It's a Gift

It's a Gift ★★½

Part of a trip back to 1934.
Full viewing digest for that year here.

What a lot of belabored low-energy gags built around a vacuous asshole. Not really my idea of a good time, though there's almost something admirable in the film's vinegar refusal to be in any way charming. Watching it right after the arduous romantic and sociocultural struggles of Little Man, What Now? and then the utopic communitarianism of Our Daily Bread, both from the same year, makes WC Fields's choice to portray in such surly, feckless fashion a middle-class family barely riding out the Depression and banking everything on a terrible investment while endlessly squalling and sniping at each other seem almost brave. I'll grant all that. Still, imagine the vanity and misanthropy of Monsieur Verdoux but with the homicidal morbidity downscaled to a kind of peevish, ineffectual, vaguely self-pitying introversion. Do you see the appeal? Can you help me see it?

A long-ish midfilm set-piece where Fields attempts to get some sleep in a porchswing outside his third floor apartment at least has some sonic and visual interest. That sequence ends on a funny punctuation point, too, when the whole swing collapses, but let's be honest: Buster Keaton would have figured out how to pull down the entire building while the character kept trying to nap. The best jokes in It's a Gift are only okay, and lousy ones are twice as long as necessary (Fields tries to shave while his daughter hogs the bathroom, Fields tries to stop a blind man from unwittingly wrecking his shop). Kathleen Howard's shrill performance as his harping wife amplifies everything joyless and ungenerous in the writing of the character. I'm sure this is just a "different strokes for different folks" thing, but I'm surprised this enjoys such a reputation as Fields's signature movie. If this is a peak, I dare not contemplate the nadir!


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