Like many later Fields' comedies, IT'S THE OLD ARMY GAME is little more than a compendium of the comedian's stage routines held together by the slimmest of plots. Fields plays Elmer Prettywillie, small town druggist who spends his days selling stamps and ice cream sodas, battling babies, waiting on customers and dealing with his sister, his brattish nephew and a local widow bent on wooing him. The one bright spot in his life is his beautiful young assistant Marlyn. When Marilyn falls for a shady real estate agent, Prettywillie nearly loses his freedom and his livelihood, but, since this is a comedy, it all works out in the end.
IT'S THE OLD ARMY GAME is an amusing silent comedy that set the tone for many Fields films to come. Fans will recognize gags and routines that would later reappear, often in very different form, in films like THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE and especially IT'S A GIFT. These routines work much better in those sound films, where Fields' physical comedy is enhanced by his bombastic utterances, classic one-liners and muttered asides. The later films were also paced better, especially IT'S A GIFT, where each self-contained comedy routine seem to occur at just the right moment. In IT'S A GIFT, the famous back porch scene, where Fields attempts to get some much needed shuteye and the rest of the world attempts to keep him awake, takes place after the plot has been set up and Fields' character has been worn out from an aggravating day at his store. In IT'S THE OLD ARMY GAME, the same routine happens very close to the beginning of the film without much of a set up, and lacks many of the great gags that would make the scene in IT'S A GIFT one of the all-time classic comedy scenes. Similarly, a family picnic on private property, so funny in IT'S A GIFT, seems shoehorned into the film without much point, unlike the scene in IT'S A GIFT, where it occurs when the family stops for a break on their way to California. The IT"S A GIFT version is perfectly paced; the ARMY GAME version seems to go on forever.
Still, there are many funny moments in ARMY GAME, including Prettywillie dangling an enormous and annoying baby over a second story balcony, and attempting to remove a speck of dust from the eye of the widow who wishes he would pay as much attention to her as he does to her daughter Marilyn. Marylin is played by Louise Brooks in one of her earliest films. Though this film is nearly 90 years old, Brooks' charm radiates through every scene she is in, and it is easy to see why she was soon to become one of the most popular movie stars of the day. Another actress, less famous but more important to the Fields legacy, makes her first movie appearance with The Great Man in this film. Tall, thin and oddly gorgeous Elise Cavanna plays a customer who makes Prettywillie's life miserable whenever she comes into the store. Cavanna would later appear with Fields in several of the comedian's short films for Mack Sennett. - JB