Last night I had the good fortune of finally being able to attend one of the 92Y Tribeca screenings hosted by Daily Show writer Elliott Kalan. I was lucky to get tickets — people turned out in droves to see the rare film Million Dollar Legs starring W.C. Fields.
The series is called ‘Closely Watched Films’ and featured a nice introduction by Kalan as well as a bonus intro by the granddaughter of W.C. Fields.
The film itself is a joke-a-minute hodge podge of a movie, written by Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve) & Henry Myers, with uncredited writing by Nicholas T. Barrows and Ben Hecht (His Girl Friday) and directed by Edward F. Kline, a former Buster Keaton gag man. The plot, if you can call it that, revolves around a power struggle in the tiny nation of Klopstokia (“Chief Exports…Goats and Nuts; Chief Imports…Goats and Nuts; Chief Inhabitants…Goats and Nuts”). Fields plays the President of Klopstokia, who maintains his power through arm wrestling contests. As with many Fields movies, he has a beautiful daughter named, like all women in Klopstokia, Angela, here played by a very natural Susan Fleming. She is being wooed by an American brush salesman named Migg Tweeny, played by Jack Oakie.
The movie being made in 1932 during the Depression, Klopstokia faces a situation similar to Greece today. Some government bonds are coming due that can’t be paid, and a fractious cabinet threatens a coup. The scheme Tweeny cooks up is to send a group of Klopstokians to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles and somehow that will pay off the bonds… as Kalan and his guest, Daily Show correspondent John Oliver pointed out: not much plot.
Each Closely Watched Film features a conversation with Kalan and a guest who has not seen the film before. His banter with John Oliver, who genuinely loved the film, was great. Oliver’s grandfather had seen Fields in his vaudeville days, and passed the love down. Oliver pointed out how life-affirming it was that, even in those dark times, someone could produce something so “unrelentingly stupid” and that a movie could have such inspired zaniness that, for example, they end it on an orange juice joke.
It was a great night out. So if you ever get a chance, I recommend catching Million Dollar Legs (it’s apparently only available on VHS in the US) and, if you’re in New York City, checking out Closely Watched Films.