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A small country on the verge of bankruptcy is persuaded to enter the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics as a means of raising money. Either a masterpiece of absurdity or a triumph of satire, depending on your mood, but it's quite possibly the funniest movie ever made, and becomes even funnier with subsequent viewings. Written by
Million Dollar Legs is the second feature film with W.C. Fields in the sound era. Still not sure of his box office potential Paramount billed him second under Jack Oakie. That would be something that would change shortly as Fields was given greater creative control of his films.
Although Oakie has his moments as his usual lovable blowhard self, a character that would be gradually taken over by Jack Carson in the Forties, the film really does belong to Fields. A year before Duck Soup was out, Million Dollar Legs took some real good political jabs using the American hosted Summer Olympics in Los Angeles as a background. Certainly saved on location shooting.
In fact one of the best things Million Dollar Legs has going for it is the good use of newsreel footage of the Olympics cut into the film. This was to be a showcase for the United States on the world stage. Remember how cleverly Ronald Reagan exploited the Olympics also held in Los Angeles in 1984 in his re-election bid? Herbert Hoover sent his Vice President Charles Curtis to open the Olympics, but the publicity certainly didn't redound to Hoover's credit. In fact Paramount exploited the Olympics better in this film.
W.C. Fields is the President of Klopstokia, a Ruritanian like country in Europe where all the people are trained from earliest times on earth to be athletes. Fields in fact is the strongest man in his kingdom and that's how one becomes president. It's a test of strength in Indian wrestling. When and if one beats him as Treasury Secretary Hugh Herbert keeps trying to do, you become president.
But Herbert's lined up the rest of Fields's disloyal cabinet against him. The country's national debt is about to put it in chapter eleven. What to do?
This is where Oakie comes in. He's a fast talking salesman for Baldwin Brushes and he's got a great offer from company president George Barbier. Recruit some of the populace for the Olympics and enter a Klopstokian team and he'll pay them whatever for use in his advertising. Sounds like a plan.
Herbert's down, but not out. He recruits international femme fatale spy for hire Mata Machree played by Lyda Roberti. She's to do what she does best, work on the hormones of the Klopstokian athletes so they're not concentrating on the Olympics. Make sure they're heads are not in the game.
Like Duck Soup to which this film bears a lot of resemblance Million Dollar Legs is good satire, a little gentler than Duck Soup, still it hits what it aims at. 220 years ago Million Dollar Legs could have come from the pen of Jonathan Swift.
This film went a long way to making W.C. Fields a star. He was a star on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies and in George White's Scandals, but in silent films and in his sound work so far, he played mostly supporting roles in feature films. After this his star status at Paramount and later Universal was assured. He's got some devastating lines here, mostly of his own making because Fields was notorious for just using the script situations as a guide. In a battle of wits, nobody tops him and that includes the director and the writers.
Fields and Oakie are supported by a real good cast of comic actors. Besides who I've mentioned, special mention should go to Andy Clyde as Fields's major domo and Ben Turpin as the silent cross-eyed spy.
For fans of W.C. Fields, a must. Oh, Yes.
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