When watching comedy of this vintage it’s always tempting to make excuses for some of the weaker moments, suggesting that it was a simpler time and era. But given that by the time W.C. Fields made It’s A Gift in 1934 Charlie Chaplin had already produced City Lights, Harold Lloyd’s masterful Safety Last was nine years old, and the Marx Brothers had released Duck Soup and Monkey Business there’s no real excuse for some of the dodgier moments in the film.
Not that this is a disaster by any means, there are a lot of very funny moments within its short sixty eight minute running time, but there’s also a fair amount of weak slapstick that really should have been more inventive considering the fare listed above and other films of the period created by other much loved comedians. Plot wise it’s a thin piece too as the long suffering Harold (Fields) plans to buy an Orange Grove in California but his ever angry and ever complaining wife Amelia (Kathleen Howard) thinks everything he does is foolish, and so doesn’t have his back. Meanwhile his daughter Mildred (Jean Rouverol) doesn’t want to leave because she’s in love with the man who sold Harold the Orange Grove, but this is a subplot which is pretty much forgotten about shortly after being set up.
The first three quarters of the film concentrate on Harold’s life prior to moving to California, and are vignettes showing us glimpses of his home life and the store that he owns. Opening with a long sketch set where he tries to shave as Mildred shares the bathroom with him there’s some minor physical comedy here, which becomes absurder as it goes on, but like many of the sequences of the film it slightly outstays its welcome. At least after this we get to meet his younger son Norman (Tommy Bupp) who’s a pleasingly sassy little shit, mocking anyone who comes close to him and responsible for some a roller skate mishap which sees Harold flat on his back. When the family have breakfast Amelia mocks and moans and some of the dialogue is decent, but her ever hectoring tone is a little exasperating and led to sympathy for Harold even if he does plan to relocate his family without even asking them.
The best part of the film follows where we witness Harold at work at his grocery store, where a loud, angry man demands cumquats, the blind and all but deaf Mr Muckle does his best to destroy everything in sight, when asked to look after a neighbour’s child the tyke causes havoc, and assistant Everett (Tammany Young) understandably declares his hatred for Harold. Here the slapstick is strong and inventive, and it builds and builds and becomes increasingly ridiculous and enjoyably silly, ending on a strong note when Harold walks away from the shop after hanging up a sign which reads “Closed on account of molasses”.
Oddly the next sequence is the weakest however, as Amelia hectors Harold over and over again, and this continues as they go to bed and so he goes outside to try and sleep, and all manner of contrivances prevent him from doing so. There’s the odd amusing part and Harold almost choking on a grape made me chuckle, but it’s a sequence which seems to last an age and could have been cut completely without the film being any poorer. At least it picks up again as they try to leave but the car breaks down a few times, the journey to California has its moments, and lunch in the park carefully increases the level of craziness to a pleasingly ludicrous crescendo until they’re forced to leave. But upon arriving in California and discovering that their Orange Grove is a destitute field with a shack that is all but falling apart the slapstick is lazy again, and though there’s a happy ending for everyone it doesn’t feel particularly earned, and the movie kind of just comes to a halt rather than ending on a high note.
W.C. Fields is an amiable enough leading man, and Tommy Bupp is a lovable shit who has some very funny lines, but the women in the film rarely get the chance to be funny. Mildred’s storyline seems oddly incomplete and she’s only present to briefly moan about their moving away, while Amelia’s one and only role is to shout and shout and shout at Harold and by the end of the film the sound of her ever whining voice was starting to frustrate, and it’s a real shame neither are given the chance to indulge in physical comedy or are given dialogue that’s amusing.
Fields does deliver a good few one liners (“This sundial is 10 minutes slow!” being the highlight for me), and his casual muttering often generates laughs, and this is a film which definitely includes some inspired lunacy. It’s frustrating that it is so inconsistent though, that certain sequences are poor and it’s not just down to the age of the film, as they seem lacklustre in comparison to what else was being made at the time – anyone with an interest in the history of comedy may find a fair bit to enjoy here, but casual viewers may well wonder what all the fuss about Fields is.