W.C. Fields headlines in this 1926 silent comedy classic, essentially a collection of some of Fields’ best routines stitched together with the thinnest of plots.
The Production: 3.5/5
In 1926, W.C. Fields was still between the two worlds of stage and screen. He had a successful career in vaudeville with a series of skits and juggling routines that were winning over live audiences, and had even made the transition to the Broadway stage with a hit show, Poppy. He had also been experimenting in silent film, though his stage commitments limited his availability for film work. After sporadically appearing in several shorts and supporting roles in features, filmmaker D.W. Griffith adapted Fields’ Broadway hit Poppy to the silent screen as Sally Of The Sawdust. For his next project, Fields would take on It’s The Old Army Game, which allowed him not only a starring feature role but also the chance to reproduce many of his stage routines on the screen. Hollywood starlet Louise Brooks co-stars, bringing a touch of class and sex appeal to the proceedings.
The films loosely assembled plot concerns Elmer Prettywillie (Fields), the owner of a small drugstore in Florida dealing with a series of annoyances which leave him perpetually sleepless. In between sleepless nights, he faces daily quests to triumph over unruly customers and unexpected circumstances. Whether it’s obnoxious relatives, noisy neighbors or self inflicted mishaps at the store, Prettywillie just can’t get a break. One of the only bright lights for Prettywillie in all of this is Mildred Marshall (Brooks), his assistant at the shop. Further complications ensue when Prettywillie rents out window space to a real estate man looking to sell land in New York (William Gaxton). At first, Prettywillie is happy for the extra business this brings, but soon suspects that he’s being used in a scheme that will surely backfire.
Fans of W.C. Fields’ sound films will recognize routines and other bits of business here in It’s The Old Army Game. The famous porch routine from It’s A Gift, concerning Fields trying to sleep as various neighbors and pedestrians disturb his slumber, appears in an earlier version here, familiar enough to bring a smile of recognition, but different enough to feel fresh. Much of the business inside the drugstore would later be repeated in the short film The Pharmacist. Fields’ famous catchphrase “never give a sucker an even break” even appears as dialogue in an intertitle. Even as early as 1926, and even without sound, the Fields persona was already well developed.
The biggest surprise about this film may be just how well the comedy of W.C. Fields plays, even without being able to hear his famous voice. Unlike a star like Charlie Chaplin, who mostly retained his silent brand of comedy well into the sound era, Fields would make use of his voice as soon as the opportunity and technology presented itself. But even without that famous drawl, the mannerisms and the comic timing are there. It’s The Old Army Game makes it clear how much of the Fields persona can be attributed to the man’s physicality, something that can be obscured in his later talkies by the clever dialogue he would frequently write for himself. If there was ever any doubt that the physical comedy of W.C. Fields rightfully belonged in the same conversation with that of Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, It’s The Old Army Game should settle that question.
Director A. Edward Sutherland (who would marry Brooks) was effective at capturing the Fields persona in full swing. If there is a criticism about the film, it is that the subplots that do not involve Fields can slow the action, and try as he might, Sutherland can occasionally lose narrative balance by keeping the action away from Fields. (This is perhaps the most consistent criticism that can be made not just about this film, but of the Fields filmography as a whole.) Later films would better address this imbalance by making the characters in those subplots more directly related to the Fields character, which would help extend both audience attention and sympathy to those side plots. Sutherland himself would direct Fields again several times, both in the silent and sound eras, and would finally strike a more winning balance between humor and story in their final collaboration, a sound adaptation of Fields’ stage hit Poppy (1936).
3D Rating: NA
The transfer is based on a new 2K scan of 35mm film elements held at the Library of Congress. It is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio via the AVC codec, with a sepia tint that looks very pleasing. Some shots look nearly pristine, and even when damage is present in others, it’s only lightly visible in an unobtrusive way. The clarity within the image is absolutely stunning, and the detail is so clear that even the clip that holds on Fields’ fake mustache can be seen. When the film looks good, it is outstanding; at it’s worst, it’s merely very good. Interestingly, the live action photography (which is rock steady) often appears in far better condition than the intertitles (which are often shaky). I’ve seen this film in different incarnations over the years, from poor quality standard definition VHS copies to 16mm and 35mm prints, and none of them have looked anywhere close to how good the film looks here. Simply put, it’s a revelation to see this film looking as it does here.
For this release, Kino has commissioned a new organ score written and performed by Ben Model. Presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo, it’s a well-recorded track with good fidelity that can sometimes lack inspiration. I have seen this movie theatrically with live accompaniment before, and when that pianist played before a live audience, it worked perfectly. This track is more repetitive. It never contradicts the image, but it occasionally misses the opportunity to truly punctuate the onscreen action.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Audio Commentary by film historian James L. Neibeur – This commentary is a mixed bag. On one hand, Neibeur clearly knows the material. He effectively draws parallels between this film and Fields’ later work, making insightful observations and comparisons about how Fields comedy evolved over time. But on the other hand, Neibeur does seem to run out of steam before reaching the end of the film, and there are some stretches where he either resorts to describing the onscreen action, or simply remains silent. On a more technical note, the commentary does not have great audio fidelity. It sounds as if Neibeur was perhaps sitting too close to his microphone, and there are occasional cracks, pops and distortions as he speaks. Still, this is the first time an audio commentary has been presented for a W.C. Fields film, and the opportunity to hear an insightful examination of the comedian’s work is appreciated.
It’s The Old Army Game, along with Running Wild, are the first feature length W.C. Fields films to be released on Blu-ray. The restoration presented here is easily the best the film has looked in my lifetime, allowing the viewer to appreciate every nuance of Fields’ performance. While at first it might seem a loss to watch Fields without the power of his inimitable drawl, the film makes an outstanding case for Fields’ skill with physical humor. His comic timing is brilliant, and familiar routines from his better known films seem fresh and vital in their earlier incarnations. Kino is to be commended for releasing such a high quality version of this film, and for commissioning both a new score and an audio commentary to accompany the release. As a longtime fan of W.C. Fields, it is wonderful to finally be able to view one of his feature films on Blu-ray.