Poppy (1936)

"What a gorgeous day... what effulgent sunshine... yes... 'twas a day of this sort, the McGillicuddy brothers murdered their mother with an axe!"

W.C. Fields here starred as Professor Eustace McGargle for the second time on celluloid, having already appeared in a silent version of Dorothy Donnelly's play directed by D.W. Griffith in 1925, Sally Of The Sawdust (below). But this was the umpteenth time the great clown had played McGargle in his career, having been a regular in the role on Broadway in 1923, reportedly treading the boards of the New York Apollo Theatre 346 times.

Eddie Sutherland's Paramount Poppy presents us with the image of Fields that has come to define him. Decked out in billowing check trousers, spats and a towering Mad Hatter's chapeau and cane, Fields travels the countryside with his faithful daughter in tow (Rochelle Hudson), pulling cons and hawking tonic at medicine shows until the idea of posing her as the long-lost progeny of a missing heiress enters his mind and real trouble ensues. The film provides W.C. with a welcome opportunity to dust off and repurpose some of his most cherished routines in a period setting: his Golf Specialist bit now takes place on a croquet lawn, his talking dog trick this time fools a bewhiskered publican while his fleeing from the scene here involves a getaway on a penny-farthing bicycle (a particularly joyous sight). There's also plenty of new business, including a failed recital on a cigar box violin that is continuously interrupted by the seemingly malevolent machinations of the aforementioned topper.

It's marvelous stuff, but don't take my word for it. Graham Greene, the English novelist whose work has inspired a number of cinematic classics from This Gun For Hire (1942) to Odd Man Out (1947), Brighton Rock (1947) and The Third Man (1949) - started out as a film critic for The Spectator and reviewed Poppy highly favourably on July 17th 1936:

"To watch Mr Fields, as Dickensian as anything Dickens ever wrote, is a form of escape for poor human creatures: we who are haunted by pity, by fear, by our sense of right and wrong, who are tongue-tied by conscience, watch with envious love this free spirit robbing the gardener of ten dollars, cheating the country yokels by his own variant of the three-card trick, faking a marriage certificate, and keeping up all the time, in the least worthy and the most embarrassing circumstances, his amazing flow of inflated sentiments."

Greene further applauds Fields, in opposition to Charlie Chaplin, for winning our affection, "not by class solidarity (he robs the poor as promptly as the rich), but simply by the completeness of his dishonesty." A brilliant insight from a very fine writer indeed.


His Kind Of Woman (1951)

It’s no surprise to learn that RKO boss Howard Hughes had a meddling hand in this oddball noir from John Farrow. What starts out as a fairly routine hot climate crime caper (in which Bob Mitchum’s no-luck gambler is dispatched to a Mexican holiday resort to greet a powerful mystery man arriving by sea) ends up becoming a wildly eccentric soapbox for Vincent Price. The great ham grandstands as film actor Mark Cardigan, who overcomes a sunken dinghy to lead a motley crew of hotel workers to Mitchum’s rescue from duplicitous gangsters.

The corking Jane Russell provides the love interest, wearing little and prowling about the place like a lynx. Until, that is, she is unceremoniously locked in a closet by Price, whose whimsical thesp longs for a real adventure after a lifetime of play-acting. The supporting cast is of a high calibre too, with Tim Holt, Charles McGraw, Raymond Burr and Jim Backus all showing up to add menace and texture. It’s a strange concoction, all told, and hard to know where Farrow’s work ends and Richard Fleischer’s begins (the latter drafted in by Hughes to tinker). His Kind Of Woman has gained a cult following over the decades and I’d say it deserves it. The closing metaphor of the steam iron burning a hole through Mitchum’s pants sums its humour up nicely.