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It's the Old Army Game
In the early days of talkies, Fields was mostly relegated to guest star appearances in features, and initially seemed destined to play out the remainder of his career in low-budget two-reel shorts. But those brilliant, pre-Code Mack Sennett-produced comedies brought him back into the public consciousness and starring parts in features, and at Paramount in the 1930s, no one made funnier movies, among the best comedies ever made by anyone. Illness and alcoholism limited his output from the mid-1930s onward, but later, at Universal, he starred in four more features, three of which became additional masterpieces of comedy.*
Those reluctant until now to sample Fields's silent films It's the Old Army Game (1926) and Running Wild (1927) because of the absence of Fields's signature "raspy drawl and grandiloquent vocabulary" (as Wikipedia describes it) should think again. It's the Old Army Game finds Field's hilarious screen persona (actually one of two distinct alternating characters, unique in screen comedy) about 80% formed. The film includes two long sequences later reworked for his later classic It's a Gift (1934) while other gags would turn up later in other films, notably several of his shorts, particularly The Dentist (1932) and The Pharmacist (1933). Some of the gags would be refined and improved upon in the later films; others, some quite hilarious, are unique to this silent work. Louise Brooks, the sexiest pixie of the silent era, co-stars.
Given the outrageously dirty name Elmer Prettywillie (!), Fields plays a small town druggist. In popular culture, Fields is remembered for his shyster characters, cheating at cards and never giving a sucker an even break. But, more commonly, Fields played long-suffering henpecked husbands with domineering upwardly mobile wives and obnoxious children. (In some of his films, he plays both the henpecked husband and the shyster character, all in one film.) In almost all his best films the one person who understands him, and the one character he unabashedly dotes over, is a young adult daughter.
In It's the Old Army Game these relationships aren't yet fully formed. Louise Brooks plays the daughter role, only here she's his unrelated assistant at the drug store, Mildred. Instead of an overbearing wife and annoying male child those characters become mere relatives. More trivially, Fields hasn't quite yet locked down the look of his screen character: in all his silents and first talkie short he sports a singularly unreal mustache. Rather than pasted to his upper lip with spirit gum (or painted on, like Groucho's), it's a clip-on, dangling from his nose, and in profile suggests egregiously overlong nostril hair. Reportedly Fields liked it precisely because it was so patently phony. (In the hilarious short The Fatal Glass of Beer, Fields similarly does a bit in front of the phoniest rear-projection process photography imaginable. It's funny because it's so obviously, absurdly fake.)
The plot, such as it is, concerns dodgy real estate dealer George Parker (William Gaxton), who uses Prettywillie's store as a front for his dealings, and because he's fallen in love with Mildred. This subplot is pretty thin, but it does allow for a scene where Mildred, on an outing with George, dons a bathing suit. She's very sexy throughout.
Mostly, It's the Old Army Game is an excuse for Fields to adapt material from his "The Comic Supplement" and create new bits for the film. The two big set pieces would later be reworked for It's a Gift: Prettywillie unsuccessfully trying to get some shuteye on a back porch; and a family picnic, they blissfully unaware that they're trashing the grounds of a private estate.
Though Fields topped both sequences in the talkie remake, they're still funny and fascinating because so many of the gags are somewhat or entirely different. In the silent film, for instance, Fields sleep is interrupted by a crying baby played very obviously by a "little person" whose long, spindly arms and crabby adult face draw attention rather than fool the movie audience. In the picnic sequence, Prettywillie's annoying nephew gleefully enters the mansion, which in the remake they stay clear of entirely. He emerges with all kinds of priceless belongings, which Perrywinkle tosses into a broken heap.
Meanwhile, back at the drugstore, many of the best bits there revolve around a fussy customer who never buys anything (or pays for what she takes), played by an uncredited Elsie Cavanna. Lanky and snooty in appearance, Cavanna plays the first character seen in the film, interrupting Prettywillie's sleep, demanding to buy a three-cent stamp she forgets to pay for. A favorite of Fields, Cavanna would later be immortalized as the writhing dental patient in Fields's short The Dentist, a profoundly dirty pre-Code tooth extraction with sexual and sadomasochistic overtones.
Director A. Edward Sutherland fell in love with Brooks during filming and they were, briefly, married, but he didn't like Fields, nor did Fields like him. The comedian would demand much greater control over his later talkies, partly because of experiences like those he had making this. One of this picture's drawbacks is the combination of Fields's inexperience with the camera and obliviousness to how careful staging and cutting could enhance his brand of comedy - and Sutherland's haphazard, uncaring cutting. Too often he cuts away from Fields's bits to keep up the general pace, but at the cost of damaging the methodical build-up of Fields's laughs.
Video & Audio
Remastered in 2K from 35mm film elements held by the Library of Congress, Kino's Blu-ray of It's the Old Army Game looks great, very sharp with remarkably few signs of damage to the 92-year-old film. It features slight tinting throughout and the 75-minute film is mastered at the correct speed. Ben Model score for theater organ, in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo, compliments the film, enhancing the material and never drawing attention to itself. Region "A" encoded.
The lone supplement is an informative audio commentary track by historian James L. Neibaur, author of The W.C. Fields Films.
Not as great as W.C. Fields ‘30s and early ‘40s masterworks but still very funny with lots of charming footage of Louise Brooks to boot, It's the Old Army Game is Highly Recommended.
* Fields's best features, in this reviewer's opinion, are: It's a Gift (1934), You're Telling Me! (1934), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), and The Bank Dick (1940).
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.