It’s The Old Army Game Blu-ray Review

Early starring role for W.C. Fields 4 Stars

W.C. Fields headlines in this 1926 silent comedy classic, essentially a collection of some of Fields’ best routines stitched together with the thinnest of plots.

It's the Old Army Game (1926)
Released: 11 Jul 1926
Rated: PASSED
Runtime: 77 min
Director: A. Edward Sutherland
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Romance
Cast: W.C. Fields, Louise Brooks, Blanche Ring, William Gaxton
Writer(s): J.P. McEvoy (play), W.C. Fields (play), William LeBaron (adaptation), Thomas J. Geraghty (scenario), J. Clarkson Miller (scenario), Ralph Spence (titles)
Plot: Druggist Elmer Prettywillie is sleeping. A woman rings the night bell only to buy a two-cent stamp. Then garbage collectors waken him. Next it's firemen on a false alarm. And then a real fire.
IMDB rating: 7.0
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Paramount
Distributed By: Kino Lorber
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: None
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 15 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: Keep Case
Disc Type: BD25 (single layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 03/13/2018
MSRP: $29.95

The Production: 3.5/5

In 1926, W.C. Fields was still between the two worlds of stage and screen. He had a successful career in vaudeville with a series of skits and juggling routines that were winning over live audiences, and had even made the transition to the Broadway stage with a hit show, Poppy. He had also been experimenting in silent film, though his stage commitments limited his availability for film work. After sporadically appearing in several shorts and supporting roles in features, filmmaker D.W. Griffith adapted Fields’ Broadway hit Poppy to the silent screen as Sally Of The Sawdust. For his next project, Fields would take on It’s The Old Army Game, which allowed him not only a starring feature role but also the chance to reproduce many of his stage routines on the screen. Hollywood starlet Louise Brooks co-stars, bringing a touch of class and sex appeal to the proceedings.

The films loosely assembled plot concerns Elmer Prettywillie (Fields), the owner of a small drugstore in Florida dealing with a series of annoyances which leave him perpetually sleepless. In between sleepless nights, he faces daily quests to triumph over unruly customers and unexpected circumstances. Whether it’s obnoxious relatives, noisy neighbors or self inflicted mishaps at the store, Prettywillie just can’t get a break. One of the only bright lights for Prettywillie in all of this is Mildred Marshall (Brooks), his assistant at the shop. Further complications ensue when Prettywillie rents out window space to a real estate man looking to sell land in New York (William Gaxton). At first, Prettywillie is happy for the extra business this brings, but soon suspects that he’s being used in a scheme that will surely backfire.

Fans of W.C. Fields’ sound films will recognize routines and other bits of business here in It’s The Old Army Game. The famous porch routine from It’s A Gift, concerning Fields trying to sleep as various neighbors and pedestrians disturb his slumber, appears in an earlier version here, familiar enough to bring a smile of recognition, but different enough to feel fresh. Much of the business inside the drugstore would later be repeated in the short film The Pharmacist. Fields’ famous catchphrase “never give a sucker an even break” even appears as dialogue in an intertitle. Even as early as 1926, and even without sound, the Fields persona was already well developed.

The biggest surprise about this film may be just how well the comedy of W.C. Fields plays, even without being able to hear his famous voice. Unlike a star like Charlie Chaplin, who mostly retained his silent brand of comedy well into the sound era, Fields would make use of his voice as soon as the opportunity and technology presented itself. But even without that famous drawl, the mannerisms and the comic timing are there. It’s The Old Army Game makes it clear how much of the Fields persona can be attributed to the man’s physicality, something that can be obscured in his later talkies by the clever dialogue he would frequently write for himself. If there was ever any doubt that the physical comedy of W.C. Fields rightfully belonged in the same conversation with that of Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, It’s The Old Army Game should settle that question.

