Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Louise Brooks + WC Fields - It's the Old Army Game (1926)

Louise Brooks
It's the Old Army Game (1926) was Louise Brook's fourth film and only the second (after the lost A Social Celebrity), in which she took the female lead role

Three films in and Louise Brooks was already demonstrating the attitude and intransigence that would eventually make her unemployable in Hollywood. She initially turned down Army Game, possibly because Clara Bow – who was committed to making Mantrap – turned it down first: she didn’t want anyone’s left-overs, even the great Bow's. But, possibly because of her friendship with WC Fields, with whom she had worked at the Follies, or maybe some friendly career advice to take a longer-term view... Brooks changed her mind.

WC Fields makes Louise laugh
Directed by the relatively inexperienced Edward Sutherland (his fourth feature), Army Game was primarily a vehicle for WC Fields playing Elmer Prettywillie (that's probably worse in English than American!), a misanthropic drugstore owner who is at war with family and customers alike... with the exception of his knockout shop girl,  Marilyn Sheridan (Brooks).

Fields was 47 at the time (Brooks just 19) and the film was his chance to cross-over from the theatre to cinema following in the footsteps of other, younger, men such as Chaplin and Keaton. He regarded it as a risk which is hard to credit given his latter success. An inventive and skilled performer he throws in what must have been a fair chunk of his regular act throughout a largely formless narrative.

Elise Cavanna
The film starts with a daring real-time stunt as a woman (excellently played by an uncredited Elise Cavanna) drives like a maniac, narrowly missing  a train, just to buy a stamp. She wakes up Elmer in order to make her purchase and the proceeds to set off the fire alarm in trying to post her letter. The fire brigade arrive at the store to find no fire but plenty of soda and the startlingly pretty sight of Marilyn. Naturally a fire is started after they have left and Elmer spends a delirious few minutes attempting to wade through his dislocated response to the danger.
Brooksie distracts the firemen
Elmer tries in vain to get some sleep but is constantly disturbed by his nephew, the knife grinder and the ice man. Fields nephew is meant to look younger but is played by 11-year-old Mickey Bennett who had to work hard on some brutal stunts with Fields – he’s kicked, pulled and generally thrown around. A smaller child wouldn’t have gone the distance, but Fields’ antipathy towards children required extreme visual expression and Bennett goes with the blows like a real trouper!

Mary Foy
Mickey’s mother, played by Mary Foy, is similarly disliked by her brother… as is the Station Agent, Tessie Gilch (Blanch Ring – Sutherland’s aunt), who has a soft spot for him... there’s so much bile in Fields’ world-view and you can understand why he had taken so long to find a story in film. He’s not much of a hero and, Marilyn aside, seems to react to circumstances with short term respite his only goal… now I get it!

The story, such as it is, doesn’t really get going until about half way through when a salesman/conman, George Parker (William Gaxton) persuades Prettywillie to join him in selling New York land to the local Floridians.

"That's two cents...two cents...
Parker has already appeared stopping off to post a letter to one of his girlfriends only to fall in love at first sight of Marilyn. He follows her from the station and there’s a wonderful sequence of Brooks walking away dropping her hankie or pausing to browse the magazines, all the time waiting for Parker to catch up.

When the two do eventually connect, it is genuine but even this doesn’t stop George from involving the drugstore in his scam – does he know it’s a scam? Is he himself the victim of the New York con artists? This part of the plot is difficult to fathom – maybe I’m missing some key expositionary detail in the version I have?

William Gaxton
Elmer goes with the flow and starts to sell thousands of dollars worth of lots to the townsfolk. Things are going well and the party goes on a picnic, George and Marilyn for a swim and Elmer, Mickey and the “Girls” to lay waste to the garden of a wealthy family.

This sequence is just anarchic… windows are smashed and property damaged… they drive through a wall. It’s done with humour but of the most purely malicious kind. Fields’ was possibly more hard hitting than others of this time – he genuinely didn’t seem to care and there's a distinct edge to all the mayhem.

WC Fields
The young lovers’ swim is disturbed as a George is arrested, he asks the cop to do the decent thing (does he think he deserves that?) and not humiliate him in front of Marilyn.

Back at the store, Elmer is confronted with the news that the land they’ve been selling isn’t for sale… he travels off to New York to straighten things out. Fun ensues as he drives his car the wrong way and enlists the help of a horse to pull it… only to blow it up using one of his old army tricks to start the horse. He gets knocked back by the conmen and returns home expecting the worse…

WC Fields has a sore head
This is where things get confusing (for me at least) and the story ends how you’d expect but not with the explanation you’d expect. It doesn’t really matter… not everything needs to add up!

It’s an enjoyable film in spite of my gripes. Great to see WC Fields at this stage of his career and you can really appreciate his invention and pin-point timing. But the reason I watched is Louise Brooks and she is just dazzling from start to finish.

Variety declared that she “photographed like a million dollars” and predicted that she would “…land right at the top in the picture racket”. Well she could have done if she purely wanted to but we all know what she did and didn’t do. What we have left is precious and this film has a place in her remarkable story. Some of her naturalistic reactions here are astonishing – it’s as if she knows we’re watching …which of course we are… Even at 19 she was in control and a single point of wonder even in a routine movie.

There is genuine warmth between Fields and Brooks, evidence of their lasting friendship after the Follies, and the former seems to be getting genuine laughs as he serves her a soda pop alongside the firemen. It's a lovely sequence and shows that Fields wasn't the misery his persona suggested. In fact, the whole crew ended up getting on rather well with Fields going on to make a number of films with Sutherland who soon proposed to the young Louise.

It's the Old Army Game is available on a Hollywood's Attic DVD through Amazon. It's in pretty good quality from a 16mm reduction print running at 105 minutes and with a live score from Keith Taylor. It would benefit from a restoration... but right now this'll do.

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