Back in the ’80s, whenever an older person went off on how wholesome movies were “back in the day,” I wish I had the knowledge to show them It’s a Gift. W.C. Fields, as I discovered, was skewering sentimental portraits of small town patriarchy long before conservative critics ground their teeth over the irreverent treatment of domesticity displayed on Married with Children. In Fields’ universe, men are henpecked by shrewish wives, rambunctious sons, and boy-crazy daughters at home, and pestered by persnickety widows, incompetent employees, negligent mothers, and physically disabled chucklefucks at work. If you couldn’t kill ‘em, this 1934 film posits, you can at least placate your family (and flee the maddening crowd) by moving to a California orange ranch, easily replacing one failed bucolic utopia with another.
It’s a Gift boasts a very thin premise: a small-town grocer named Harold Bissonette spends his meager savings purchasing a citrus orchard from a magazine ad and moves his family to California. Most of its running time contextualizes his desire to move. Customers wreck his store while complaining (justifiably) about his poor service and lack of inventory. He can’t sleep in a hammock when banished from his bedroom due to the goings on of the milkmen and other tenants in the multi-story rooming house where he lives. His wife nags him about his drinking, smoking, and rising debt as his teenage daughter monopolizes the bathroom mirror as the poor man is trying to shave. Once the family begins the trek westward their manners and conviviality continue to grate. They trash a millionaire’s lawn while having a picnic and soon realize that the land that they bought (and the shack that lies upon it) is barren and waterless. They are saved by a sympathetic, and perhaps insane neighbor, who helps them negotiate with a large developer for the proceeds to move to a better ranch. They end the film by sipping orange juice from the porch of their modest ranch house, with Fields’ spiking his glass with gin, suggesting that the cycle of domestic dysfunctionality will continue.
The darkness in Field’s vision becomes more apparent when it’s viewed in contrast to another classic depiction of California agricultural migration. In 1941’s film version of The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family’s astonishment upon seeing the Golden State’s expansive orange groves from a high point in the Basin Ranges is accompanied by the siren call of a mockingbird. Its presence foreshadows the hardship that the family will face when confronting the exploitative labor conditions that corporate farming conceals in its beatific presentation of controlled nature. Although John Steinbeck’s heroes may face a grim future, the tone that director John Ford (and screenwriter Nunally Johnson) sets for them in their cinematic adaptation is still optimistic. The family patriarch may slip into impotence, and the heir apparent might be forced into exile, but the family survives as an eternal and spiritually unbroken unit. They are the people, and they’ll keep a-comin’.
Fields’ character’s worldview is not one in which the cycle of life offers hope. Rather, it projects a misanthropic vision born of his own sense of spiritual abandonment. The hazards facing the Joads are created by external social conditions that people will fight and overcome. The Bissonettes are victims of their own foibles. They are the preterit despoiling a potential Eden by the consequences of their own vices. While they don’t confront the ethics of farm labor conditions, they cynically embody the relationship between patriarchy and the pastoralism propagated by California’s growers’ associations before muckraking novelists and photojournalists exposed the ugly truth behind the arcadian façade. While the movie mines comic potential from the clan’s misadventures, one would hardly call it satire. It lacks the ironic distance between the audience’s sophistication and the characters’ self-awareness.
Field’s comedic persona, relying on jokes that play up drunkenness, disability and an underlying misogynistic streak, may have amused audiences in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but it doesn’t align with contemporary sensitivities. Norman Z. McLeod’s direction of It’s a Gift, which stubbornly refuses to hone its gags through the use of editing or precise visual framing, doesn’t help. The social context of Fields’ comedy has been lost to time. It represents a transitional phase between the entrepreneurial ethos of the ‘20s’ silent slapstick farces to the communal spirit of the ‘30s’ populist comedies by the likes of Frank Capra and Will Rogers. Middle class mores are ridiculed, but the darkly satirical observations embedded in the novels of Sinclair Lewis, to cite one example, are largely absent. Fields’ persona holds the audience’s interest through mounting a slow-burning frustration with the entrapments of domesticity while divesting it of anti-middlebrow elitist satire. To paraphrase David Simon, it lacks the Menckensian element that allows the viewer to feel superior to the movie’s characters.
But to see this as a deficit is to miss the film’s intent. The cinema of physical comedy is one of heightened exaggeration, where acrobatic grace combats the forces of environmental chaos. Feats of comedic athleticism were showcased by skilled performers on the vaudeville stage, who developed personas to ground slapstick gags in characters whose distress would signal the humorous intent of the sketches they created. Fields himself incorporated numerous stage routines into It’s a Gift’s screenplay. His stylings were ably suited to the film industry’s transition to sound, as he created a distinctly sarcastic vocal demeanor to complement a more understated approach to sight gags. His sense of humor was derived from a more lowbrow form of comedic performance than the American Mercury satirists.
