Man on the Flying Trapeze (Clyde Bruckman & W.C. Fields / U.S., 1935):

Mark Twain’s Huck Finn never got to "light out for the Territory ahead of the rest," he instead wrestled and boozed and morphed into W.C. Fields’ Ambrose Wolfinger. Twenty-four hours with a bulbous widower and a houseful of spongy relatives are the stuff for a plangent anti-Cult of Domesticity symphony, with a first movement that’s a master class in comic building. The wife (Kathleen Howard) nags operatically as Fields gargles liquor in the bathroom, dispirited "Yes dears" punctuate his bedroom rituals; the robbers in the basement take a break to sip applejack and croon "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away," a police officer joins them and then Fields, who ends up sharing a cell with a fulminating murderer. Bailed out by his daughter (Mary Brian), he staggers back to bed and the alarm clock rings five seconds after his head hits the pillow: "Quite a snooze." Fields himself took over direction from Clyde Bruckman, and the result is his most brackish snapshot of middle-class asphyxiation and offhand American surrealism. Henpecked at home, at work, and even before the Court of Justice, the protagonist can either learn to enjoy hard, cold toast at the breakfast table or metaphorically kill off his sourpussed mother-in-law (Vera Lewis) and watch Tosoff vs. Meshobbab in the wrestling ring. "It must be hard to lose your mother-in-law." "Yes it is, very hard. Almost impossible." Availing himself of sets as seedily bare as Hitchcock’s in Psycho, Fields stretches and excruciates gags for pain as much as for laughter -- the long-take socks routine (the husband methodically takes them off, blows into them, folds them into his slippers, then reverses the process) is rhymed in the stalled car sequence and its back-to-back-to-back tickets for a profoundly cinematic style of humor. ("The more haste, the less speed.") Fassbinder would push the comedy to its logical conclusion in Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, Fields settles for punching Grady Sutton’s lights out. With Lucien Littlefield, Oscar Apfel, Tammany Young, Walter Brennan, and Carlotta Monti. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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