The Film: It’s a Gift (1934)
The Principals: Directed by Norman McLeod, starring W.C. Fields, Jean Rouverol, Kathleen Howard, and Baby LeRoy.
The Premise: Harold Bissonette is a grocery clerk with dreams of living the good life as the owner of a California orange grove. To make his dreams a reality, he’s got to butt heads with his dreadful family, a devil child, and a lineup of horrible people.
Is It Any Good: Anybody who doesn’t like W.C. Fields is dead to me. The gin-soaked icon of misanthropy dominated comedies during the 1930s with his signature blend of physical humor and unmatched wisecracks. In hindsight, Fields was basically the Larry David of his time. A majority of his films have him playing the “everyman” wrestling with society in one ridiculous form or another. And much like David’s screen self on Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s oftentimes not his fault. While his intentions may be good, Fields would always be the target of society’s unsympathetic attitude. Man, people suck. Fields knew it 70 years ago and turned this view of humanity into comedy gold.
In his 1934 screwball film It’s a Gift, Fields takes on his nagging wife, a blind man, the milk man, snobbish grocery store patrons, and his mortal enemy: contract child star Baby LeRoy. He plays Harold Bissonette (pronounced “biss-on-ay”), a grocery store clerk in Jersey trying to get slowly drunk throughout the day while hocking produce. He grows sick of the life and bets it all on a California orange grove that may or may not be worthless. His family thinks he’s a lunatic for blowing all their money on speculative farmland, but Harold remains stubborn and naively assured.
The orange grove plot plays second fiddle to the patchwork of sketches that make up the film. Some of them are rehashed from previous Fields’ routines, like the back porch routine, but they all work well to move the story along. The funniest moments occur when Fields interacts with other human beings, particularly Baby LeRoy, the bane of his existence. His family is the cause of many headaches as well. His wife doesn’t have any faith in him and, in a hilarious scene, his selfish daughter won’t let him shave in peace. The whole film is just so damn funny.
I don’t mean to paint Fields as a total ball of hate – in most of his films, he really does want the best for his family. In It’s a Gift, he wants his kin to share in his fortune. If only they would let him get some goddamn sleep. He finds himself a champion in the end though, after standing his ground against land developers. The film closes on the Bissonette family enjoying their new found wealth as Harold sits comfortably by himself. He pours himself a glass of orange juice and, as a terrific “fuck you” to the world, adds a swig from his flask to the glass.
Is It Worth a Look: Fields’ timeless underdog persona is always worth a look. This is back when comedy didn’t have to be vulgar to pack theaters, y’know? Fields’ comedy will never die and while The Bank Dick typically gets the most love, It’s a Gift is definitely a highlight of his oeurve. BUY IT FROM CHUD.
Random Anecdotes: “Fields had a phobia about the baby,” said director Norman McLeod. “He not only hated infants in general, but he believed that Baby LeRoy was stealing scenes from him… He used to swear at the baby so much in front of the camera that I sometimes had to cut off the ends of the scenes in which they appeared.”
Cinematic Soulmates: Curb Your Enthusiasm, the W.C. Fields filmography