Considered one of the least of W.C. Fields' films, this little more than an hour long morality tale directed by Erle C. Kenton (Island of Lost Souls)--an almost Rohmerish parable about snobbery--was a pleasant surprise discovery on the W. C. Fields Comedy Collection Vol. 2. This movie balances The Great Man with a sort of fairy godmother, an unhappy princess on the American tour. It could lure in female fans in who might be repelled by a real Fields day like The Bank Dick or Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. The Booze Movie blog, run by a 100-proof fan of Fields, mentions this film slightingly, pointing out that it was based on a short story published in the woman's magazine Redbook, and has Redbook's own lack of edge. (Incidentally, it's a nigh-shot for shot remake of an earlier silent version, the Gregory La Cava movie So's Your Old Man.)
The movie was out of circulation for some time; William K. Everson wrote that it was "a major disaster" that the public couldn't see it, in his 1972 book The Art of W.C. Fields. True, You're Telling Me! lacks in the written-by-pink-elephants whimsy of Fields at his most extreme. And yet there's an emotional center here that won't repel the harder-core fan of Fields, who was certainly the grandfather of Homer Simpson. Fields plays a gauche but intrepid drunkard named Sam Bisbee, in search of that million dollar payoff that'll bring him well-deserved leisure for life. It's his passing friendship with a female stranger on a train that makes it happen.
His home is Crystal Springs; on the wrong side of the railroad tracks--the expression they used to use to describe the poor side of a town. Crystal Springs is best known for the fact that the Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan, almost stopped there once. It's close to midnight, and the very drunk Mr. Bisbee is creeping back to his place with the delicacy of a cat burglar. As only Fields can, he pantomimes the troubles of a man with none-too-steady hands trying to turn the key in his front door, while simultaneously carrying his shoes and his hat. His wife Bessie (Louise Carter) is, unfortunately, waiting up for him. And she mulishly refuses to be convinced that it is actually only 8:30 pm. She's angry that her daughter (Joan Marsh) is out somewhere in the night, probably snuggling with Bob Murchinson (the strikingly handsome but inert Buster Crabbe, best known as the original Flash Gordon). Bob is the son of a wealthy family who will no doubt use her fast and drop her hard. It is, of course, true love, misinterpreted by the suspicious mom. Bisbee tries to distract his wife with claims that he's on the cusp of a great invention: the creation of a puncture-proof tire.
At his workshop/office/tavern, Bisbee demonstrates this miracle of vulcanization to his drinking buddies--it's powerful enough to turn a bullet. He spins it home to show the skeptical wife. This is another essential Fields scene, a portly, none-too-sober man trying to keep up with the tire rolling down the street; the shot, tracked by camera-mounted automobile, takes in some vintage 1930s Pasadena behind him, as he weaves in and out of the sidewalk, knocking passers-by off their feet.
When he arrives, his wife is in mid reception with the highly snooty Mrs. Murchinson (Kathleen Howard), mother of Bob, who has come to break of the liaison between her illustrious family and the common Bisbees. Mrs. Bisbee has calmed the society lady with photos of her own distinguished relatives, including a picture of herself as a baby in the lap of her grandfather, a Civil War general.
In comes Mr. Bisbee, offering the society dame the grubby hand that's been rolling the tire. Naturally, he wants to show some photos from his own side of the family. They're jailbirds, prizefighters ( "Real down to earth people. Speak our language..."_) and a burlesque babe. "Aunt Minnie, an angel of mercy if ever there was one, and there was...stayed up all night taking care of the boys, night after night..." Then he demonstrates the tattoo on his arm, which does the hula when he flexes his muscle.
"Is that a relative, too?," the old dragon sniffs.
"Noooo, just a girl I met in the New Hebrides..."
After Mrs. Murchinson storms out, Bisbee receives good news in a letter: a tire company wants to see his miracle invention.This demonstration goes south, and Bisbee considers suicide by drinking iodine on the train back home. But in a nearby railroad car, the Princess Lescaboura (Adrienne Ames) has just cut her finger during a manicure and is reaching for the iodine herself. Moved by the presence of what he thinks is a fellow suicide, Bisbee engages her in talk: "It's a funny old life. Man's lucky if he gets out of it alive."
As royalty in light comedies always will, Lescaboura poses as a commoner, so she can have a chat with someone authentic. Bisbee is so engrossed in talk that he misses his train stop. Gossiping biddies at the station see him through the windows of the train talking with a strange woman, and tell the whole town about it. But the Princess decides to come back for a visit, and she becomes the aim of every social climber in Crystal Springs...though it's the disreputable Bisbee whom she decides to grace with her royal self.
The finale, ten minutes of Field's "golf course" bit--is the part that draws the Fieldsians, who duly point out that this a routine that made Fields' fame in vaudeville. As staged here it looks as static as any recreation of a famous stage bit. It is famous--I wish I had a dollar for every time I saw a plaster statue of Fields staring quizzically at a corkscrew-shaped golf club, a bit of kitsch that was in every adult's private bar when I was a kid. Somehow this routine is not as funny as it once was, and Kenton's previously mobile camera slows down to a stop for it.
What surprises here, then, is Fields' rapport with the actress Ames who plays Lescaboura. Dead at 39 from cancer, Ames had one of those supposed candle in the wind lives that turn out to be more like a Kleig light under a palmy breeze. And what's between them isn't like the muted lechery that lightened up his scenes with Mae West ("What symmetrical digits!," he says, kissing her hand in My Little Chickadee). There's something shy and courtly in Fields here Great comics have auras of solitude, which is why we love them; we see something in them that reflects our own lonlieness, our sense of being outsiders. In Fields' truculent glare, we see the face we'd love to show the world--to everyone who forces to get out of bed and go to work, or who gets between us and our next meal. On the train scenes though, Fields's suspicions drop. He finds a kind of companionship with someone smart enough to know what trouble it is to live. And that's the soul of this quick, smooth, good-looking and little known comedy.