Director A. Edward Sutherland (who would marry Brooks) was effective at capturing the Fields persona in full swing. If there is a criticism about the film, it is that the subplots that do not involve Fields can slow the action, and try as he might, Sutherland can occasionally lose narrative balance by keeping the action away from Fields. (This is perhaps the most consistent criticism that can be made not just about this film, but of the Fields filmography as a whole.) Later films would better address this imbalance by making the characters in those subplots more directly related to the Fields character, which would help extend both audience attention and sympathy to those side plots. Sutherland himself would direct Fields again several times, both in the silent and sound eras, and would finally strike a more winning balance between humor and story in their final collaboration, a sound adaptation of Fields’ stage hit Poppy (1936).

Video: 4/5

3D Rating: NA

The transfer is based on a new 2K scan of 35mm film elements held at the Library of Congress. It is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio via the AVC codec, with a sepia tint that looks very pleasing. Some shots look nearly pristine, and even when damage is present in others, it’s only lightly visible in an unobtrusive way. The clarity within the image is absolutely stunning, and the detail is so clear that even the clip that holds on Fields’ fake mustache can be seen. When the film looks good, it is outstanding; at it’s worst, it’s merely very good. Interestingly, the live action photography (which is rock steady) often appears in far better condition than the intertitles (which are often shaky). I’ve seen this film in different incarnations over the years, from poor quality standard definition VHS copies to 16mm and 35mm prints, and none of them have looked anywhere close to how good the film looks here. Simply put, it’s a revelation to see this film looking as it does here.

Audio: 3/5

For this release, Kino has commissioned a new organ score written and performed by Ben Model. Presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo, it’s a well-recorded track with good fidelity that can sometimes lack inspiration. I have seen this movie theatrically with live accompaniment before, and when that pianist played before a live audience, it worked perfectly. This track is more repetitive. It never contradicts the image, but it occasionally misses the opportunity to truly punctuate the onscreen action.

Special Features: 2.5/5

Audio Commentary by film historian James L. Neibeur – This commentary is a mixed bag. On one hand, Neibeur clearly knows the material. He effectively draws parallels between this film and Fields’ later work, making insightful observations and comparisons about how Fields comedy evolved over time. But on the other hand, Neibeur does seem to run out of steam before reaching the end of the film, and there are some stretches where he either resorts to describing the onscreen action, or simply remains silent. On a more technical note, the commentary does not have great audio fidelity. It sounds as if Neibeur was perhaps sitting too close to his microphone, and there are occasional cracks, pops and distortions as he speaks. Still, this is the first time an audio commentary has been presented for a W.C. Fields film, and the opportunity to hear an insightful examination of the comedian’s work is appreciated.

Overall: 4/5

It’s The Old Army Game, along with Running Wild, are the first feature length W.C. Fields films to be released on Blu-ray. The restoration presented here is easily the best the film has looked in my lifetime, allowing the viewer to appreciate every nuance of Fields’ performance. While at first it might seem a loss to watch Fields without the power of his inimitable drawl, the film makes an outstanding case for Fields’ skill with physical humor. His comic timing is brilliant, and familiar routines from his better known films seem fresh and vital in their earlier incarnations. Kino is to be commended for releasing such a high quality version of this film, and for commissioning both a new score and an audio commentary to accompany the release. As a longtime fan of W.C. Fields, it is wonderful to finally be able to view one of his feature films on Blu-ray.

Published by

Josh Steinberg

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9 Comments

  1. Well done! This one has escaped me in the past, so I’ll have to get it. It has the added incentive of the ever eternal Lulu, Louise Brooks! My records indicate that I’ve seen Running Wild but so long ago that I have no memory of it. Time to revisit, plus it’s La Cava.
    BTW, a sp. correction: it’s dire “straits.”

  2. bujaki

    Well done! This one has escaped me in the past, so I'll have to get it. It has the added incentive of the ever eternal Lulu, Louise Brooks! My records indicate that I've seen Running Wild but so long ago that I have no memory of it. Time to revisit, plus it's La Cava.

