Fields is often remembered for his bombastic voice and his elaborate theatrical mannerisms, but does anybody remember his as a comedian who could make you laugh simply putting his socks on or eating a piece of toast? Few comedians (Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy automatically excepted) could make something out of nothing as well as Fields. Lines like "Oh, that's marvelous" or "Yes, dear" are made funny by the situation, the timing and the inflection, but mostly because Fields is saying them. And he's not even saying them in a funny way. He's just saying them, and they wind up funny. Like Stan Laurel saying "What happened?", the Fields way with the simplest of lines is the definition of comic genius.
While comedy fans will spend ages arguing over whether IT'S A GIFT or THE BANK DICK is Fields' best movie, somehow THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE rarely gets mentioned in the same breath - it is the HORSE FEATHERS of the Fields film canon. Fields plays Ambrose Wolfinger (occupation: memory expert), a henpecked husband whose has to put up with a haranguing wife, an ogre of a mother-in-law and a good for nothing son-in-law, and does so without a single word of protest. Every effort to please his family results in scorn and condemnation, and every effort to find on scrap of happiness outside of his home ends in utter humiliation. Yet, like Stan and Ollie in any given film, he soldiers on, always convinced that the next few moments are going to result in complete happiness and contentment.
As good as Kathleen Howard was in the more admired IT'S A GIFT, she is even funnier here. Over-enunciating every word ("DON'T Suh-WATT FUH-ly- eeeZZZ!" *) with enough relish to give Margaret Dumont a run for her money, Howard is the greatest screen partner Fields ever worked with. Like Fields, she can make almost any line sound funny and doubles the fun in any scene she shares with The Great Man, even if she is doing nothing more than reading an inane poem from the morning newspaper. These two hilarious actors are so perfect together, you have to wonder why Howard only appeared with Fields three times, especially since he always reveled in surrouding himself with the funniest co-stars he could find.
THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE contains several of Fields' greatest comic setpieces, including the famed "Burglars singing in the cellar" scene, Wolfinger locked in a jail cell with a murderous nutjob who has killed three wives and seems intent on killing one memory expert, and the unjustly overlooked routine in which Fields receives four parking tickets in a row (and here, he even makes the phrase "No Parking" funny in various ways). The famous joke "It must be hard to lose a mother-in-law"/"Yes, it's almost impossible") is from this film, although Fields somehow makes it even funnier by not even completing the word "impossible".
One of the true classic comedies of the 1930s, THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE is Fields at his best, and there are few things on Earth better than that. - JB
NOTE: * Translation: "Don't swat flies!"
ADD ANOTHER QUOTE AND MAKE IT A GALLON
"Did I kill ya?"
"Oh, leave me in peace, leave me in peace!"
"Oh, good, good, I didn't kill ya... that's fine."
IS THAT WHO I THINK IT IS?
Walter Brennan plays one of the burglars singing in the cellar
Carlotta Monti, Fields' real life mistress, plays a small part as