Friday, October 28, 2016

Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)

Man on the Flying Trapeze is a delightful 1935 W.C. Fields comedy from Paramount. Any W.C. Fields movie is a treat and this one is particularly good.

Fields could play shady characters with a great deal of aplomb but he was equally good as sorely set-upon losers. In this film he’s henpecked husband Ambrose Wolfinger. His life has been an endless series of disappointments and indignities since his ill-advised second marriage to Leona (Kathleen Howard). He only married her for the sake of his daughter Hope (Mary Brian) but the marriage was a very unfortunate mistake. Leona is the wife from Hell and her mother, Mrs Neselrode (who lives with them), is an even worse horror. Mrs Neselrode hates Ambrose with a burning passion and devotes her life to making him as miserable as she possibly can. Completing Ambrose’s catalogue of woes is his smarmy, vindictive layabout brother-in-law Claude who also lives with them.

Ambrose is a memory expert working for a film of woolen merchants. His job is to collate information on the firm’s clients and to feed this information to the notoriously forgetful Mr Malloy (Oscar Apfel).

On this particular day all Ambrose wants to do is to go to a wrestling match. He has a ticket for a front-row seat but somehow he has to persuade Mr Malloy to give him the afternoon off. He manages this by telling Malloy that his mother-in-law Mrs Neselrode has passed away and that he has to attend the funeral. It’s a rather innocent deception, especially given that he hasn’t taken a day off in the twenty-five years he’s worked for the company. An innocent deception it might be but fate will conspire to make him pay for it, and make him pay over and over again. Every possible misfortune that could occur does occur for poor Ambrose.

The day had already started badly, as we see in the film’s inspired opening sequence, with burglars singing in the cellar. This sets up a series of gags that are milked to the limit but still manage to keep on getting funnier.

This is pretty much the way this film works. It’s a series of lengthy extended comic routines, extended so much that they might easily have run out of steam without a comic genius like Fields with the ability to find and exploit to the maximum every possible opportunity to keep the laughs coming. The fact that Fields is equally brilliant at verbal and physical humour also helps.

Ambrose Wolfinger’s life is such a series of disasters that the danger here is that the movie could end up being more sad than funny. That danger is neatly avoided by Fields. Every insult that life throws at Ambrose is shrugged off. His response to misfortune is sublime indifference. He’s not really a loser because he refuses to even notice, much less acknowledge, defeat. And of course we suspect that eventually his luck will change, as it does.

Fields is at the absolute top of his game here. He gets some fine support from the rest of the cast. Grady Sutton is particularly effective as the oily sponger Claude.

As usual Fields takes his co-writing credit under an assumed name, in this case Charles Bogle. While Clyde Bruckman gets the directing credit Fields apparently took over the directing of the film midway through.

Man on the Flying Trapeze is not quite as screamingly funny as Fields’ later masterpiece The Bank Dick nor does it have the magnificently surreal quality of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break but it’s still a consistently very funny movie.

Man on the Flying Trapeze is included in the Region 2 17-movie W. C. Fields Collection boxed set - a superb set that offers outstanding value for money. The transfer is extremely good.

Highly recommended.


  1. My dad and I loved this movie. Both of us were big fans of Fields but also of Grady Sutton. Sutton is one of those character actors like Richard Gaines, Alan Mowbray and John Abbott who are always worth watching but never got the recognition they deserved.

    1. There were so many great character actors in those days. They weren't just faded stars reduced to playing character parts, they were fine actors who built their entire careers as character actors.

  2. Yes! Character actors like Ward Bond, Walter Brennan and Jane Darnell were well recognized. And they occasionally acted in lead parts. But the ones I mentioned are just as good. And there were dozens more like them. They gave what I call "texture" to a movie.