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With: W.C. Fields, Marie Shotwell, Mary Brian, Claude Buchanan, Frederick Burton, Barnett Raskin, Frank Evans, Edward Roseman
Written by: Roy Briant, Gregory La Cava
Directed by: Gregory La Cava
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 68
Date: 06/11/1927

Running Wild (1927)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Sillies of the Fields

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'm not sure how many people know it today, but W.C. Fields is inarguably one of the greatest screen comedians of all time. Very little has been written about Fields's silent-era films, except to say that his silent work generally is not as good or as funny as his sound-era work, notably his two masterpieces It's a Gift (1934) and The Bank Dick (1940). I had seen him in D.W. Griffith's Sally of the Sawdust (1925), and in a very early short film — his first screen credit — called Pool Sharks (1919). (It was released on an excellent Criterion DVD, collecting six Fields shorts.) I liked him fine in both, but would not really argue that I liked them better than the sound-era films.

Now Kino Lorber has happily released two silent-era feature films, It's the Old Army Game (1926) and Running Wild (1927), and while they won't surpass the masterpieces, they are very enjoyable and should certainly open up new discussion of the great one's work.

Directed by A. Edward Sutherland (a frequent Fields collaborator), the first comes from a play that Fields co-wrote, and it's said to be the first feature film over which he had some kind of control. He plays Elmer Prettywillie, a druggist who manages to help people when he has to, but of course, shows the usual disgust for annoyances. The first sequence is a keeper. A pursed-lip, giraffe-like woman (Elise Cavanna, also very funny in the later short film The Dentist), rings the night bell, and Fields makes a great effort to roust himself from bed. What kind of emergency could it be? She needs a 2-cent stamp. Later the woman sets off a fire alarm that cause the firemen to burst into the drugstore, and then hang around while being served free sodas. So Elmer sneaks away and sets off another alarm to send them elsewhere.

The main plot has something to do with a shady salesman, George Parker (William Gaxton), hocking real estate shares. He immediately spots Elmer's pretty clerk, Mildred Marshall (the great Louise Brooks), falls in love, and decides to use the drugstore as his base of operations, with Elmer sharing in the profits. But of course, the shares look to be fake. Mildred and George's "love" sequences would be pretty tame, and quite secondary to the rest of the movie, if not for Brooks's astonishing star power; she was intensely sexy, and heart-stoppingly beautiful, with the kind of screen presence that comes along only a few times in a century.

The movie offers plenty of other great sequences, including a completely unrelated picnic, wherein Elmer and his family drive up onto the lawn of a millionaire's mansion, and proceed to unwrap all their food items, leaving paper and garbage all over the grass. In her fine collection of essays, Lulu in Hollywood, Brooks wrote that this sequence — which was based on one of Fields's successful stage acts — took several days to shoot and the state of the lawn afterward was appalling.

Brooks also wrote of the sheer perfection of Fields's craft, how he had honed his timing for years by this point, and was a comic master. But she laments that his films, due to their cutting and framing, rendered his comedy inferior to that of his stage work.

Running Wild has the distinction of being directed by Gregory La Cava, a director with a delicate, sophisticated comedic touch who would go on to make such fine films as Gabriel Over the White House (1933), My Man Godfrey (1936), and Stage Door (1937). It is a little more plot-driven, with a little more focus on a consistent Fields performance, with many opportunities to watch his slow-burn changes of expression. It's probably the better film of the two, but it's also a teensy bit less funny. Fields plays Elmer Finch, a clerk at a toy company. The movie begins as he awakens and tries to exercise along with a radio program, upsetting everyone in his house. Over a long introduction, we meet his second wife (Marie Shotwell) a nasty, shrewish thing, and her son (Barnett Raskin) a tubby, bratty tattletale. He loves his grown daughter (Mary Brian) from his first marriage, but she wants him to buy her a dress so she can go to a dance with Dave (Claude Buchanan); Dave's father is Elmer's boss. But the wife refuses to let Elmer spend any money.

His spirit beaten but not broken, he leaves for work, doing a hilarious walk down the sidewalk, nimbly dodging the cracks. (He's superstitious.) His office is a thing of wonder, with toys and scraps of paper everywhere. He tries to win a lucrative new contract but fails, and is then assigned to collect a bill from a brutish tightwad. But after breaking a window with a horseshoe, he escapes by running into a theater, where a hypnotist (Edward Roseman), makes him believe that he's a lion. With this new sense of courage, and laced up in boxing gloves, he runs wild and sets everything right. Fields doesn't quite seem to fit in this "lion" phase, but the sequence is funny anyway.

One thing occurred to me. Audiences in the silent era would have experienced these movies differently, because after sound came in, Fields's voice became so iconic that we can now actually "hear" (in our imaginations) his voice as he silently mouths his dialogue in these films. (I found myself laughing at his line readings a few times, even though I could not actually hear them.) Although unintentional, I'm sure that helps in their enjoyment, somewhat.

The new Blu-rays feature simple but effective music scores: an organ score by Ben Model on It's the Old Army Game and a piano score by Donald Sosin on Running Wild; audio commentary tracks on both by James L. Neibaur, who authored a book on Fields and who firmly believes that these films are among the comedian's best. The restorations are excellent, with only a few of the expected flaws, and the video transfer is superb, with the high-definition capturing the old film grain in a pleasing way. Though they aren't masterpieces, these films are nonetheless essential items for anyone who loves silent comedy.

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