Million Dollar Legs (1932)
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By l932, W. C. Fields' career was coming to a crossroads of sorts. Under contract to Mack Sennett's studios, Fields was approached by Paramount with a better offer and completed two films for the studio before any of his shorts with Sennett were made. He went on to complete the four shorts ("The Dentist", "The Fatal Glass of Beer", The Pharmacist" and "The Barber Shop") with Sennett though, and the success of those films convinced Paramount to give Fields the latitude he wanted and a freer hand in his features. Moreover, his experience at Sennett gave the old-time comedian a chance to work on his technique and become more comfortable with the microphone.
Still, in l932 Paramount felt that Fields could not carry a feature length film on his own, and routinely put him in supporting roles. His first feature for Paramount was Million Dollar Legs (1932); though the film was clearly a vehicle for comedian Jack Oakie, Fields stole many a scene as the President of Klopstokia in this absurdist comedy.
Klopstokia is a country where the natives all have impossible athletic prowess; the Presidency itself is decided by arm-wrestling contests (where Fields dominates all challengers). Given their inherent strength and endurance, the government decides to enter Klopstokians in the l932 Olympic games, where all sorts of political intrigue and zany hijinks ensue. At a scant 62 minutes, the movie's plot is little more than a skeleton on which to drape all sorts of sight gags, physical comedy and sharp dialogue. Its story and surrealist settings anticipate the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933) by a year or so, replete with chases, slapstick, political satire and oblique references to President Hoover's Depression-era America.
Wisely, director Cline brought in a few old hands from Sennett's studio, such as Ben Turpin, Vernon Dent and Andy Clyde, raising the physical-comedy ante considerably. Cline was confounded, though, by Fields' insistence on ad-libbing and refusal to learn his lines. Fields' stage experience gave him a perfect sense of timing and of how to milk a gag for the maximum amount of laughs; the idea of sticking to a script was anathema to him. After much feuding, the two came to terms with each other and later became good friends; in later films, Cline would be called in when other directors found Fields and his style impossible to deal with. The lovely Susan Fleming, incidentally, was later to become Mrs. Harpo Marx.
Not surprisingly, the film ran afoul of Will Hays' Production Code, partly due to its seemingly risque title and partly because of several specific lines and scenarios (such as Lyda Roberti's performance as the pseudo-Garbo temptress Mata Machree). Hays' objections notwithstanding, Million Dollar Legs went on to be one of Fields' funniest sound films, though it remained relatively obscure for years. To quote Simon Louvish' biography Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W.C. Fields, it was a picture where " 'anything can happen and probably will', in which anarchy triumphed over bureaucracy, the leash was slipped and the dogs of comedy relieved themselves all over the astonished lot".
Producer: Herman J. Mankiewicz
Director: Edward F. Cline
Screenplay: Nicholas T. Barrows, Ben Hecht (uncredited), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (story), Henry Myers
Cinematography: Arthur L. Todd
Original Music: John Leipold (uncredited)
Principal Cast: Jack Oakie (Migg Tweeny), W.C. Fields (The President), Andy Clyde (The Major-Domo), Lyda Roberti (Mata Machree), Susan Fleming (Angela), Ben Turpin (Mysterious Man), Hugh Herbert (Secretary of the Treasury), Dickie Moore (Willie).
by Jerry Renshaw