The comedies of W.C. Fields have not aged well, but there’s a clear dark side upon watching them today. I can imagine a version of this film in which none of the incompetence, prat fall humor and family comedy would be played for laughs and instead as a dark satire of a depressed, miserable nuclear family.
Sure enough, people have reimagined the family comedy and the sitcom. You can see traces of W.C. Fields in Clark Griswold, or I think of Louis C.K. trying to stage a sitcom in which when his wife scolds him for opening a bottle on the table, she doesn’t say “I love you,” but “I’m leaving you.”
In “It’s a Gift,” Fields plays Harold, a struggling grocer who lucks into a small fortune upon learning of the death of his wealthy relative. Before the ink is dry on the will, Harold has already purchased an orange grove in California, unaware (or unwilling to learn) that nothing will grow on his newly purchased lot. But the film plays more as a series of slapstick sketches.
Harold and his wife Amelia (Kathleen Howard) are made for each other. He’s a moron, a louse, insensitive, and maybe even a drunk, and she’s an abhorrent nag, assuming the worst about him at every turn. He walks away while she’s going on one of her rants, and she wonders why she always has to yell around the house. When a wrong number calls as they’re going to bed (separate beds, mind you) asking for the Maternity Hospital, she questions his conduct and then accuses him of changing his story when he tries to correct her. After a while of failing to correct her in other instances, he just doesn’t even bother.
But for each gag and each sketch, I wondered what it would be like if the characters involved took a truly dark, even morbid, turn. The film’s first gag involves Harold trying to shave while his daughter preps himself. As she fiddles with the mirror and fluffs her hair, he’s constantly at risk of cutting himself. It’s just an innocent little dance in the bathroom until the blood starts to spill.
Or when Harold leaves the bedroom in order to get away from his wife’s nagging, he’s constantly interrupted by his hanging patio swing collapsing, by a baby dropping grapes through a hole in the floor above, by an annoying insurance salesman trying to pitch him while he’s got a blanket over his head, or a milkman clattering away with bottles. Eventually he gets a butcher’s cleaver to scare off the salesman, and his wife chooses the moment to come outside and tell him and his new friend to be quiet. “If he’s not your friend, why did you invite him up?” He’s got the cleaver in his hands, just end it now.
Or maybe that’s the worst thing I could’ve possibly imagined, although I can see other artists testing the limits of marital boundaries, of seeing how much comic abuse these people can endure before something truly outrageous and surprising happens. The thought comes to mind because each gag rarely comes from a place of predictability, but rather complete surprise and almost a surreal level of anarchy. It’s not exactly pitched at the tempo of the Marx Brothers, and they’ve aged a lot better in some regards (the director of this film, Norman Z. McLeod, also directed “Horse Feathers” and “Monkey Business”), but rather than carefully teased set ups and falls, some kid will appear and toy with a barrel of molasses, and Fields will end up on his back unannounced. Given a different setting, a different tone of voice and comic approach, “It’s a Gift” could play as a brilliant black comedy instead of a quaint ’30s screwball.