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"Tillie And Gus" is a "Sleeper" for W.C. Fields. It is not one of his movies that he is best remembered for, but it has several components that make it a great curiosity. First of all, Fields is teamed up again with Alison Skipworth, the craggy character actress, who in her earlier stage career in England was known to be a great beauty. She is also as far as I'm concerned, Fields' greatest female co-star. She interacts with him well as she did in "If I Had A Million" and "Six of A Kind". The two are formerly man and wife in this saga, working as "missionaries" on different locations who are found out for their flim-flam ways and sent packing back home where they are summoned to the dockside of a niece, her husband and infant son (Baby Leroy), who are being swindled out of their inheritance by shyster lawyer Phineas Pratt. The niece owns a run-down riverboat, threatened to be put in mothballs by a newer boat. A race is run to determine which boat has superiority over the other, and who keeps the river franchise. Fields' and Skipworth's goals is to help win the race, receive the money to thwart Pratt, and to kick the bum out! Memorable scenes include The "Missionaries" working together to refix a poker game on the train to their benefit, and Fields' memorable line to the question "You like children?". "Only if they are properly cooked", he says. This film is seldom seen on television and never seen as a video. The rights to this and many other Fields' films are buried in the vaults of Universal Pictures. It should be released for all of us to see again.
TILLIE AND GUS was one of three films (four with the "all star" ALICE
IN WONDERLAND) where he appeared with Alison Skipworth. It was the only
time in his talking films where Fields was actually built into a
co-starring situation with a partner. The only similar situation he
faced were in those now obscure silent comedies he made in the late
1920s co-starring Chester Conklin. But here, in SIX OF A KIND (where
pairs of male/female partners were enhanced by Burns and Allen and
Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland), and IF I HAD A MILLION (in the "road
hog" sequence) the chemistry and balance between "Uncle Claude" and
"Skippy" was amply demonstrated. Skipworth was nobody's fool in her
comic roles, and here she fully demonstrates that she is capable of
confronting her thoroughly untrustworthy partner, and even
(occasionally) controlling him.
Fields and Skipworth are married relatives of a young woman (Julie Bishop) who has inherited some property, including an old ferry boat. Unfortunately, the estate is in the hands of a crooked lawyer (Clarence Wilson), who is trying to gain legal ownership by every trick he knows. Fields and Skipworth return to assist their niece, her husband (Philip Trent) and their baby son (Baby Leroy - his first film with Fields). Despite Fields' grumblings, his own dislike for Wilson makes him stick it out to assist the young people.
The film is funny, but in episodes. At the beginning we see Fields, before he returns to the town where Bishop is) facing a trial in another jurisdiction. His repartee with the Judge (the great Edgar Kennedy) is a marvel. Another high spot (in a bit that other comedians have used - like Lou Costello on his television show), is when Fields is trying to repair part of the ferry boat, listening to instructions on the radio, but in leaving the room misses an important piece of information that the radio repairman is now discussing another thing to repair, and so Fields gets hopelessly befuddled trying to understand the logic of what he is accomplishing by these instructions.
Skipworth had a nice moment or two also. Wilson has purchased a modern ferry boat to drive the old one out of business. George Barbier is it's captain. Skipworth goes at night to spy out the new craft, and possibly find some way to damage it. Barbier, also on the watch sees her, and goes down to confront this interloper.
Barbier: "Do you know who I am?" Skipworth: "No! Isn't there somebody around to tell you?" Barbier hesitates - he did not anticipate that answer. He continues. Barbier: "I'm the Captain of the "Keystone"." Skipworth (looking him over): "Then what are you worried about?!" Barbier, slightly confused about the way the conversation has gone, but deciding to try once more. Barbier: "You don't understand...." Skipworth (without missing a beat): "I'm not the one who is lost!"
TILLY AND GUS is truly a very amusing movie to watch
TILLIE AND GUS (Paramount, 1933), directed by Francis Martin, stars
W.C. Fields and Alison Skipworth, in their second collaboration
together following their hilarious "roadhog" segment from the episodic
motion picture, IF I HAD A MILLION (1932). With Fields and Skipworth as
Paramount's answer to MGM's own Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler, of
MIN AND BILL (1930) and TUGBOAT ANNIE (1933) fame, the plot for TILLIE
AND GUS could very well be Paramount's equivalent to TUGBOAT ANNIE
(1933), however, the only difference is that there's no need in
borrowing from MGM or calling this one TUGBOAT TILLIE, for example,
considering how Paramount has Fields and Skipworth at the helm is all
that's needed in keeping this 58 minute comedy afloat.
