November 20, 1934 [It’s a Gift]

As Harold Bissonette, W. C. Fields shuffles along, half-murmuring, half-muttering, plaintive and frustrated, his gaze often averted--and punished with imprecations when he dares to look the world in the eye, his unquiet circumstances in New Jersey alleviated only by a dream of “typical California orange groves.”

The revelatory scene is his attempt to sleep on his porch, to gain simple quiet and the necessary solitude of the weary. But (at methodical, regular intervals) milk bottles (“Please stop playing those sleigh-bells”), a splintering support beam, a homicidal toddler with an ice pick, a gravity-driven cocoanut, and the eager minions of salesmanship (in search of the elusive “LaFong, Carl LaFong”) combine to deny him respite--a denial echoed in his grocery by the calamitous Mr. Muckle and the man who rages for ten pounds of kumquats. It is a world moving along its own trajectory, and to hell with Harold Bissonnette.

The bestowing of the sudden orange grove at the end--delivered without logic after so much dismay and outright disaster--certainly relieves Bissonette, but his rescue is almost as unsettling as his irritations and desperate plights, for it comes with the same unconcern for any of his efforts, fortune as much as failure acting on its own. I’ve noticed that Fields often seems poised to become the villain: The expected hard knocks of comedy he receives are, to his mind, acts of special vindictiveness, and he rears up to knock back--but he halts, not so much in kindness or forgiveness as exhaustion. There’s a little bit of Harry Langdon in Fields--the stunned victim--but the old man is too angry to remain the hapless baby, and lets out his remarkable whine-and-growl, at once apprehending defeat and spitting in its eye. In It’s a Gift I find a man I can understand, as modern as the stock-market haymakers that have been working on us these past few years, bruising and battering.


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