Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)

“He’s the most trying man ever put on this Earth!”

Synopsis:
A henpecked memory expert (W.C. Fields) living with his shrewish wife (Kathleen Howard), cranky mother-in-law (Vera Lewis), lazy brother-in-law (Grady Sutton), and loyal daughter (Mary Brian) finds himself in hot water after lying to his boss (Oscar Apfel) in order to attend a wrestling match.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this as a “near-perfect W.C. Fields comedy”, noting that Fields (as henpecked Ambrose Wolfinger) is “hilarious, taking one abuse after the other in his cruel, absurd world without every losing his patience or trying to reform”. There are numerous comedic highlights throughout — including, as Peary notes, Fields “sharing a jail cell with a crazy scissors murderer; driving [his wife] crazy by taking forever to go down and see about the burglars in the basement…; getting a series of traffic and parking tickets in succession”. Fields is in fine form (Peary votes him Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars!), and his supporting cast members are all convincing (I’m particularly fond of Howard here; her operatic background comes through loud and clear in the hilarious opening scene). While it could certainly be argued that Peary includes far too many W.C. Fields films in his book (he lists or reviews no less than 16 titles), this one is consistently humorous enough that I believe most film fanatics will be glad to have seen it — so I’m voting it a “must see” at least once. Watch for Walter Brennan, Carlotta Monti (Fields’s real-life lover), and Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson in small roles.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • W.C. Fields and Kathleen Howard’s acrimonious “rapport”
  • Numerous humorous scenes


  • An often clever script (with much ad-libbing):

    Wolfinger: My poor mother-in-law died three days ago. I’m attending her funeral this afternoon.
    Wolfinger’s Secretary: Isn’t that terrible, Mr. Wolfinger!
    Wolfinger: Yes, it’s terrible. It’s awful. Horrible tragedy.
    Wolfinger’s Secretary: It must be hard to lose your mother-in-law.
    Wolfinger: Yes it is, very hard. It’s almost impossible.

Must See?
Yes, as one of Fields’s mid-career classics. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in his Alternate Oscars.

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One Response to “Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)”

  1. Not a must, although it may hold some interest for its place in cinema history.

    It’s refreshing to see Fields in subdued form, with the result of some fine control, but I find much of the script’s elements strained. A number of sequences are milked way beyond the capacity to sustain. No doubt some will find extended ‘comic’ segments featuring insufferable family members pretty funny (esp. if they’ve put up with awful relatives). But much of what’s on display here is a by-product of vaudeville – so enjoyment depends on your tolerance for old-fashioned antics.

    That said, an occasional bit works well; i.e., Fields’ office filing system – which is atrocious, yet he has little trouble finding what he needs when searching through a mountain of disorderly paperwork. The near-end sequence where Brian saves the day for Fields is touching, and the last shot as the whole family drives in his new car is a perfect button on the film. As well, the exchange quoted in the assessment is the best bit of dialogue.

    Just personally, I find the film a little tiresome.

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