The story begins not with Tillie and Gus but with the introduction of a young married couple, Tom (Clifford Jones) and Mary Sheridan (Jacqueline Wells), along with their baby boy called "King" (Baby LeRoy) and their very smart pet duck, taking up residence in the town of Danbury. After the reading of the will by Mary's father, John Blake, who died bankrupt, Phineas Platt (Clarence Wilson), a family lawyer and a crooked one at that, loots the estate for himself, leaving the girl nothing but an old ferry boat, forcing Tom, a college student, from obtaining his engineering degree. Mary, who has notified her Aunt Tillie and Uncle Gus, working their separate ways as missionaries, of the situation, hopes they'll come over to guide them. Enter Augustus Q. Winterbottom (W.C. Fields), revealed not as a missionary as depicted, but a professional card sharp forced to leave Alaska by a judge (Edgar Kennedy) following a crooked game; and Tillie Winterbottom (Alison Skipworth), his ex-wife, owner of a Soo Chow Club in Shanghai, China, who, after received Mary's telegram, gambles away her place to the Swede (Ivan Linow), earning enough money to book passage to Danville. Once they meet at a train station in Seattle, where Gus addresses Tillie as "My Little Chickadee" (Fields' most famous catch phrase), the couple soon forget their differences, offering their assistance to the young couple by arranging a ferry boat race between the defunct Fairy Queen and Pratt's very own Keystone to the Old Town dock that's to take place on the 4th of July, with amusing results.
For Fields' first starring feature role since the silent era of 1928, TILLIE AND GUS offers great promise with fine comedy material (Fields and Skipworth as dedicated missionaries shown in their true surroundings; W.C. cheating suckers at cards and his mixing of paint while listening to the instructor on radio), offbeat one-liners (Tillie: "Do you like children?" Gus: "I do if they're properly cooked"), and a touch of suspense (Baby LeRoy in a mini-bathtub that falls off the deck and floating down the river), there's not enough to rank this the comedy classic as Fields' latter IT'S A GIFT (1934) and THE BANK DICK (1940). In some ways, it's a quiet comedy in the Will Rogers tradition, highlighted by both the steamboat race and the support of familiar faces as Edgar Kennedy, George Barbier, Barton MacLane, and of course Clarence Wilson, whose face is enough to frighten any child away from his property whenever ordering them to "scoot." Baby LeRoy, the year-old infant whose dialog consists of overdubbed baby noises, cries and laughter, makes one of Fields' better known advisories under the age of five.
Never distributed on video cassette, TILLIE AND GUS was one of the features presented on Turner Classic Movies in June 2001 with W.C. Fields as its "Star of the Month," before being placed to DVD a few years later. Although Fields and Skippy would be paired once more in SIX OF A KIND (1934), who else can play phony missionaries and he singing "Bringing in the Sheeves" as their lovable characters of Tillie and Gus? (**1/2)
A light comedy, certainly, not on par with Fields' classics such as The Bank Dick, It's a Gift, and That Old-Fashioned Way, but Tillie and Gus is still a fine 1930s comedy. And Fields is in top form, with several great set pieces - a crooked card game, making paint, and throwing firewood down to the boiler room. Alison Skipworth is also quite good. The only major disappointment is Baby LeRoy, who, in his first pairing with Fields, was probably just too young. He's still cute and mischievous, but he and Fields never go at it in the same way as they do in That Old-Fashioned Way and It's a Gift. Even more creepy is the fact that Baby LeRoy's voice had to be dubbed, probably because he wouldn't make the required noises. This makes him seem like the antichrist - even more so. 8/10
Sometimes it takes a crook to catch a crook. Thus enter
AND GUS Winterbottom, charlatans both, come to the rescue
their niece who's been cheated out of her inheritance by
Alison Skipworth & W. C. Fields are a wonderful team in this little comedy, full of slapstick and verbal wisecracks. Eventually partnered in three films at Paramount - IF I HAD A MILLION (1932); TILLIE AND GUS (1933); SIX OF A KIND (1934); their characters only appeared together for a few seconds at the banquet climax of ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933) - they played off each other beautifully. Theirs is one of the great unsung comedic duos in screen history.
