January 8, 2021

It's a Gift (1934)
Grade: 55/100

Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Stars: W.C. Fields, Kathleen Howard, Jean Rouverol

What it's about. Acerbic comedian W.C. Fields is the star of this Great Depression Paramount comedy. Fields is married to constantly nagging Kathleen Howard. His hottie twentyish brunette daughter is Jean Rouverol. Fields also has a bratty ten-year-old son, Tommy Burp.

Fields is the proprietor of a small grocery store, where he is burdened by an an incompetent assistant (Tammany Young), destructive blind customer Charles Sellon, and loud and impatient kumquat buyer Morgan Wallace.

His home life is no better. His shrewish wife, unruly son, and doe-eyed daughter leave him no peace, so he attempts to take a nap on the porch. Instead, he is beset by neighbors and an annoying life insurance salesman (T. Roy Barnes).

Little wonder, then, that Fields takes an inheritance and uses it to buy an orange grove in distant California. Although warned by prospective son-in-law Julian Madison, the stubborn Fields drives his family there, only to learn that the lot consists of a ramshackle cabin surrounded by arid land. Because it's a movie, an implausible happy ending is tacked on.

Curiously, the second-billed actor (at least on posters and window cards) from It's a Gift didn't have any lines. He was Baby LeRoy, all of two years old when the film was released. Baby LeRoy's big scene is in Fields' grocery store, where his mother inadvisedly leaves him in the care of hapless Tammany Young. Despite his age, Baby LeRoy had previously appeared in three Fields movies, Tillie and Gus, Alice in Wonderland, and The Old Fashioned Way.

How others will see it. Today, It's a Gift ranks as one of W.C. Fields best-known movies, trailing only The Bank Dick in popularity. It was added to the prestigious National Film Registry in 2010, more than 75 years after its release.

At imdb.com, the user reviews average 7.2 out of 10, but exhibit a substantial demographic spread. Men over 45 grade it significant higher (7.6) than women under age 45 (6.4). American viewers grade it higher (7.6) than non-Americans (6.7).

It would appear that older American males identify more closely with the middle-aged and henpecked Fields, while women might be put off by the unflattering shrill portrayal of his wife.

The user reviews confirm that It's a Gift has many fans. The ever-reliable Fields makes people laugh, whether the year is 1935 or 2020. Those less amused note that the movie has little plot, and is mostly a collection of comedy skits in different settings.

How I felt about it. There are several Fields movies (e.g. The Big Broadcast of 1938 where his role is sufficiently small that it provides an excuse for the movie to be less than memorable. In It's a Gift, though, Fields is in virtually every scene.

Further, Fields was in effect the writer and director of the movie, though Norman Z. McLeod and Jack Cunningham are instead credited. Some of the skits, such as the picnic, are warmed over from prior Fields vehicles.

Nonetheless, It's a Gift is far from my favorite Fields movie. His masterpiece is Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, in his final lead role. Also very good is The Bank Dick. David Copperfield is good, though Fields' appearance is practically a cameo. Another quality entry is You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, where Fields has to share screen time with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his cheeky dummies.

It's a Gift has many amusing moments, since the veteran comic knows his character, has perfect timing, and always has a droll wisecrack at his disposal. The bratty son is good as well, and the beautiful daughter is so charming that the deficiencies of her role can easily be forgiven.

Besides the ramshackle plot, the problem is the nagging wife, who becomes so tiresome that you, the viewer, may also wish to escape her by sleeping on the porch. The skits can also be predictable. Fields will never get beauty rest on his porch, the obnoxious customer will never get his kumquats, and Fields' display of light bulbs is no match for the blind man and his free-swinging cane.