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The Three Best Films of W.C. Fields-Part one: Poppy (1936)

Updated on August 15, 2012


No. 3: POPPY (1936)

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.

If you have never seen a W.C. Fields movie, you have missed the funniest man who ever walked the earth, and if you don’t think W.C. Fields is the funniest man who walked he earth, you have never seen a W.C. Fields movie.

Fields ran away from home-mainly from his disapproving father-at an early age to pursue his life as a juggler and never looked back. He eventually became an expert juggler, doing his act in a series of comic pantomime acts and toured all over the US and Europe with his act. He eventually added his gravelly and comic voice to his act. His comedy routine, which expanded beyond just his juggling, became so popular that Fields eventually landed on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies.

In the twenties Fields started making a few silent shorts in Hollywood. He also made several full-length features, chief among them, Sally of the Sawdust, which was the silent version of Poppy. But it is the talkies Fields did for Mack Sennett, Paramount and, later, Universal, that constitute the Fields collectable classics.  Among these are International House, The Old Fashion Way, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, My Little Chickadee and the Bank Dick. Also included in these classics are my three choices as Fields’ best in descending order.

Some may argue that some of the other Fields films should be considered among the best three. Unlike most of the other Fields films, the comic was not the central character in this film, it was his daughter, Poppy, as the title implies. But though he as less screen time than some of his other classics, I still choose Poppy as one my three favorites for several reasons. One is that the film was a remake of a fairly successful silent feature, Sally of the Sawdust and the remake in sound was far superior as a picture, despite the relatively limited screen time of Fields. I do not choose Poppy as among the best because I think it has the best Fields performance. I choose because it is one of the best overall films that involved Fields, even though he was not the centerpiece of the movie. Another reason for choosing this film is because it has a fine ensemble cast, including Catherine  Doucet, who plays Poppy’s benefactor and almost steals the movie. There is also a musical score which is quite pleasing and which no other Fields movie has.

The plot of the movie is quite simple. Fields plays one of his common characters, Prof. Eustace McGargle, a snake oil salesman who is very nimble with his fingers when it comes to taking in too much money from his customers and giving back too little in change. He is helped by his daughter, Poppy, played by Rochelle Hudson. Poppy falls in love with a local boy but, meanwhile, is suspected by the Doucet character as being her relative and the true inheritor of a fortune. Prof. McGarle finally admits that Poppy is not actually his daughter but adopted her as a child, when he found her at a circus and Poppy is confirmed at the inheritor of the fortune. At the end, McGargle, forever the vagabond, takes off, but not before stealing a hand full of cigars from Poppy’s house.

Fields was not in good health when he was doing this film. He was suffering from back pains after falling off a horse and had to use a brace to get through. But none of this malady showed in his performance and the film was made before he began to show the affects of his excessive consumption of gin-the bloating, the slowed movements and the weight gain-that would be apparent in such movies as The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.

The funniest part of his performance, without a doubt, is when he attempts to impress a rich woman with his knowledge of croquet , a game that McGargle had not only never played, but had never even heard of. At one point he stumbled over one of the hoops used in the game and falls flat on his face. In getting up, he says angrily, “What lazy lout left all these wires all over the place?”

Although Fields is not the centerpiece of this film and has a part much smaller than his billing would imply, what he does in the film saves it from being a modest and forgettable Hollywood product and makes it a classic, worthy of near the top of the list of comedy classics to be collected.


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