Fields is terrific, as always. His two great scenes - the poker game & the paint mixing debacle - are played with great aplomb. Watching him handily defeat lesser crooks than himself is a real treat, whether it's the three cardsharps or the sour old lawyer. Never deigning to smarten up a chump, he is surprisingly warm with Baby LeRoy, in their first screen encounter. Always fascinating, never dull, W. C. Fields is secure in his place as the American cinema's greatest curmudgeon.
The formidably talented Skipworth (1863-1952), English born & bred, usually played comic, cultured ladies. Seventeen years older than Fields (unlike Tillie Winterbottom, she was not born in 1881), she was 70 the year she made TILLIE AND GUS. With her massive presence and clarion voice, she was an agile match for Fields' well known scene stealing techniques. Easily the most significant of all his movie matrons, it is unfortunate that today she is remembered primarily for her films with Fields, and not for the rest of her splendid work.
Julie Bishop & Phillip Trent do nicely as the young couple. Since they are already wed & with baby when the film commences there are no unnecessary romantic complications for the plot to deal with. Old Clarence Wilson once again does very well as an acid tongued villain. George Barbier is quaintly befuddled as the rival boat captain. And in his one scene as a harassed judge, Edgar Kennedy runs his hilarious slow burn around the block one more time.
The ferry boat race with which the film climaxes - the Fairy Queen versus the Keystone - is well produced, with elements of hilarity & suspense equally mixed into the sequence.
Before TILLIE AND GUS, W. C. Fields had already appeared in five talking full-length films, but always as one of the featured players. With this picture, the Paramount bosses felt he was at last ready to co-star in a movie, although he & Alison Skipworth still receive below the title billing. After a few more films Fields would begin to solo star in a series of comedy classics.
Tillie And Gus has Alison Skipworth and W.C. Fields respectively in the
title roles in this shortest of the feature films of W.C. Fields. It
runs slightly less than an hour, but a lot of laughs get packed in. I
also think if the term can be applied to Fields, he's at his most
heroic in this film that is too rarely seen.
Fields and Skipworth worked well together in their part of the Paramount classic If I Had A Million so Adolph Zukor decided to give them a shot at a feature. I only wish they had done more joint projects.
Skipworth is unusual because she's an equal partner with Fields in chicanery. Usually Fields is married to a bossy tyrant like Kathleen Howard, but Skipworth is more an equal. She loves him despite his ways, but doesn't take anything off him either.
Aunt Tillie and Uncle Gus are called in by their niece Julie Bishop and her husband Phillip Trent who've been the victim of a bottom feeding shyster played deliciously by Clarence Wilson. All they have left is a ferry boat that has seen better days and Wilson is determined to get his hands on that too.
It all gets settled in a boat race and Fields sabotages the opposing boat as nicely as the Marx Brothers sabotaged La Traviata in A Night At The Opera. Seeing Fields in one of those old diving suits is funny enough, what he does to the boat is hilarious.
Bishop thinks her uncle and aunt are missionaries, they're actually a pair con artists. But they never had a greater mission than helping a family member. Blood is thicker, just ask the Corleones.
In any event this film proves you don't mess with Tillie And Gus.
Tillie and Gus was the last film directed by Francis Martin. Alison Skipworth and W C Fields star in this tale of two swindlers who have come to help out their family after a relative has died. In this, we get to see a lot of Fields' tricks with props - the hat and cane bits, cards, rolling the coin along his knuckles. And of course, he teams up with Clarence Wilson (the lawyer) again, from several of his previous films. Gotta love the "make your own paint" bit, when he adds in a scoop of lead, (which we now know is poisonous when ingested) as directed by the radio host. Did people really mix up their own paint ?? Baby LeRoy steals the show once again (Fields would make four movies with him-- has an interesting bio on IMDb). In Tillie and Gus, it all comes down to the big race to see who gets the job as ferryboat for the town. While quite a good, plain, fun, simple story, it's not the usual hilarious, non-stop antics that we see in some of the other W C Fields flicks.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The how-to-mix-paint-for-home-use sketch builds and builds until it can make you laugh to the point of tears; the rest of the film is really no great shakes, but still remains a pleasant way to spend an hour. W.C. Fields and Alison Skipworth make a compatible comedy team, while Jacqueline Wells is enormously appealing; the plot predates the formula of the later Marx Brothers outings (our heroes of dubious morality out-crook the crooks and help a couple in love to overcome their obstacles to happiness), but it seems to work better here - maybe because this couple is so likable and (luckily) never gets to sing like the couples of the Marx Bros movies usually did! And if there was an award for best pet goose performance, the one of "Tillie And Gus" would have won it. *** out of 4.
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