Thursday, January 27, 2011

Film Review: Running Wild

"Running Wild" *** (out of ****)

"Running Wild" (1927) directed by Gregory La Cava and starring W.C. Fields is an often neglected silent comedy in the Fields cannon of films.

The only reason for its absence has to be due to the fact it is a silent comedy. As of the date of this review the film has not been put on DVD however a majority (if not all) of Fields' talking comedies have been.

When we think of W.C. Fields and his style of comedy it is admittedly hard to picture his character silent. So much of Fields' humor was verbal. The way he would mumble insults to himself, the snarly remarks he had for his family and society. Plus, the simple sound of his voice was funny and the way he would place an emphasis on certain words. Put him in a silent setting and naturally you lose all of that. Now Fields has to succeed on his physical talents alone.

I've only seen Fields in two other silent comedies. One is called "Pool Sharks" (1915). It was Fields' screen debut. In it he plays a pool shark. I personally don't find the piece particularly funny. The other comedy was the D.W. Griffith film "Sally of the Sawdust" (1925, which I have reviewed). While, overall a watchable movie, Fields seems restricted. You get the feeling Griffith is holding him back to remain within the confines of the story. Perhaps Griffith didn't realize what a treasure he had in Fields.

In "Running Wild" Fields plays Elmer Finch, a character which bears some small resemblance to the character we would see Fields play in "It's A Gift" (1934, my favorite of his films), "You're Telling Me" (1934) or "The Bank Dick" (1940). He is a disgruntled family man who feels his family doesn't appreciate him. In later films his family's disapproval had to do with his drinking and lack of employment. Here the family simply doesn't respect him. He feels unwelcome in his own home. His wife (Marie Shotwell) keeps a photo up of her first husband and constantly compares Elmer to him. She dotes over her son, whom she calls Junior (Barnett Raskin), who is one of those overweight, spoiled mama's boys. The only person in Elmer's corner is his daughter, Elizabeth (Mary Brian), who was a product of his first marriage.

Elmer has worked at the same toy factory for 20 years, in the same position, a clerk, at the same pay. He is simply too timid to ask for a raise, even while his daughter has caught the eye of Dave (Claude Buchanan) whose father is Elmer's boss.

The film, while a satirical look at domestic life, is also a commentary on masculinity. What does it mean to be a man? How should men act? The humor from the film comes when Elmer starts to "man up". This happens when a hypnotist puts Elmer in a trance and tells him he is a lion, as part of the hypnotist's act. Now Elmer has strength and won't be bullied around.

The only problem I have with this set-up is it paints a pretty ugly picture. It suggest a man should act like a brute and be violent. What if Elmer went to a hypnotist who put him under a trance and simply made him assertive. You could still have plenty of comedic situations arise. Elmer could complain about home cooking and tell his wife, yes, she does look fat in that dress. Instead to play to the stereotype that all men are cavemen and secretly that is what a woman wants. After Elmer goes on his physical tirade his wife look adoringly at him. All he had to do was use force to put his wife straight.

I have a sense of humor, believe it or not. I don't mean to read into the movie so much, but, clearly that is the message. I can appreciate the slapstick humor and did laugh. But, it is not something I'd want my daughter to watch (when I have one) and feel that is an appropriate message.

Gregory La Cava was a twice Oscar nominated director for the films "Stage Door" (1937), that great, nearly all female cast movie and "My Man Godfrey" (1936). He also directed "5th Avenue Girl" (1938, which I have reviewed) with Ginger Rogers. It is hard to say how much he actually directed Fields. I can't imagine a personality like Fields taking direction. But, this was early in his career, so who knows.

"Running Wild" is a funny movie and maybe the best silent film I've seen Fields in. Still I think his talking comedies show him at his best. If you enjoy this, track down 'It's A Gift", "You Can't Cheat An Honest Man" (1939) and "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" (1941).