Being as MILLION DOLLAR LEGS stars W.C. Fields as the president of a tiny Ruritanian country, there’s an obvious temptation to pair it with DUCK SOUP, which stars Groucho Marx as etc etc. But that might do a disservice to MDL, which can’t compete on the laugh-count with the unstoppable comic juggernaut of DS.
Instead I propose Marcel Carné’s DROLE DE DRAME (A.K.A. BIZARRE, BIZARRE) which has approximately the same demented whimsy and unsettled forward momentum, pitching one aberrant situation after another at the punchy audience until end titles set in. Both films are premised on the idea of government, police, and all human institutions being fundamentally cock-eyed and probably malevolent, but do so without anger but with instead a shrug, wink and surreptitious extrusion of the tongue at authority. Neither film gets that many belly laughs, but both score heavily on peculiarity and brimming reserve of absurd ideas.
W.C. Fields is prez of Klopstokia because he can arm-wrestle any man to a stand-still. His nearest rival, Hugh “woo-woo” Herbert (who somehow manfully restrains himself from saying “woo-woo” at all in this film) is plotting against him with the aid of the entire cabinet and a spy, Ben Turpin, who remains a silent comedian throughout, popping up in various disguises and hiding places, his pupils aiming across each other at opposite edges of the screen. Jack Oakie, that large, shiny, alternately simpering and beaming fellow, is a brush salesman smitten with Fields’ daughter, who seeks to win pop’s approval by solving the nation’s financial crisis. This entails entering the Olympics, a promising plan since everybody in the country is a superhuman athlete (also, all the women are called Angela). The Hugh sans “woo-woo” plots to sabotage the team using Mata Machree, the Swedish siren, whom no man can resist.
The story is by Joseph Mankiewicz, and mines levels of silliness not to be found in any of his later films as auteur. There is also uncredited throughput by Ben Hecht, who certainly did have an antic side, and credited scripting by Nicholas T. Barrows, a man with a substantial Keystone Studios pedigree, and Henry Myers, who would later co-write DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. The result is much as you might expect if you stirred all those authorial voices into a soup.
It’s not exactly hilarious but it’s consistently amusing, and frequently eye-popping. Should be seen (to be believed) and luckily can be seen as it’s in the superb and essential W.C. Fields DVD box set, along with the truly great Fields films and plenty of other oddities.
A year or so ago there was virtually no Fields commercially available. Now virtually all of it is. And some people will say there’s no such thing as progress, as the planet slowly boils to a crisp.
DROLE DE DRAME, made before Carné and Prevert’s, like, immortal classics, is one I need to revisit as I can barely recall the specifics of it (I first saw it on faded VHS with illegible subtitles, and have yet to check out my shiny new DVD). I know that Michel Simon plays an expert on the mimesis of the mimosa. Jean-Pierre Barrault plays a bicycling madman. Louis Jouvet plays the Bishop of Bedford in a kilt. My favourite moment is when Simon, who’s suspected of murder, returns to his home in a false beard, worried that the police may be tearing the place apart. They ARE, but not in the way he expected: they’re just MUCKING ABOUT like little kids, pushing each other around on a drinks trolley, etc. Delightful.