrites, uptights and generally humorless, (you know `em, they populate a lot of the Internet these days), so that Fields’ cannot really be “in fashion” again (or as one ex-girlfriend once said, “ he’s just a mean old misogynistic drunk!”, to which I responded , “Yeah, and the problem there is?”).

More the pity, because now we are hitting the age where his humor really speaks to us. Fields was always the great POV for the middle-aged and older male, and being at the mercy of wives, children, mother-in-laws, bosses, and the general moral climate while striking those little blows for liberty where one may or dares to seems even funnier and more relevant to us now than it was then. Fields was one of the most human of the comedians, and one of the best actors. Don’t give me Chaplin and his self-centered “oh feel sorry for me, I’m such an outsider” routine when he has proven himself capable of whatever he wants to be if he just believed his own bullshit, Fields can make an attempted suicide a comedy sequence when he reaches the bottom-of-the-bell-curve of the plot in YOU’RE TELLING ME, then turn around and break your heart when he thinks a Princess is attempting to do the same thing, and kindly and gently tries to talk her out of it. Only Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and perhaps on occasion Will Rogers of all the comedians ever portrayed simple kindness on screen so effectively.

And the other thing I learned sitting in those very happy audiences watching Fields so long ago is that his films do clock some of the biggest and most frequent laughs of any of the Great Clowns. IT’S A GIFT may indeed be one of the funniest films of all time, at least by my experience watching it on numerous occasions just keep an audience giddy nearly continuously from start to finish, it really is one of the best constructed comedies of all time. The so-called “sloppiness” of Fields films that some lonely armchair critics have accused them of being over the years doesn’t seem to exist when they are put up in front of the crowd they are meant for, suddenly they are brilliantly paced and beautifully executed pictures crafted by a master, and they work damn well.

So yep, I like Fields too Mike, good thing we agree on something. The last thing I learned about Fields is that you can basically divide the world’s people into two groups, those that get THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER and those who don’t. I prefer to hang out with those who do.


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Re: Cinevent Notes Past: MISSISSIPPI (1935) with W. C. Field

Postby Mike O'Regan » Sun Jul 13, 2014 3:33 pm

...(or as one ex-girlfriend once said, “ he’s just a mean old misogynistic drunk!”, to which I responded , “Yeah, and the problem there is?”).


Hah!

I had a nice 16mm print of FATAL GLASS up to a few years ago. It's the best of the Sennett shorts, IMO.

I've never been fortunate enough to see any of the films with an audience. A pleasure still before me, I like to think.

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Re: Cinevent Notes Past: MISSISSIPPI (1935) with W. C. Field

Postby Mike O'Regan » Sun Jul 13, 2014 5:33 pm

Just re-watched Mississippi.

Only he could make the repetition of the "...wall of human flesh..." business funnier each time he repeats it.

I read the Louvish book a few years ago. Is this the best available on Fields?

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Re: Cinevent Notes Past: MISSISSIPPI (1935) with W. C. Field

Postby Richard M Roberts » Sun Jul 13, 2014 8:18 pm

Mike O'Regan wrote:Just re-watched Mississippi.

Only he could make the repetition of the "...wall of human flesh..." business funnier each time he repeats it.

I read the Louvish book a few years ago. Is this the best available on Fields?



No, James Curtis's book, simply called W. C. FIELDS is the one to get, although Louvish's Fields book is one of his better books.

" I carved my way through a wall of human flesh" is indeed a great Fields catchline. I also like the endless string of mint juleps being perenially put into the Commodore's hand when he's aboard ship.


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Re: Cinevent Notes Past: MISSISSIPPI (1935) with W. C. Field

Postby Mike O'Regan » Mon Jul 14, 2014 3:26 pm

Aw, Jeez.....I hated Curtis' s Spencer Tracy and James Whale books. His style doesn't agree with me at all....both those books were a trawl for me.
Is the Fields, perchance, any more readable?

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Re: Cinevent Notes Past: MISSISSIPPI (1935) with W. C. Field

Postby Richard M Roberts » Mon Jul 14, 2014 3:48 pm

Mike O'Regan wrote:Aw, Jeez.....I hated Curtis' s Spencer Tracy and James Whale books. His style doesn't agree with me at all....both those books were a trawl for me.
Is the Fields, perchance, any more readable?



It is. Curtis is a very thorough researcher, but he is a little dry and humorless (he doesn't "get" THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER), but his portrait of Fields is the most accurate and sensible. Louvish did a lot of good groundwork, but Curtis dug even deeper and his book is more satisfying.

Part of the problem with both Curtis's Spencer Tracy and James Whale books was that he was writing about people who were frequently assholes, you just really don't want to spend that close a company with those guys. The nice thing about the revisionist history on Fields is that he becomes a nicer person than you thought he was rather than the other way around.


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Re: Cinevent Notes Past: MISSISSIPPI (1935) with W. C. Field

Postby Mike O'Regan » Mon Jul 14, 2014 5:36 pm

Part of the problem with both Curtis's Spencer Tracy and James Whale books was that he was writing about people who were frequently assholes, you just really don't want to spend that close a company with those guys.


Yes, totally. Tracy, in particular, came across as an unlikeable bore.

But, Curtis...yeah, he didn't bring to the books any storytelling qualities of his own. The whole thing seemed dry and lifeless with him. The books didn't have any character, if you see what I mean.

In any case, I reckon I'll give the Fields book a whirl.


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