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My Little Chickadee

My Little Chickadee

Thursday July, 3 2014 at 12:45 AM

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W.C. Fields, the bombastic king of the comic con, and Mae West, the raunchy queen of the double entendre, made one film together, My Little Chickadee (1940). This pairing of mismatched icons has spawned legends of epic battles for control. Like all legends, the stories have at least some basis in fact. As for the plot, it brought the two comics together in an amusing manner: Flower Belle Lee (West) is run out of town for consorting with the Masked Bandit but on the train she encounters con artist Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields). When the couple gets off the train in Greasewood City, they present themselves as a married couple and soon Twillie lands the job of town sheriff. And you can imagine the complications that stem from that.

Mae West had been pushing the envelope of prevailing morality throughout her career. Under contract to Paramount in the pre-code days of the early '30's, Mae was a hit in Hollywood. But tightening of the Production Code severely restricted her, and led to the end of her Paramount contract.

In 1939, Universal had a hit with another unlikely pairing, Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, in Destry Rides Again. Hoping to repeat that success, the studio approached West about teaming her with Fields, who had also recently left Paramount, in another comic western. Mae, whose freewheeling onscreen style actually concealed rigid standards, hesitated, knowing of Fields' fondness for the bottle. Then there was the question of screenplay. Both stars were used to writing their own scripts. Eventually, those matters were settled to the satisfaction of both stars, though how, exactly, has always been unclear.

West later claimed that she had a clause in her contract that if Fields drank, she could refuse to work until he was sober. She also insisted that she actually write most of the screenplay, although both of them were credited. What is fact is each star wrote a screenplay and submitted it to the studio. Fields, in fact, wrote several versions, including one titled December and Mae. And the studio commissioned another version from Grover Jones, which both stars detested. Later, producer Lester Cowan claimed that he had a hand in the script as well. The most likely scenario is that both stars wrote their own scenes for My Little Chickadee, and their scenes together were cobbled from various versions.

As to battles, both stars were circumspect to the press. There was never any open warfare, though West claimed that Fields was sent home drunk once, tipping his hat to his co-star as he went. And the result? My Little Chickadee was not quite what fans of either star might have hoped, according to the critics, but funny enough and successful enough to satisfy, and containing comic gems from each star individually, if not together.

Producer: Lester Cowan, Jack J. Gross (uncredited)
Director: Edward F. Cline
Screenplay: W.C. Fields, Mae West
Art Direction: Martin Obzina, Jack Otterson
Cinematography: Joseph A. Valentine
Costume Design: Vera West
Film Editing: Edward Curtiss
Original Music: Ben Oakland (song "Willie of the Valley"), Frank Skinner
Principal Cast: Mae West (Flower Belle Lee), W.C. Fields (Cuthbert J. Twillie), Joseph Calleia (Jeff Badger (The Masked Bandit)), Dick Foran (Wayne Carter), Ruth Donnelly (Aunt Lou), Margaret Hamilton (Mrs. Gideon).
BW-83m.

By Margarita Landazuri

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