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The Three Best Films of W.C. Fields-Part Two-Man on the Flying Trapeze

Updated on March 10, 2011



I love movies, but I am an old movie fiend-classic movies, near classic movies, not-so-classic movies, black and white and color. I became addicted to movies from the age of seven in the forties and when television came along in the early fifties I spent most of my TV viewing the late show, before advent of Jack Paar and later Johnny Carson, immersed in movies made in the thirties and forties. Much later, when video tape technology came along, I began to compile my collection of my favorite movies and continued the collection with the advent of DVD and now digital downloads. My collection, most of which I have viewed countless times, includes practically every classic and near classic movie produced by Hollywood. The purpose of these hubs is to share my addiction so that others can begin their collection and become just as addicted as I am.

W.C. Fields did not just memorize his scripts and recite his lines in his movies. For many of them he actually composed the stories, although he never took “real” screen credit for doing so. He actually took credit using fictional and rather comic names, like Mahatma Kane Jeeves, Otis Cribleocblis and, for this film, Charles Bogle. The screenplays were always written by professional writers, but they were constantly frustrated by Fields’ taking liberties with the script and injecting his own adlibs.

I chose Man on the Flying trapeze as no. 2 of all of the Fields films for several reasons. One is that in this film he is the central character, in fact, he carries the entire film, but not by playing the stereotypical  Fields character-the snake oil salesman, the pool shark or the card shark- but by playing an ordinary man, but in a Fieldsian way so that he gets laughs in almost every scene. The other reason I chose this film to be among the best of all of the Fields films is that, of all of his performances in all of his films, Fields was selected as one of the nominees for best actor in 1935 for his performance in this film. He was against Robert Donat, Leslie Howard, Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton, but he and they all lost to Victor Mclaglen for his performance in The Informer. I, and a few other Fields addicts, think he should have won against them all.

In this film Fields plays Ambrose Wolfinger, a memory expert who keeps his desk so cluttered and in such disarray that no one can find any of his files except him. He lives with his second wife, a hen-pecking woman played by Kathleen Howard, who was Field’s favorite “wife”, his mother-in-law (from hell) a lazy and spoiled brother-in-law, played by Grady Sutton, a regular in Field’s films and his beloved daughter from his first marriage.

Drinking, which is a part of almost every Fields film, is part f the beginning of this one. Wolfinger is in the bathroom pretending to gargle when he is actually sneaking a drink of his illegal apple jack from a bottle of mouth wash. Later, in the middle of the night two burglars, one of whom is played by a very young Walter Brennan, break into Wolfinger’s basement. Before they conduct their robbery, they decide to sample Wolfinger’s apple jack, stored in a huge barrel in the basement. They continue their sampling until they break out in a song and wake up Wolfinger’s wife. She prods a sleepy and reluctant Woffinger to go down and investigate. Before doing so, he telephones the security guard and reports that he is being robbed. He goes down with a baseball bat as a weapon. Soon, the security guard appears and all four start to help themselves to the apple jack and pretty soon are all singing even louder than before. After it becomes obvious that they have disturbed the entire household, the security guard decides that he has to do his duty and take the two burglars to the police and asks Wolfinger to come along to testify.

When they appear before the judge, he has pity on the two burglars and lets them go, but arrests Wolfinger for making apple jack during prohibition. When his wife, mother-in-law and his laughing brother-in-law find out he has been arrested, they decide to allow Wolfinger to rot in jail. His daughter comes to his rescue and bails him out.

The rest of the picture relates to Wolfinger’s zeal to attend the wrestling match. To get the day off-his first day off in twenty-five years-he lies to his boss that his mother-in – law has died. His boss willingly gives him the day off. While leaving the office, one of the employees says, “Mr. Wolfinger, it must be hard losing your mother-in-law.” To which Wolfinger replies, “Very hard, in fact, nearly impossible.”

When he starts off for the matches with his daughter, he finds that his two tickets have been stolen by Claude, his worthless brother-in-law, so he has to wait in line for another two tickets. While he is waiting he shows a policeman how much he knows about wrestling by demonstrating a hold that is impossible to escape. The policeman gets out of the hold by throwing Wolfinger over his shoulder, causing him land on his head. The policeman helps Wolfinger up and asks if he is hurt, to which Wolfinger replies, “how can you hurt somebody by throwing him on his head?”

Meanwhile, just as Wolfinger gets up to the ticket booth, it closes because it is sold out, so he has to watch the match through a hole in the fence. Soon, one of the wrestlers is thrown out of the ring, over the fence and lands on Wolfinger, throwing him into a ditch. His secretary, who also attended the match, sees all of this and comes to Wolfinger’s rescue. Meanwhile, Claude, who attended the match on the stolen tickets, sees the secretary leaning over Wolfinger in the ditch and hurries back home to report that he saw Wolfinger out with a woman, drunk and lying in a ditch. This, along with the fact that his family learns that he has lied about the death of his mother-in-law and reports that to Wolfinger’s office manager, not only gets Wolfinger fired but he and his daughter are thrown out of the house.

But all of Field’s movies end with a happy ending and his getting his deserved revenge. Man on the Flying Trapeze is no exception. When the big boss needs information on an important client, he asks the office manager to get Wolfinger, the memory expert. When the office reports that he has fired Wolfinger, the big boss explodes and demands that he get him back. Meanwhile, Wolfinger and his daughter are living in a small apartment when the phone rings. It is the office manager desperately seeking the return of Wolfinger. His daughter negotiates a much larger salary and a longer vacation for his return and all ends well. As for the revenge, the last scene in the movie has Wolfinger and his daughter taking the family out for a drive in his new coupe. Wolfinger drives and his daughter sit beside him.  His wife, his mother-in-law and Claude sit in the uncovered rumble seat behind. Of course, a rain shower erupts and the people in the rumple seat get drenched.

Man on the Flying Trapeze is not as well known and was not shown as frequently on the late show as some of the other Fields movies in which he played the stereotyped Fields characters-the snake oil salesman, the card or pool shark-with the tall hat and cane. But it is, in part, because of that that the film is ranked, in my opinion, as among his best. Here, Fields does not rely on the tried and expected devices to get a laugh-the poll and golf tricks, the shifty card games or being victimized by Baby Leroy. Instead, he plays an almost pitiable character that emerges as the centerpiece and the funniest thing in the entire movie.

By the way, when you see this film, pay special attention to the woman who plays Wolfinger’s secretary. She is played by Carlotta Monti, who was Field’s real-life mistress and who, years later, wrote W. C. Fields and Me, which was turned into a successful movie in 1976. 


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