    As a big Fields fan, I went into these reviews fully expecting to enjoy It's The Old Army Game more – it's the one I was more familiar with of the two, having seen it on various VHS copies and 16mm/35mm repertory showings. Running Wild I think I had only seen on VHS, but my memory of it was extremely vague. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that while It's The Old Army Game was the same film that I've always enjoyed, looking better than ever, that Running Wild was actually even more enjoyable to me. I did not see that coming. You can't go wrong with either or both.

    bujaki

    BTW, a sp. correction: it's dire "straits."

    Thanks for catching. These reviews go through so many different steps on the way to posting (first writing them in a word processor, then copying each section into the form, etc.) that this seems like an example of something that was once spelled properly, but where spell check or autocorrect on one of the different apps or forms decided to take over. You spend a day proofing, and then the computer just does what it wants to do anyway! 🙂

  3. The sharp, clear print sure allowed us the ability to read the signage in the street scenes, seemingly indicating the Florida location-work was in Ocala. Always wondered about that. My previous viewings of the film (over 25 years ago) were from a pretty blurry print, which kept such clues rather hidden. It was great that they went down there, capturing the more realistic and flavorful backdrop for some key scenes. I usually assume Paramount's Astoria studio productions are more apt to be stagebound than their Hollywood offerings, based on a number of examples I've seen, from the early-talkie era. Maybe I'm all wet, though. Especially in regards to those earlier, pre-talkie productions that Paramount made on the East Coast. Makes me curious about the frequency of other field-trips back then.

  4. It never occurred to me before viewing the film this time that any of it had been shot on location, or that it had even been shot in Astoria (mere blocks from where I live and reviewed the disc). But I discovered that from listening to the commentary and started looking at the movie a little differently, trying to find signs of familiar places in Florida, or sets that looked familiar from other Paramount Astoria productions. It's funny that the plot has the real estate guy trying to sell New York land to Florida residents rather than the other way around.

    Amazing to think that guys like Fields and the Marx brothers were at different points working on the Astoria stages by day, and then heading out at night to perform for live audiences.

  5. Thanks for your great review. I'm currently waiting on Amazon to ship me my pre-orders of this film and "Running Wild." I saw a version of "It's the Old Army Game" that was transferred way too slowly, and I'm looking forward to seeing the film at a faster and more appropriate speed. These films are probably best regarded like a pilot for what will eventually become a very successful sitcom – most of the elements are there but they're not quite fully realized. Look at the two silents and then view their sound analogues – "It's a Gift" and "The Man on the Flying Trapeze" – and you'll see how Fields would rework and at times even improve his material to make it feel forever fresh. We do have one advantage over the original audiences of these films in that we can read the title cards and think of Field's voice and delivery. 😉 What I think will surprise those who remember Fields mostly from "The Bank Dick" and "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break" is just how trim Fields was and how adept he was at physical humor. I hope that Kino will at some point try to license "So's Your Old Man" (the other surviving Paramount Fields silent). However, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the film is mired in literary rights issues. The sound remake "You're Telling Me" was unavailable for many years before Universal resolved the issue. I would imagine that Paramount or any licensee would likely have to do the same for the silent version to be made available (for those who are interested – the sound remake follows the silent predecessor very closely – much more so than how "It's a Gift" and "The Man on the Flying Trapeze" follow their silent analogues).

    Concerning the score, I've always found that Ben Model provides very serviceable, competent scores, but I've never heard a truly great score from him. Sitting here typing this post, I can effortlessly recall themes from the likes of Gaylord Carter, William Perry, Carl Davis, Jon Mirsalis, Mont Alto, Philip Carli, Chaplin, etc., but I would be hard pressed to recall anything from Model's work. To be fair, this is not a slight against his musicianship but more of a recognition that I do not prefer his style. The man was mentored by the organist Lee Erwin, and Mr. Erwin accompanied silents with a very subdued manner that I find rather dull (in fact, two of the worst silent film scores that I have ever heard were Erwin's accompaniment for "The Thief of Bagdad" and "The General"). So, since I'm not that enamored of Lee Erwin it shouldn't be surprising that I'm not a particular fan of Model. However, Model is much better than Erwin, and to be clear, I've never heard a bad score from him. It's just that I have not experienced an exceptional score from him (at least yet). Still, the man has his fans, and I would rather see Model listed as the one who is providing a score than some other individuals and groups that come to my mind.

