Relation/Cinema: It’s A Gift

Its a Gift Pipe Phone W.C. Fields

There’s a lot of slander directed toward baby-boomers nowadays. Now, I’m sure we all know the list of things the boomers definitely got wrong, but what about what they got right? I’ll give you one: rediscovering the joy of early anarchic cinematic comedy. That’s right, CinDoc reader, if it weren’t for those hippie boomers out there, the reputations of great early comedians may not have become what they are today. From the whacked-out stylings of the Four Marx Brothers to the slapstick circus of the Three Stooges, the boomers had good taste in funnymen. One of these vaudeville greats, Mr. W. C. Fields, is the star of our subject today. Unfortunately, he’s also a great comedian who’s fallen through the cracks. 

It’s A Gift is considered one of Fields’s all-time masterpieces, right up there alongside his (notoriously out of print) Criterion release of The Bank Dick. Having become interested in Fields through coverage by The Important Cinema Club podcast, I took advantage of the recent Kino Lorber sale and picked up this lesser-known gem. Suffice to say I was pleasantly surprised. 

The plot concerns one Mr. Bisonette (pronounced Bee-Zo-Nay), a henpecked general store owner who just can’t catch a break. His dream is to move to California and run an orange grove, but that doesn’t seem to be working out. The wife won’t let him. Money’s tight. During this time, the height of the Great Depression, his audience could certainly sympathize. In today’s recession, we can too. But add on top of that a shrew of a wife, a punk son, and a rebellious daughter, and you don’t have anywhere to go but down. That’s probably why he’s a drunk and a sad-sack—but he’s also pretty incompetent and abusive himself. And let’s not forget: THIS IS A COMEDY! A comedy of toxicity and frustration. 

Its a Gift Smoking Hats

These are the themes upon which Fields focuses. Every bit, deftly executed in stumbling and yet perfectly-timed fashion, is built around the idea that you just can’t win. From the very first scene, where he’s trying to shave (with a straight razor, mind you!) and get ready for work, you can tell this guy has no leg to stand on. He’s so self-sabotaging he can’t even ask his daughter to move from the sink. He’s so ingenious and yet clueless that he tries to shave from a mirror hanging on a wire, and he can’t get it to stay still. The worst thing is, you’re both laughing at him and upset for him! Heck, with every swipe of that razor you’re afraid he’s gonna cut his own throat!

Then there’s my personal favorite scene, in which Fields tries desperately to get to sleep out on his porch. The writer/actor takes a situation we’re all familiar with—insomnia—and heightens it with comic flavor and character. Case in point: he’s sleeping on a porch swing. A little girl goes bounding down the stairs above. She begins talking loudly to her mother upstairs. He makes a slight, quiet comment. The lady above says to her daughter, “I can’t hear you, there’s someone shouting”. When the little girl finally goes away and the mom enters back into her apartment, his wife walks out and asks angrily, “WHO WERE THOSE WOMEN YOU WERE TALKING TO?”

It’s a Wonderful Life – Enduring Against Discontentment

W. C. Fields just can’t win. The whole film presents his cynical, world-weary view of life. The planet earth is out to get you, no matter how innocent you are. Fate is real and hates you with a vengeance. 

But what can this movie about a terrible family in a terrible world teach us? Plenty, I think. Let’s start with the fact that Fields is dominated by his wife. Now, I’m not about to say that there can’t be some give and take in a proper marriage, but domination is not the goal—on either the husband’s or the wife’s part. At one point, Fields makes an angered statement that he’s the head of his household; and then he’s shouted down by his domineering partner. The toxic struggle for power is what seems to tear them apart. And while we’re on toxic behavior, let’s move on to the child and parent relationships. 

Its a Gift Trash Can Seat

Clearly these kids don’t respect their parents. Ultimately they also don’t hate them, but they are pretty out of control. And this isn’t from permissive parenting. If anything, we get hints that Mr. Bisonette is abusive (“[Dad,] don’t ya love me?” “Of course I love ya!” *raises a backhand*). And clearly their mother is just as strict, what with her domineering nature. No, if anything I think these kids rebel out of attention deprivation—or maybe better put, affection deprivation. All that’s happening in this household is squabbling and ordering around. We’d probably be just as disrespectful in such a circumstance. 

Anyway, the supreme suckiness of the family culture is part of what makes It’s A Gift a great movie. It’s that “world out of control” element that gives the film its signature cinematic flavor, and if you ever want to see human depravity through the lens of comedy, this is where you should go. In any case, let’s not let the legacy of W. C. Fields die. Without this put-upon old curmudgeon, the world would lose one of the true auteurs of classic comedy.

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Stephen McFerron Christian Podcast Cinematic Doctrine

Stephen McFerron likes movies. It’s that simple. From the lowest depths of the drive-in to the highest peaks of arthouse; the grand golden age to superhero spectacles, he’s all in! Since watching Gremlins and Jaws at a young age, Stephen has had an appetite for the strange and fantastic, as well as the old! If you’re here to explore movie history, or learn more about the best of today, Stephen’s your guide! He may even say something mildly profound along the way… if he’s lucky!

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