W.C. Fields may not have been the most cantankerous curmudgeon to ever grace the silver screen but he was certainly the funniest. Perpetually henpecked and hassled by wives, mother-in-laws, offspring and the world in general, his characters found solace in mutilating the English language, card trickery and the bottom of a bottle. He never met a child or animal he liked, or a good stiff drink he didn’t. Even when his screen characters dedicated their lives to avoiding work and pursuing vice, you couldn’t help but root for him. The pinched nasal lilt of his voice, the gin blossoming nose, the beady eyes, the impossibly spherical physique…everything about him seems at odds with the concept of grace, yet his pratfalls, non sequiturs and double takes display a top-notch comic agility.
Many aficionados of the boorish comic mention The Bank Dick (1940) or the surreal Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941) as Field’s crowning achievements, yet few fans give credit to a lesser-known gem that features some of the Portly One’s finest moments. Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) finds Fields playing a somewhat meeker version of his patented put-upon hero, which may explain its relative unpopularity. A lack of quality prints has kept the movie off repertory theatre calendars for quite a while, adding to its anonymity amongst the classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Made just as Fields was hitting his stride, however, this neglected little nugget is essential viewing for devotees of the screen’s favorite drunken master.
Trapeze‘s Ambrose Wolfinger is, in many ways, the archetypal Fieldsian hero. He’s constantly sneaking off for a drink, even joining two burglars (one of whom is runner-up for film’s sourest comic puss, Walter Brennan) who’ve stumbled upon his stash of bootleg applejack for a communal song and sip. He’s forever fending off a nagging wife (Kathleen Howard), a battleaxe mother-in-law (Vera Lewis) and lazy, sponging brother-in-law (longtime Fields’ foil Grady Sutton) who won’t get off his back. And ever at odds with the world, he refuses to reform his allegedly harmful ways.
Told in the typical vignette-style format of W.C.’s films, Man on the Flying Trapeze centers around a professional memory expert, Wolfinger (who hasn’t had a day off in twenty-five years), and his attempts to see an afternoon wrestling match. Along the way, he is forced to deal with inept criminals, overly zealous cops (the film’s best bit involves Wolfinger receiving a series of traffic tickets in under five minutes), corporate snitches and familial stooges. He finally arrives at the match just as it’s ending and is hit by a flying wrestler. Fired from his job and exiled from his family, his loving daughter (from a previous marriage) gets him re-hired for twice his salary. Eventually, his riches bring the rest of the extended Wolfinger clan back. Ambrose emerges victorious.
Naturally, the story details function less as a narrative structure than as a skeleton for Fields and veteran shorts director Clyde Bruckman’s anarchic gags. More so here than in his later films, the sense of several ideas for shorts being strung together to comprise a feature-length film permeates throughout. But the fun is watching the actor put his well-known persona through some hilarious paces. Trapeze’s best moments, such as the basement sing-along, the impromptu citation marathon or any shared scene with his wife, showcase the ex-vaudevillian’s knack for inspired lunacy. Even his lesser vehicles crackle with an anything-goes energy that propels the viewer from one set-up to the next, and this undeservedly neglected effort is chock full of pitch-perfect W.C. Fields zingers. Shown for the first time on TV in years, the resurrection of Man on the Flying Trapeze should make everyone from Fields’ completists to first-time viewers yell "God-frey Daniels!" with delight.
– David Fear