Sunday, July 19, 2009

"Million Dollar Legs"

Mysteriously absent from any of the DVD packages of W. C. Fields films, including the two mighty useful but uneven five-disc Comedy Collection sets, the 1932 Million Dollar Legs is a compendium of golden shtick. The producer, Herman Mankiewicz, and the director, Edward Cline, who started out in the business as a Keystone comedian, were happy to make the most of the new sound technology that finally made it possible for Fields to cut loose on-camera, but they also included shout-outs to the silent era: Ben Turpin, the silent comic whose entire persona was his perpetual cock-eyed expression, slithers about as a spy, throwing his black cloak in front of his face like Dracula to subtly telegraph that he may be up to no good. Fields plays the president of Klopstokia, where all the women are named Angela and all the men are named George, and where all the inhabitants are master athletes. This pointedly includes both Fields and his arch rival, played by vaudeville veteran Hugh Herbert; the two of them routinely arm wrestle for control of the government, even though both men look as if the only way to get them from one end of a race track to the other would be to set the last beers in creation at the finish line. The film's romantic lead is Jack Oakie, the comic who is perhaps best for his Mussolini parody in Chaplin's The Great Dictator, and who looked a little like a young, housebroken Jonathan Winters. "Isn't he handsome, father?" coos Fields's daughter, Angela. (See above.) "Yeah," replies Fields, "but I'll fix that."

The plot involves Oakie, a master brush salesman, winning over his prospective father-in-law by arranging to bring the athletically advanced Klopstokians to the Olympics, where they can win every event and save their faltering economy. Herbert and his traitorous mob try to thwart him by having the ultry-sultry Mata Machree (Lyda Roberti) distract the athletes and seduce the pure at heart Oakie; I'll risk a flood of "spoiler alert" complaints by revealing that things turn out all right. Million Dollar Legs is a true feat of a very rare kind, a comedy that achieves and sustains a cloudborne, homegrown-surreal tone with nary a Marx Brother in sight. Herman Mankiewicz wrote Citizen Kane, you know. If the market for Fields collections is stalled and the Jack Oakie box set just ain't gonna happen, why doesn't some genius stick these 64 minutes on the next Kane re-issue as the world's funniest Easter egg?

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