1934 film written by and starring W.C. Fields, who plays Harold Bissonette, a harried grocer who dreams of living the life of a gentleman farmer on an orange grove in California.

When the American Film Institute put together their "100 Years… 100 Laughs" list of the funniest 100 American film comedies, this was the only Fields film to make the list, and came in at Number 58. However, when AFI allowed visitors to their Web site to vote for their own favorite film comedies, It’s a Gift consistently appeared in the Top 10 for many weeks.

Why? Because at just over 60 minutes, the film packs in more layers of humor than anything that Hollywood calls a comedy today. The very thin plot is just an excuse to connect four set pieces, which recycle some of Fields’ best work from the stage and silent films (notably 1926’s It's the Old Army Game): There’s Bissonette at home with his family, at work at the grocery store, at home on the back porch, and with the family again in a cross-country trip to California.

Tastes in comedy vary, of course, and reviewers today often cite different reasons why they double over with laughter at this film. Many cite the slapstick of the grocery store scene where a blind man, Mr. Muckle (Charles Sellon), nearly destroys the shop. Others point to a ten minute sequence on the back porch that has a cruel simplicity of form: Fields wants to take a nap. He is interrupted. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

For me, it is the opening scene that achieves operatic heights of comedy. It combines Fields’ best one-liners, slapstick, and sight gags (his attempt to shave with a straight razor is comedic suspense at its best) as it does what opening scenes have to do: establish the (thin) plot line and the major relationships of the story, in this case, his supremely annoying family. Kathleen Howard as the shrewish Mrs. Bissonette is simply astonishing. She transcends the stereotype of a nagging wife-- she’s one of the Furies unleashed to torment Fields.

For fans of comedy, this is a must see. Watch Fields’ timing, his delivery, his sight gags, his slapstick: perfect. And while his vision of domestic middle class life from the point of view of a henpecked father is a cliché now (thanks to generations of television situation comedies), this film presents a nearly pure nihilist version of the genre. Michael Atkinson of the Village Voice expounds:

His best films… all revolve around Fields as a hostile schmo for whom home life is a deceptively ordinary circle in hell, where children draw blood, wives are insidious maenads, and the laws of physics have only personal misery as their logical outcome. Trying to nap on the porch in It's a Gift becomes a Camusian study in retributive torture. Whereas the other Golden Age comedians pitted themselves against authority or each other, Fields held combat with his loved ones; he was alone for decades as the only Hollywood voice willing and able to grasp how easily familial intimacy can turn homicidal.
Is it laugh-out-loud-funny? Not necessarily, although it can be. Fields was a master of comic dialogue—especially when it comes to caustic and misanthropic remarks. And an impromptu picnic on the family cross-country trip, which was lifted entirely from a Fields’ sketch in the Ziegfeld Follies, had me weeping with one simple sight gag featuring Fields and little Norman Bissonette (Tommy Bupp) eating lunch.

 

How to watch the movie:
Realize that Fields was a vaudevillian, first and foremost. He didn’t care about camera set-ups, and still performed as if he were in front of a live audience. Now and then he pauses for laughs (a necessity in vaudeville). Close-ups and editing occasionally mar the delicate nuances of body language and choreography that Fields was a master at. Fields was a brilliant comedian, but unlike Chaplin or Keaton he was not a great filmmaker.

Second, consider the musical score: there really isn’t one. To a modern ear, that can be quite strange.We’re so used to having music telegraph the emotions we’re supposed to feel (our hero is noble! now he’s sad! now feel his aching loss!) that the silences can be unnerving. While possibly the result of a low budget, remember again Fields’ background: in live theatre, Fields not only didn’t use a musical score, but the very suspense that made his routines work onstage required stretches of silence.

Enjoy these 62 minutes of comedy. No filler. No romance, no product placement, no backstory. Just comedy.

Available on Universal Studios Home Video.

Sources:
"It’s a Gift (1934)" The Internet Movie Database, <http://us.imdb.com/Title?0025318> (19 February 2002)
Michael Atkinson, "Director’s Cut," The Village Voice 2-8 January 2002, <http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0201/atkinson.php> (19 February 2002)

Louise Brooks, "The Other Face of W.C. Fields," Sight and Sound, Spring 1971, Volume 40 Number 2, found at Psykick Girl, <http://www.psykickgirl.com/lulu/wcfields.html> (19 February 2002)

Andrew Chan, "It’s A Gift (1934)" Filmwritten Magazine, 26 June 2001, <http://www.filmwritten.org/reviews/1934/itsagift.htm> (19 February 2002)

Tim Dirks, "It’s A Gift (1934)" The Greatest Films Web site 1996-2002, <http://www.filmsite.org/itsag.html> (19 February 2002)

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