When I got to this film on my quest to watch the entire list back in late 2011 I bought an entire box set. Since I eventually would get to “The Bank Dick” as well I figured this would be a bargain. I have not counted the number of films included but the total is probably around 20. “It’s a Gift” was the first I saw and I figured, this is not so bad. The fellow is quite funny as he is harassed by basically everybody and tries to get his little space of quiet with his sarcastic yet wimpy comments.
A box set later I return to “It’s a Gift” and the gags are not half as fun as the first time I saw it. The reason is that I feel that I have seen basically the same film 20 times over. The setting may vary, the names (outrageously inventive names) are changed and some actors replaced, but the characters are much the same, the plot similar (W.C. Fields trying to get away with some scam but faces opposition on all sides except from his bartender) and the man himself going through the same gags over and over.
Yes, a number of the situations are potentially very funny and I am quite sure W.C. Fields had and still has a fan base out there who thinks this is absolutely hilarious. I admit that I chuckled a few times and seem to recall doing more than that the first time I saw it.
W.C. Fields is playing his usual character, this time by the name Mr. Harold Bissonette (on his wife insistence it must be pronounced “Bisson-a-y”), a slightly corpulent man, enjoying the small things in life and fighting an uphill battle against his family, neighbors, customers, well, basically everybody. If they cannot complain about something he objectively did or did not do, they will assume he did or did not do something and blame all the trouble in the world on him anyway. Basically the world is being terribly unfair to him.
He is not entirely innocent though. As usual he has some wacky, hopeless schemes going, in this case an orange farm in California he is pursuing, and even with hard facts and confessions thrown in his face he refuse to reconsider but walks straight into disaster. One might also claim that he just does not listen to his surroundings, but the way everybody treats him his only real alternative to actually stand up against them is to bend and let it pass and thus ignore all the garbage thrown at him.
So on the one hand we are feeling sorry for him, on the other he is pretty good at taking a beating and with his inflated self-confidence he is not entirely innocent.
Not much is really happening in the film.
The story can be reduced to five scenes:
1. The morning ritual with Harold trying to shave
2. The story with impossible customers ruining everything, ending up with light bulbs and molasses all over the floor, a ruined door, a fired assistant and angry customers stomping out.
3. Harold trying to sleep on the porch with all sorts of interruptions.
4. The ride to California including a picnic in a private park
5. Arrival at the Orange farm only to discover that it is a dump. Then a little twist…
See, that is not really a deep story and that I think is also the point. The scenes are basically set-ups for Fields to run through his program, look miserable, and come up with some sarcastic one-liners and a bit of slap stick. Whether this works is all down to if you find this funny or not.
To me it feels rather painful. The porch scene is a good example. By the time the insurance salesman shows up I am ready to shoot him myself. It is simply drawn out too far for my taste. I know that is what is supposed to be funny, piling trouble onto trouble and seeing Fields squirm under the load. It just does not work very well for me. Or maybe I have just seen this too many times.
Comedy is very much a matter of taste and personal perception. While tragedy is universally understood, comedy is tied to cultural and personal tastes. The curious thing here is that I could compare the typical W.C. Fields character to the typical John Cleese character, especially his Basil Fawlty and find that they have so many things in common. But where I love to see Cleese squirm in Fawlty Towers I just wish Fields would get on with it.