As the actors became movie stars, the diegetic space in which they performed became an extension of their character’s point of view. The exaggerated physicality of the silent comedian’s performance would feel at odds if filmed within a more naturalistic mise-en-scene. Inevitably, the supporting characters, settings, and props on set took on a more heightened appearance in keeping with the persona’s distress. The physical mechanics of the onscreen mayhem projected the protagonist’s subjective feelings. While appearing relatively late to the period, Fields’ films upheld this tradition. Audiences understood that the imaginary world that they observed was a manifestation of the protagonist’s misanthropic persona. They entered the theater knowing that they were supposed to share an empathetic bond with the character, without ironic context beyond the diegesis. They laughed with his predicament, not at it.
This is not to say that silent comedy was absent of political and cultural ideology. Rather, it expressed these concerns in a modern, immersive format that refracted objective reality through the subjective prism of the movie star’s persona. In the ‘20s, for example, the major silent stars like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd turned away from the sentimental Victorian pathos of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp towards a more dynamic narrative of self-actualization. This was in keeping with an entrepreneurial ethos seeping into American culture after World War I. Their characters sought a place in their communities and nation by overcoming herculean obstacles through pluck, persistence, and improvisation. Whether they were operating runaway trains or scaling the exteriors of large buildings, they aspired to a higher social status and upward social mobility by exercising their latent acrobatic aptitudes over the course of these misadventures. The ‘20s, after all, was an era when material rewards were tied more explicitly to the expressiveness of one’s personality than grace. Celebrities, as explained by William Haynes in King Vidor’s Show People, exuded a naturally radiant charm that allowed them to achieve a higher status in life. Religious figures, like Aimee Semple McPherson and Bruce Barton, emphasized that earthly signs of salvation could be materialistically manifested through charismatic self-presentation.
Fields came to prominence during this last era, but his persona carried a more sardonic edge. Unlike his late Roaring Twenties compatriots, he was a loser, a man tumbling on the downward slope due to his excessive tippling and overall sarcastic disposition. In It’s a Gift he maintains the trappings of petit bourgeois respectability by running a small business and providing for a family, but, as mentioned earlier, they provide no happiness or respite from the uncertainties of the age. He, and by extension his family, are schlemiels yo-yoing from one destination to the next with no form of permanent edification in sight. Rather than marshall his modest talents towards self-improvement, he pines for a California orange ranch. The realization of this dream strikes the film’s most subversive note.
The Golden State’s citrus industry ushered in a peculiar era in American agriculture. Although the business involved the growing and harvesting of crops, the industry’s promoters did not describe the practice as farming. Those who owned the land were called growers, and their properties were not referred to as farms but as ranches. The nomenclature marked a distinction in the evolution of agribusiness. Farmers were risk takers, planting and picking their crops, and gambling that they could make a profit from their labor and property under the threat of bad weather and plummeting prices. As the economy consolidated in the 1880s, farmers faced growing problems with overproduction, unregulated transportation and storage systems, and deflation. They began what became known as the Populist movement, which advocated for government oversight of railroads, standardized weights and measures, and the coinage of silver to remedy these structural problems. They became perceived as critics of the conservative, laissez-faire order from which the complacent middle class derived its security.
Growers, on the other hand, were real estate speculators, as the management of the land involved the cooperative (and at some levels vertically integrated) arrangements of water and distribution companies, canneries, and railroads. Property owners received shares of profits without expending much energy in the process of nurturing their land to productivity. The businessmen behind these combines advertised the new arcadian lifestyle as an extension of the pastoral myth of American civilization. The tranquil beauty of these corporations’ orange crate labels reassured potential land buyers that these properties were productive and stable. Yet they promoted a dream based on lining the pockets of investors who controlled the prices and practices of agriculture by contract, not “frontier democracy.” This new dream involved transplanting pre-existing speculative values on not-quite-so-virgin land, not in inventing new lands and opportunities.
The westward movement portrayed in It’s a Gift is, again to draw comparisons to The Grapes of Wrath, a mockery of the pioneer sagas long told in Hollywood westerns. Even contemporaneous depictions (or suggestions) of communitarian pastoral revival in Our Daily Bread (1931) or Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) portrayed returning to the soil as a remedy to America’s economic plight. In Fields’ universe, migrants are not out to rebuild a virtuous yeoman society in the wilderness, but small businessmen out to buy a part of a speculative corporate enterprise. Although Field’s paterfamilias gains some satisfaction from getting himself a working ranch at the film’s end, it’s clear that he and his brood ultimately can’t transcend that they are simple nabobs nestled in a pre-fab Eden. There is no place of grace for the Bissonette clan, and the audience comprehends that no sign of earthly salvation awaits for them either. While we often memorialize the films that provided edifying, positive messages made during the height of the Great Depression, It’s a Gift reminds us that there was an alternative imagining of the decade as well, one in which the signs of bourgeois normality personified an earthly version of hell.