What a difference a year makes. In 1935, Fields gave an energetic performance in MISSISSIPI and was at the peak of his comic powers in THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE. In 1936 he was suffering from excessive drinking and, conversely, attempts to stop drinking. To make matters worse, he seriously hurt his back on the set of POPPY, making it rather painful to even walk. While this second attempt to make a film out of Fields first Broadway hit is far better than the silent SALLY OF THE SAWDUST, it is unfortunate that Fields and Paramount did wait until Fields had fully recovered before making this film. The movie is hampered by a noticeable lack of William Claude, and a noticeable lack of energy when he is on screen.
Once again, this time from necessity, a film version of POPPY concentrates more on the story than on Fields. While Rochelle Hudson in the title role is no shining star, she is infinitely preferable to Carol Dempster from the silent version. But the story itself, taken far too seriously, holds little interest. We sit and wait for Fields to show up, and when he does, the film improves.
But it doesn't improve immensely. Perhaps a year before or a year or two later, Fields would have the energy and enthusiasm to play the part of Professor Eustace McGargle, flim-flam man extraordinaire. Certainly he played almost the same part two years earlier in THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY and would play similar parts in his Universal films several years later. The spirit is willing in Fields in POPPY, but the flesh is weak. Some scenes that rely more on dialogue are fine, such as Fields negotiating for the sale of two hot dogs, or selling a "talking dog" to the world's stupidest bar owner. It is in the physical scenes where his lack of energy can be noticed more easily. Even a scene where he sits on a chair and plays a one-stringed instrument ("my beloved kadula-kadula") only to be bothered by his own mischievious tophat seems to have been cut to the bone, perhaps due to Fields himself being unable to properly execute all the gags. It seems there must have been something more to this scene than just Fields rolling his hat around himself a few times before wrapping up the sketch.
POPPY is a minor work in the Fields canon, and is enjoyable in its own right, but what a shame that the real Professor Eustace McGargle, probably the quinessential Fields character, was never fully captured on film. - JB
RADIO SAVED THE MOVIE STAR
Fields would not make another film for an entire year.
poor health prevented him from working in films, but while he was
recovering, he fell in love with radio, and during his long recovery,
he did much radio work himself. This phase of his career is
remembered for his "feud" with Edgar Bergen's ventriloquist dummy
Charlie McCarthy. In March of 1938, Fields appeared on Lux
Theater in a one-hour adaptation of POPPY.