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The Great McGonigle's traveling theatrical troupe are staying at a boarding house. They are preparing to put on a production of "The Drunkard" (and do so during this movie). Cleopatra Pepperday puts up money for the show provided she can have a part ("Here comes the prince!"). Little Albert Wendelschaffer torments McGonigle all through lunch ("How can you hurt a watch by dipping it in molasses?"). In spite of being pursued by several sheriffs, McGonigle is able to keep going and see his daughter Betty happily married. Written by
Ed Stephan <email@example.com>
When McGonigle first sees Cleopatra, he says "Who's the old squigelum over there?" "Squigelum" is a Fields nonsense word. He would use it again in "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break" to describe the kissing game he teaches Ouliotta Hemogloben. See more »
Playing the sticks with the Great McGonigle & Company
I love this movie! Ever since I first saw it as a kid I've counted it among my favorite W.C. Fields comedies, and when I saw it again recently it was just as funny, warm, and entertaining as ever, maybe all the more so with the passage of time. While it may not be the funniest film he ever made, The Old Fashioned Way is perhaps Fields' most autobiographical work, as it recreates the life of the traveling player at the turn of the last century, a life he experienced personally as a vaudeville juggler. (A newspaper indicates that the story takes place in April 1897, which makes the "new-fangled horseless carriage" mentioned at one point very new indeed.) Fields' early years on the road were said to be pretty rough. He and his fellow performers were forever at the mercy of unscrupulous managers, forced to live in crummy lodgings where they ate poorly, in towns where they were generally regarded as no better than tramps and whores by the disapproving townsfolk. It was not unheard of for those unscrupulous managers to abscond with the box office receipts, stranding the actors in hostile territory without a penny. Yet somehow, with the advantage of hindsight, Fields was able to turn these unhappy memories into great comedy, comedy that also serves as something of a history lesson -- albeit a pleasant one -- for viewers interested in the American stage.
Because Fields was in his mid-50s when he made this film he was able to turn the tables, in a sense: instead of reprising his real-life role as a starving young actor he'd graduated by this time to the role of the unscrupulous manager, known here simply as The Great McGonigle. McGonigle leads a ragtag troupe of players who are touring the hinterland in that ever-popular temperance warhorse, "The Drunkard." As our story begins this troupe is fleeing a town one step ahead of the sheriff, and heading for their next engagement in the village of Bellefontaine, where prospects don't look much better. In desperate need of cash, McGonigle is compelled to woo a local wealthy widow who aspires to the stage, the magnificently named Cleopatra Pepperday (played with appropriate magnificence by Jan Duggan), while in the meantime his daughter is wooed by a college boy who also dreams of performing. The boarding house where the troupe stays serves as the locale for two hilarious comic set-pieces, back-to-back: first, McGonigle's lunch is ruined by Mrs. Pepperday's rowdy toddler Albert, who flings food in his face, grabs his nose, and dunks his pocket watch in molasses. And then, as if he hadn't been punished enough already, McGonigle must listen to Mrs. Pepperday's spirited rendition of "The Sea Shell Song."
These two sequences alone are reason enough to make this movie a must-see comedy classic, and, interestingly, in each of them Fields himself plays victimized straight man: first to Baby LeRoy, then to Jan Duggan, whose rendition of the song is a show-stopping triumph. Fields' reactions to both of these characters are priceless, but it's also worth pointing out that in this instance the notoriously paranoid, cantankerous W.C. Fields, who was said to be deeply jealous of other comedians, generously shared the spotlight with not one but two fellow players -- one of whom was a baby! -- and permitted each to temporarily steal the spotlight, to the ultimate benefit of the project.
The movie's finale consists of the troupe's performance of "The Drunkard" plus a sentimental song or two, and, best of all, McGonigle's juggling act. This extended sequence feels like an authentic recreation of just what an evening at a small-town theater of the period would have been like, from the cheap-looking sets and declamatory acting styles to the heavy curtain that hits the stage with a crash after each scene. The juggling routine is a special treat, as it represents the most complete filmed record of Fields' legendary feats of legerdemain. My only complaint is that there are a few too many cut-away shots showing audience members' reactions; I'd have been perfectly happy to watch the whole routine in a couple of uninterrupted takes, with no reaction shots at all. But in any event, the juggling act is wonderful.
According to a recent biography of W.C. Fields by James Curtis The Old Fashioned Way suffered through a troubled gestation process. Just as the film was going into production Fields' original screenplay, entitled "Playing the Sticks," was found to be somewhat jumbled and too brief to sustain a feature-length movie. Apparently the savior of the project was an unheralded screenwriter named Jack Cunningham, then known primarily for his earlier work on Westerns such as The Covered Wagon and a couple of Douglas Fairbanks vehicles. It was Cunningham who reworked and expanded Fields' original script into the seamless story it became, and who chose to interpolate the sequences from "The Drunkard." He also persuaded Fields to dust off his old juggling act for the finale. If this background information is correct, then viewers owe a debt of thanks to Mr. Cunningham for his important contribution to this terrifically entertaining, funny, and nostalgic slice of theatrical Americana.
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