It’s a Gift (1934)

“You have absolutely no consideration for anybody but yourself.”

Synopsis:
A henpecked store owner (W.C. Fields) receives an inheritance and dreams of moving to California, against the wishes of his overbearing wife (Kathleen Howard).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “side-splitting W.C. Fields comedy” — essentially “a series of set-pieces strung together” — is “the best showcase for the comedian’s unique brand of humor, which is based on characters annoying one another.” He notes that “it is these annoyances, piled one on top of the other, that in Fields’s eyes summed up the life of a married man in America”; indeed, It’s a Gift probably remains the most iconic representation of henpecked-dom in cinematic history. Peary points out, however, that while “the domesticated Fields is suffocating, he isn’t entirely defeated by his constrained life”, given that he “still has his wonderful vices”, and “remains an iconoclast in a world of conformists”. Indeed, Peary argues that while Fields’s Harold Bissonnette apparently “endures indignities without self-pity or complaints” and “accepts the absurdity of his world”, we are nonetheless privy — at least in the final shot — to “how Harold feels about his life under his expressionless facade”.

I recall being truly enamored by It’s a Gift when I first saw it years ago, and was looking forward to a revisit — yet I must admit that I no longer find the film quite as “side-splitting” as Peary (and so many other diehard fans) consider it to be. While I continue to appreciate the craftsmanship of each “hilarious”, expertly orchestrated vignette (which Peary spends the remainder of his review summarizing), I apparently wasn’t in the right mood to enjoy watching Bissonnette passively accepting one indignity after the other: a little of Fields’s characteristic sarcasm and mean-spirited retorts were actually missed! With that said, first time viewers (at the very least) are sure to enjoy watching the classic grocery sequence (involving a reckless blind patron, an irate kumquat requester, and a molasses-spilling child); the attempted porch-sleeping sequence (interrupted by countless annoyances, both inanimate and human); and the truly jawdropping manor picnic sequence (in which Bissonnette and his family cluelessly trash the lawn of an estate they’ve mistaken for a park).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Numerous humorous vignettes


Must See?
Yes, as an acknowledged comedic classic. Peary nominates the film as one of the best pictures of the year — and Fields himself as one of the best actors of the year — in his Alternate Oscars book. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “It’s a Gift (1934)”

  1. Can’t call this a must. Just can’t do it.

    Was this something like the ‘Jackass’ of its day? Did audiences really find the relentlessness of it all funny? It’s difficult for me personally to sit through this amount of sight gags rooted in pain – combined with a cast of characters, almost to a person, who are unceasingly annoying or just plain stupid (those who don’t fall into those categories barely register here) – and think of it as entertainment.

    Sure, Fields is the ‘Everyman’ who serves to balance. He’s not enough.

    I did ponder the title. Why is this film called “It’s A Gift”? My first thought is something most of us have heard from time to time: life is precious; we have been given the gift of life. The film itself makes no reference to its title. If the film’s title is in keeping with what I thought, it’s a sad statement. The film would then be saying that life is anything but a gift; it’s filled with all of the awful indignities, etc., that the film shows us. Well, to a large extent that may very well be true. But to present that as an overall worldview in a single film seems merely a bitter act of a malcontent.

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