My Little Chickadee (1940)

Toronto Film Society presented My Little Chickadee (1940) on Monday, February 12, 2018 in a double bill with Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch as part of the Season 70 Monday Evening Film Buff Series, Programme 5.

Toronto Film Society presented My Little Chickadee (1940) on Sunday, January 16, 1983 in a double bill with Something of Value as part of the Season 35 Monday Evening Film Buff Series “A”, Programme 4.

Production Company: Universal.  Producer: Lester Cowan.  Director: Edward F. Cline.  Screenplay: Mae West and W.C. Fields.  Cinematography: Joseph Valentine.  Musical Direction: Charles Previn.  Music: Frank Skinner.  Release Date: March 15, 1940.

Cast: W.C. Fields (Cuthbert J. Twillie), Mae West (Flower Belle Lee), Joseph Calleia (The Masked Bandit), Dick Foran (Wayne Carter), Ruth Donnelly (Aunt Lou), Margaret Hamilton (Mrs. Gideon), Donald Meek (Amos Budge), Fuzzy Knight (Cousin Zeb), Jackie Searl (Boy).

Called “undisputedly the most controversial sex siren of her time”, Mae West’s father was a boxer and her mother a fashion model.  She made her first stage appearance at the age of 5 and became a professional vaudeville performer at the age of 12, impersonating adult burlesque performers and singing popular songs with sexual overtones. She got her first break on Broadway in 1918 and began to write her own plays, including one called Sex, which she wrote, produced and directed in 1926. It was a hit at the box office but was prosecuted for its explicit sexual content and West was arrested on morals charges and sentenced to 10 days in jail, but served only eight as a reward for good behaviour. Undeterred, her next play, Drag, was on the subject of homosexuality, but, when threatened again with morals charges, she kept it out of New York. She continued to write and perform in her plays for the next few years, until she was offered a film contract by Paramount despite her relatively advanced age, for a newcomer, of 38. She starred with the young Cary Grant in two of his early films, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, which were huge box office hits, but their open sexuality (which included the notorious, and usually misquoted line, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?”) again roused the wrath of moralists and helped to bring about the introduction of the Production Code in 1934. After a period of declining popularity she starred with W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee with a script written by her. This helped to re-establish her at the box office, but she retired from film making in 1943, returning in the 1970s with two films, one of which, Myra Breckenridge, found a cult following. She died in 1980 at the age of 87, leaving, beside her films, a still quoted  array of double entendres, including the notorious “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

Introduction by Graham Petrie

It was very appropriate for W.C. Fields and his female counterpart, Mae West, to team up for My Little Chickadee.  The film may disappoint many who expect a comic firework of one-liners from Fields to West and vice versa.  Fields purposely did not do the expected. He did not fill a whole film with comments about Mae’s body, and her comments about his, because this would have been too predictable.  Also, in making this parody of the Western, the two characters were allies, not opponents.  It was usual practice with both West and Fields to write their own material, and the teaming proved to be a smooth one. Mae West’s technique was to travel in a straight line regardless of logic, and to spoof clichés deliberately so that when she wanted to use them seriously they served the purpose of carrying the plot forward.  Fields, on the other hand, did not really care about plot.  His staple was to set up individual gags and routines, filling them with different characters and fall-guys.  West rarely used interesting supporting people, preferring actors who ended up being mere straight men for her. Fields had a certain zeal in this area.  This helped liven up My Little Chickadee a great deal.

There was very little friction between the two performers, with each writing their own material during the shooting of the film.  An interesting note was that Fields was preoccupied, afraid he might run into Deanna Durbin, whom he detested, because she had moved into a house next to him. Alarmed that she might practice singing, he announced that he kept a rifle by his open window, and would shoot to kill if necessary!  While the two stars emerged with relatively equal footage, it was Fields who walked away with the show.  His solo routines were hilarious; light on sight gags, but strong on bar room and card game sequences.  Although West and Fields appeared in only about three sequences together as a team, it is Fields who was the dominating figure.

Notes by Fred Cohen

 

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