I’m writing this at the bar of a restaurant, a sushi place, that used to be a bakery called Corner Bakery up until a year ago, an ostentatiously second-rate imitation of the Panera that stands literally right across the street, and it was here (there?) that Marianne and I met at 11 a.m. one day (I skipped work for the occasion) to discuss, over tea, what we were doing, romance-wise, because I was looking for something serious and she was not but we did both like each other and wanted to be on the same page. We ended up just ignoring the problem. We went to the Gables after a quick cup of tea and got drunk there at a bookstore. We chatted with the bar tender for two hours until her shift ended and she came ‘round to join us. Then we got dinner at a Japanese restaurant and Marianne got me to eat a squid before driving my car back to the Corner Bakery. It was the end of what I guess was the Good Period. Shortly after this she threw a glass of Jameson in my face. By the time she left for NYC a couple months later it was pretty clear that I was more concerned about sailing this ship than she was, but it was also clear, for both of us, that this was the time to wrap things up, regardless.
What we’re talking about here, however, is It’s a Gift, an old W.C. Fields screwball comedy wherein things go wrong and wrong and wronger until finally, on the brink of destitution, a dose of Depression-era Hollywood Optimism catapults our story of loss and woe into one of prosperity. Not sure from just this one movie if I can rank Fields’s comedy chops alongside those of Keaton and Chaplin and Lloyd, or even Laurel & Hardy, but I can definitely say that he’s delightful. The movie’s only about an hour long, and I had it from the library, so I watched it twice, while eating, and it held up for both viewings.
It’s about a storeowner (Fields) who dreams of someday owning a prosperous orange grove out in California. He lives with his family (a son and a daughter and a ballbreaking wife) and suffers – keeps his head above – every indignity of work and domestic life short of anything lude. And yes it’s funny, and I know that it’s supposed to be funny, but for some reason, all through watching it, I was indignant on Fields’s behalf. I seem to have an issue with comedies about how everything goes wrong for one poor, well-intentioned schmuck.
And then I took issue with the suddenly-optimistic ending. Because prior tot eh penultimate scene, where Fields’s character haggles his way into achieving his dreams, our characters had just realized that the orange grove into which they’d invested their livelihood was a barren weedscape. Their car is busted, they’re broke, they’re stranded. They’re on the verge of destitution.
So you have to wonder: what if that freak bit of luck hadn’t happened? Were it not for this astronomically unlikely bit of good fortune, whereby a few rich guys in need of that dumpy land end up paying Fields’s character a small fortune for it, we can easily imagine him being driven to suicide. The needy children, the hateful wife, the shame over his mistake…
Why do I find this so upsetting? It’s a comedy, and a good one, I should just enjoy it. What consumes me, instead, is how easily things could have gone wrong, and these lives could have been destroyed.
Or maybe that’s the whole point of this Depression-era comedy: just when things look like they’re at their worst, it can all turn around for the better. Maybe such a story is exactly what that audience needed to see.
At first I thought that this premise had reached the end of the line of acceptable humor. I was really up-tight about it. What I’m thinking now, a couple days later, is that it just reached the end of my sense of humor. Conceputally.