Monday, April 8, 2013

WTF?! - It's A Gift (1934)

WTF?! - It's A Gift (1934)

We all have our aspirations and goals. Everyday I'm sure many of us get ready for work for a job we're just not thrilled with, but know that it's not what makes our world go round; it's just helping us "spin it" until the happy grateful moments can arrive. W.C Fields made his career based on this. If he wasn't a curmudgeonly dentist or delightful drunk he was usually playing the man who gets the "fuzzy end of the lollipop." 

Never is this more entertaining that in the 1934 classic It's A Gift. In It's A Gift Fields plays henpecked husband, flustering father and small grocery store owner Harold Bisonette; a man who begrudgingly goes about his daily tasks hoping for something better. When Harold is informed by his son Norman (Tommy Bupp) that his Uncle Bean is at death's door he plans to spend his inheritance on a California orange grove. A move West is in store for his over-bearing petulant wife Amelia (Kathleen Howard), self-centered daughter Mildred (Jean Rouverol), and meddling Norman. Harold purchases the grove from Mildred's beau, John Durston (Julian Madison), and informs his family they're migrating to sunny CA. There's just one problem; the grove is a barren wasteland with a dilapidated shack for a house. Will Harold ever be able to squeeze out his dreams from life's oranges he's been handed? 

Fields and his pooch
It's A Gift showcases an extremely talented group of collaborators. It's no surprise that this film delighted the masses when it was released in 1934. New York Times film reviewer Andre Sennwald called it "... the best screen comedy on Broadway." Directed by Norman McCloud (Horse Feathers, Topper, Secret Life of Walter Mitty) its staging is simple and eloquent. McCloud seems to allow Fields to take his pace and do what he does best on the screen. Jack Cunningham's script takes the viewer on a delightful journey into the heart of our main character. 

Filmed at the Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills, CA, It's A Gift is a great example of what was the juggernaut of Paramount Studios in the 30s. Presented by Paramount founder Adolph Zuckor It's A Gift shot its feature footage and scenes during a 6 week stint from September to October, 1934 and was released just one short month after in November of 1934. No less than 8 other writers (including Fields) contributed to the concepts and "gags" of It's A Gift. At this time of the industry comics like Fields, the Marx Brothers, and Abbott & Costello all tried out their material on stage, in vaudeville or the theatrical circuit. The best biggest laugh-getters usually ended up in their films. Gift was Fields' 5th movie released that year alone and the sixteenth sound film of his career. It was one of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949. The films were later bought by MCA/Universal and released on TV, VHS, and then DVD. Universal still owns the rights today. In 2010 It's A Gift was added to the National Film Preservation Board’s National Film Registry. 

Maurice Chevalier and a newly discovered Baby LeRoy.
A delightful added offering of the film is child star Baby LeRoy. Baby LeRoy took the nation by storm and Paramount had a way of creating that whirlwind. Born at a Salvation Army hospital in 1932 Baby LeRoy was left fatherless. At 6 months old he was then discovered by Paramount as part of a search for the Maurice Chevalier film A Bedtime Story. Chevalier plays a well-to-do playboy abandoning his own grown-up "babies" to take care of an abandoned infant. When baby LeRoy's Grandfather signed the contract with Paramount not only was LeRoy "underage" but so was his 16 year old birth mother. A Bedtime Story was a big success and the public wanted more of adorable Baby LeRoy. At that time he was the youngest actor ever to achieve a star billing. In 1934 baby LeRoy even received the official "key to the city" from then Los Angeles Mayor Shaw.

It's A Gift was LeRoy's 10th film and he performed in 15 films in the span of just 4 years. LeRoy appeared in several films with Fields. Off-set rumors reported Fields had grown not only tired of working with LeRoy but fearful that he was stealing scenes out from under our blossom-nosed comedian. Fields was not happy that LeRoy was getting a second billing for It's A Gift with some insiders even claiming he threatened LeRoy with an ice pick!
Wonderful WTF moments from It's A Gift include; Harold trying to shave and dodge his puerile daughter; an unzipped store customer who just wants his cumquats; baby LeRoy creating a molasses nightmare; Carl LaFong (you'll know what I mean when you watch it!); the fore-mentioned harrowing ice pick; a private grounds’ picnic; and the REAL pronunciation of "Bisonette."

It's A Gift is available on DVD by renting or purchasing THE W.C. FIELDS COMEDY COLLECTION. (2004. Universal) It comes in a 2 disk version or a 4 disc version. Visitors/residents of California can see the actual areas where Paramount shot It's A Gift. It's now known as the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. So pop some popcorn, sit down with a loved one, and watch It's A Gift. You'll tickle your funny bone and warm your heart. That, my friends, is the best gift of all.

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