  6. Arthur, I'm sorry for the delayed response, but thank you so much for your kind words about the review, and for sharing your insights on the film and Ben Model.

    I would absolutely love to see So's Your Old Man out on Blu-ray, along with Sally Of The Sawdust… who knows, maybe one of these days. I'll definitely be at the front of the line if and when that ever happens.

    I think you'll absolutely love both this disc and the one for Running Wild. I'm curious to hear if you find that the Donald Sosin score on that title is as much of an improvement over the Model score on this title as it was for me.

  7. Josh Steinberg

    Arthur, I'm sorry for the delayed response, but thank you so much for your kind words about the review, and for sharing your insights on the film and Ben Model.

    I would absolutely love to see So's Your Old Man out on Blu-ray, along with Sally Of The Sawdust… who knows, maybe one of these days. I'll definitely be at the front of the line if and when that ever happens.

    I think you'll absolutely love both this disc and the one for Running Wild. I'm curious to hear if you find that the Donald Sosin score on that title is as much of an improvement over the Model score on this title as it was for me.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I am definitely looking forward to revisiting the two films (which Amazon is taking its sweet time in shipping to me – me and my cheap "free shipping" ways 😉 – well, it's not as if I don't have a backlog of films to watch in the meantime). I've heard Donald Sosin's work before and have enjoyed it. He doesn't score in a traditional or conventional manner, but his work tends to supports the films in question. He scored a set of Harold Lloyd shorts for Kino a little over a decade ago (it was released around the same time as the New Line/Harold Lloyd trust set), and the scores were quirky and at times surprisingly melancholic. Yet, they worked quite well, and "Running Wild" does strike me as a film where that approach could work. I will say that I am a bit disappointed that Kino didn't use the theater organ score that Gaylord Carter recorded for the film's 1980s Paramount videocassette. It's a lively and energetic score, and it's a shame that it wasn't used here. I'd be curious to know why the Carter score for "The Covered Wagon" was retained but this one wasn't. The posted running time seems to conform with the running time of the VHS. Perhaps some internal editing differences rendered the older score difficult to sync. Nonetheless, I'm eager to see the film with Mr. Sosin's score. Oddly enough, a couple years ago I made an mp3 file of the Carter score to use for "needle-drop" purposes when running some of my Blackhawk 8mm films. At some point I might see if the new blu will track with the mp3 file!

  8. I'm not 100% sure but I'm reasonably sure that the Kino disc was my first viewing of Running Wild. I certainly would be interested in the Carter score for the sake of comparison – will have to keep an eye out for that VHS version.

    The Sosin score at times seemed a little less traditional, but in a good way. Model's was more traditional to my expectation of an organ score but I don't know how historically accurate it actually is. But listening to both, Model's playing doesn't seem as affected by the action onscreen; it doesn't betray a lot of emotion. But with Sosin, it's almost as if I can tell from his playing which parts of the movie are cracking him up. I can feel his laughter in the playing. It's sort of the difference between a news article and an opinion article. Model's playing is the "some people found this routine to be amusing" way of describing the event without actually participating in it, where Sosin's playing is more "isn't this great?! I hope you're having as much fun as I am!"

  9. I have a problem with organ scores. They hit a spot in me that was created when I was a little kid in church. An organ starts playing and I promptly fall asleep.

    The term you are trying to describe is called "Mickey Mousing". A score that follows the action specifically is said to be Mickey Mousing the action. As opposed to "wallpaper scores" that take a more broad approach.

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