“LaFong. Carl LaFong”
If you don’t know what I am talking about, be good to yourself and watch the YouTube clip below. Right now. The part with Carl LaF begins at 3:38.
The sleeping porch scene from W. C. Fields’s 1934 It’s a Gift is one of the greatest bits of comedy in the world. I’d run the scene in any race against any other comedy scene, ever, and I would never bet against it.
Nobody is trying to annoy Harold Bissonette except the insurance salesman in search of Carl LaFong. The salesman of course is not really looking for Carl LaFong. He has eaten Carl LaFong and is feeling peckish again. You can tell by his smile.
The above clip does not contain the entire scene. What it leaves out is as great as what it includes. Among other things, it omits the sequence with Baby Dunk on the porch upstairs, who is dropping grapes through a small hole onto Harold Bissonette. He starts with grapes, anyway.
And you miss the bit with Ipecac and Syrup of Squill. Not good, missing that.
I don’t want to deconstruct the comedy by trying to explain why it is funny. (Does that ever work?) I’ll talk instead about a quality of W. C. Fields movies that is not widely remarked on: their generosity. Fields always gave his costars room to rock out. He puts no one in the shade. Heck, he is even generous to Baby Leroy, who plays Baby Dunk.
Tom Bupp, the boy who plays Norman Bissonette, spends almost the entire movie on roller skates. He is funny. Kathleen Howard, who plays Amelia Bissonette, is VERY funny. I hope she was having the time of her life when she made It’s a Gift.
Charles Sellon (Mr. Muckle) takes center stage for an entire scene, and it is a long one. Tammany Young, who plays Harold’s incompetent grocery store employee, also makes an impression as a character. (“I hate you,” Harold says to him after he lets Baby Dunk open the tap on a barrel of molasses.)
Then there is T. Roy Barnes, who plays the insurance salesman. It is impossible to weigh and measure the wonderfulness of the sleeping porch scene without taking into account his contribution. The hard-jawed cheerfulness, the maniacal gleam in his eye as he races up the steps to corner Fields on the porch, his enthusiastic delivery of the pitch for the no-good policy—he is the essence of hard-sell salesman.
T. Roy Barnes, who deserves to be remembered, was English, not American. He was married to Bessie Crawford, and they had a vaudeville act billed as “Package of Smiles.” He had played fast-talking salesmen before—for example, in The Go-Getter (1921). Because Fields gave him room to shine, millions of people know how good he was.
Fields gave everyone room to shine. One major reason It’s a Gift is so good is that Fields isn’t the only funny one in it.
Here is the entire sleeping porch scene. The video quality is pretty bad, but never mind. The sequence with Baby Dunk and the grapes starts at 5:50. (“Right on the proboscis.”) Ipecac and Syrup of Squill enter at 7:11.
Amazon is selling a 3-DVD set with ten of Fields’s movies, including It’s a Gift, for the steal price of $14.99:
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