MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE, a W.C. Fields entry from 1935, didn’t make much of a splash at the time, a $900,000 take putting it just 152nd among the year’s crop. But today it’s highly regarded by many as one of the gentleman’s best. Worthy critic Danny Peary in his excellent book “Alternate Oscars” even goes so far as to give his 1935 Best Actor to Fields in this role (over real winner Victor McLaglen in The Informer); to each their own. Well, as the saying goes, “if you can’t say something nice…”
‘Ambrose Wolfinger’ (Fields) has toiled diligently for 25 years as a “Memory Expert” for a manufacturer. He also labors under a harping wife (Kathleen Howard), a mean mother-in-law (Vera Lewis) and a lazy freeloading brother-in-law (Grady Sutton). His only champion is his daughter ‘Hope’ (Mary Brian). He finagles a day off so he can attend a wrestling match, but all manner of misfortunes trip him up. Will his basic decency prevail over the odds?
Sam Hardy and Ray Harris are credited for the script (with contributions from Fields and four other writers); Clyde Bruckman was credited as director but Fields took over from (the ill or inebriated) Bruckman, and handled the job, sans credit.
The setup is similar to other W.C. fests, but for me this one just didn’t sell. Things others report as “hilarious” I found just mildly amusing, with just a few registering chuckles, let alone hilarity. At the 15-minute point I felt glad that the running time was only 65 minutes and was even tempted to fast-forward but honor won out. Doubtless it was haw-haw as heck back in its day, and, as with funny-bone stuff writ large, if a joke tickles you and not me, you win. Fields did his usual biz with practiced aplomb, but for this fan the piece creaked with age and the broad, overly theatrical performances from Howard and Lewis came off forced. No cigar this time. Hats off, though, to those who are fond of it.
With Tammany Hall, Walter Brennan (22 jobs in ’34), Carlotta Monti (Fields companion/mistress of 14 years, played by Valerie Perrine in W.C. Fields and Me), James Flavin, Joe Sawyer, Edward Gargan, James Burke, Tor Johnson.