Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My Little Chickadee (1940, Edward F. Cline)

WC Fields and Mae West are in some ways so similar that their star comedic team-up doesn't work. They never exactly compliment each other, hearing one and then the other speak is like listening to an elderly couple whose mouth ligaments are turning to mush. Their big moments and gags are usually at arm's length, even when in the same room they tend to be at opposite ends of it. West wrote the story as a starring vehicle for herself, and when she's moving her own plot along the film is truly hers. When Fields shows up, it's a Fields movie. He's just too good not to bring everything to a halt. These are two self contained shticks. West is visibly fighting for attention in her own movie and sometimes seems off in her own schizophrenic universe when rolling her eyes and delivering her double entendres not to her leading men but only herself. There's also a horrendous saloon stage song which backfires in trying to prove she's a triple threat.

The breezy pace of the script is commendable, especially for a vanity project partially hijacked by another star. Also great is the supporting cast, especially The Wicked Witch of the West herself Margaret Hamilton as the meddling gossip getting in West's way. Donald Meek is funny as the fake preacher who "weds" Fields and West after they meet.

Ironically, West wrote the screenplay as a vehicle for herself and a handsome leading man as her foil. With Fields fostered upon her, she's second banana in what was supposed to be her comeback film after several disappointing post-Hayes Code pictures that neutered her sultry wordplay, which was already pretty vanilla by today's standards. Joe Bob Briggs wrote that West is less a female sex bombshell than a drag queen in the body of a female and that's evident whenever she's attempting seduction. The Wild West setting of Chickadee is perfectly tailored for West since, to be frank, her girdled pillowy bosom and posterior were probably the best that the average cowpoke was likely to see before reaching Dodge. Universal decided to give Fields co-screenplay credit for the contribution of one scene - at a bar, natch - further screwing West, for whom the film wasn't nearly as big a hit as for Fields. Even the title was one of Fields' catchphrases, what else could she have expected? If not for him she might've gotten away with calling this one "The Wild West." After Chickadee her film career was virtually extinguished for decades until a cameo in the 1970 big studio camp folly Myra Breckinridge and her own folly in the comeback/celebration/trainwreck vehicle Sextette, completed one month before her death in 1978.

Chickadee is best recommended for fans of both stars and West fans in particular. As swan songs go this is a good summation of her strengths, weaknesses and cheap good natured cheekiness. Who else would consent to having THE END laid playfully over her butt?

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