My Little Chickadee (1940)
“Together for the first time!”
My Little Chickadee (1940)
Director: Edward F. Cline
Cast: Mae West, W.C. Fields, Joseph Calleia
Synopsis: When a gold-digging singer, Flower Belle Lee (Mae West), is kidnapped by a masked bandit, the town goes wild with speculation. When she returns unharmed, and is later seen kissing the bandit, she is tried by a judge and thrown out of town.
Despite her incendiary screen image, ‘30s sex siren Mae West (I’m No Angel, Belle of the Nineties) was rather prudish in some respects. She neither smoke or drank, and so was somewhat wary of accepting a role opposite W. C. Fields, a notorious alcoholic whose drunken exploits were common knowledge throughout Hollywood. But she’d just been dropped by Paramount, the very studio her movies had saved from bankruptcy back in 1933, and the rigid enforcement of the Production Code had constrained her risque act to such a degree that her popularity had waned since the early years of the ‘30s. So, rather than turn down the role of small-town vamp Flowerbelle Lee in My Little Chickadee, West had a clause written into her contract stating that filming would not take place if Fields arrived on set in an inebriated state. Apparently, Fields was too drunk to work on only one occasion on which, according to legend, he tipped his hat to his disapproving co-star as he was escorted from the set.
Their relationship was strained but cordial most of the time, with most of their dislike for one another arising from the fact that each would rework the screenplay in an attempt to increase their share of screen time. They received equal credit for screenwriting duties, although it’s fairly obvious that Field wrote – or ad-libbed – most of his own lines. It’s a shame they felt unable to collaborate more closely on the script, because My Little Chickadee suffers as a consequence. It’s a movie that’s been stitched together from material created by talents working towards opposing goals, and it shows. At times, the film feels more like a compilation of loosely connected sketches than a coherent narrative, and the two stars share far too little screen time to develop any kind of comic relationship. Despite this, My Little Chickadee is still pretty good – it’s just not as good as it should have been.
West plays Flowerbelle Lee, a lusty woman of questionable repute whose illicit rendezvous’ with a mysterious masked bandit earn her a one-way train ticket out of town. Aboard the same train to the neighbouring town of Greasewood is heavy-drinking con man Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields) whose attraction towards Flowerbelle is reciprocated only when she spies the bag full of money by his side. Knowing she needs a respectable front if she’s not going to be run out of every town in the West – but unaware that the money in Twillie’s bag is fake – Flowerbelle hastily arranges a sham wedding to the con man conducted by a gambler posing as a preacher. For a supposedly wily flim-flam man, Twillie certainly seems unusually naïve, because no sooner has he and his new bride arrived in the lawless town of Greasewood, than he finds himself installed as the town’s sheriff, a position with a shockingly high mortality rate, by shady saloon owner Jeff Badger (Joseph Calleia – After the Thin Man, The Glass Key) who just wants Twillie out of the way so that he can have Flowerbelle for himself.
Director Edward F. Cline, whose comedy credentials included a stint as one of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, and who had already directed Fields a couple of times, gives both stars their moments to shine, but it’s Fields who comes out on top. Every word drawled from the side of his mouth is measured and weighted to perfection, every single expression a on that wrecked and crumpled face a sheer delight. Fields had a gift for bringing back to life absurd, ridiculous words that had long since ceased to serve a purpose in the English language, and every line he utters crackles with jaundiced humour. West is good – particularly during a sequence in which she is called upon to teach maths and history to a class of rowdy (and uncommonly old) schoolboys – but can’t compete with the force of Fields’ sozzled personality. She’s also saddled with a tepid sub-plot in which she’s romanced by both Badger and Wayne Carter, the town’s newspaper editor. At least there’s a quality supporting cast, including Margaret Hamilton, familiar to everyone from her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz as the shrewish spinster responsible for Flowerbelle’s eviction from her home town, Donald Meek (You Can’t Take it With You, Stagecoach) as the gambler whose mild mannered ways provide the perfect disguise for his brief stint as a preacher, the feisty Ruth Donnelly (Mr Deeds Goes to Town, Mr Smith Goes to Washington) as West’s Aunt Lou, and B-Western stalwart Fuzzy Knight (Belle of the Nineties, Waco) as her Cousin Zeb.
Although, as a pairing of two of Hollywood’s greatest comedy stars, My Little Chickadee is something of a disappointment, fans of vintage comedy will still find plenty that’s rewarding.
(Reviewed 18th March 2016)