Two icons of the silver screen, Mae West and W.C. Fields, have a showdown that ends in a draw in Edward Cline’s My Little Chickadee, a western comedy which works individually for each of its stars but fails to do much of anything with them as a team.
The Production: 3.5/5
Two icons of the silver screen, Mae West and W.C. Fields, have a showdown that ends in a draw in Edward Cline’s My Little Chickadee, a western comedy which works individually for each of its stars but fails to do much of anything with them as a team. Perhaps it was all for the best: the two stars had different approaches to their work that weren’t at all simpatico, so it was probably easier to let each do his or her own thing and then slap their work together to make a ramshackle if still very entertaining comedy.
Flower Belle Lee (Mae West) is run out of Little Bend after town gossip Mrs. Gideon (Margaret Hamilton) sees her having a midnight assignation with a masked bandit who’s been robbing local stages of gold and valuables. Having been told she’ll have to marry to gain a respectable reputation anywhere in the west, Flower Belle gets a charlatan friend of hers (Donald Meek) to “marry” her to loafing gambler Cuthbert J. Twillie (W.C. Fields) whom she’ll use as a necessary means to an end until she can discover the identity of her masked marauder. In Greasewood City, local town boss Jeff Badger (Joseph Calleia) proposes Twillie as the town’s new sheriff, but newspaper editor Wayne Carter (Dick Foran) thinks that’s a quick road to widowhood for Flower Belle, something no one, excepting Twillie himself, has any problem with.
Stars Mae West and W.C. Fields are given screen credit for the screenplay, but West always maintained that she wrote the script and left spaces for Fields to insert his own improvisations. The two didn’t much get along, so they share very few scenes together. A honeymoon night where Flower Belle substitutes a goat for herself in bed is probably the funniest of their escapades together (unless one counts an Indian attack on the train where Twillie fumbles with various hats and a slingshot and Flower Belle picks the Indians off in quick succession). Individually, Fields gains the upper hand as he goes through his familiar paces drinking everything in sight, even substituting for the local bartender one night as he recounts to customers his various exploits tending bar and cheating at cards so proficiently that he’s thrown in jail and ultimately faces a lynch mob once they’re led to believe he’s the masked bandit. As for Mae West, she lets herself down in the one sequence which had all the potential earmarks of an all-time classic. After writing that stupendous courtroom scene in I’m No Angel where she runs roughshod over judge, jury, lawyers, and witnesses, she has an equal chance here to do something really special taking over a schoolroom of rowdy older boys and teaching them a thing or two about education (or other topics). Instead, she throws out a couple of tired witticisms and ends very quickly on a blackout with almost no humor to be had. It seems like a terrible missed opportunity. Veteran comedy director Edward Cline was pretty adept at handling Fields which is likely why his scenes play funnier and seem more on point than the scenes with West. And, of course, there is that sensational final sequence where each star mimics the other letting us know it was all in fun. The final joke with “The End” superimposed over West’s derriere seems to have gotten past the censors to give us one final little jab.
Mae West looks very nice in a succession of Vera West (no relation) gowns, and, of course, it wouldn’t be a Mae West picture without at least one song; here’s it’s “Willie of the Valley” by Milton Drake and Ben Oakland which she croons in her inimitable purr. It’s quite ironic that after she and Marlene Dietrich both appeared on that infamous list of box-office poison stars in 1938, they each chose a western to re-establish herself on the screen: Dietrich in Destry Rides Again and West with My Little Chickadee (which used the leftover sets from Destry). W.C. Fields jostles with dozens of props: umbrella, a succession of hats, cards, and bottles and later takes a hilarious tumble into a bath where (we have to assume) a stunt man scrubs down his legs without using his hands. His wonderful succession of quips and business would reach their apex in his next project at Universal, The Bank Dick. Joseph Calleia does right by bad boy Jeff Badger, and Dick Foran does his thing with good boy Wayne Carter though the identity of the masked bandit is really never in question. Margaret Hamilton plays her busybody harpy with the professionalism we expect from her, and scattered through the cast are familiar faces like Ruth Donnelly, Donald Meek, Fuzzy Knight, and Jackie Searl.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio has been faithfully rendered in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Universal has done a sensational job cleaning this film into a spotless beauty with not a speck of dust or dirt to be seen and with impressively deep black levels and crisp whites to make the grayscale pop. Contrast has been dialed in to perfection. The movie has been divided into 8 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix offers very strong fidelity for so aged a movie. Dialogue has been professionally recorded, and it has been mixed superbly with Frank Skinner’s background score and the many sound effects present into a seamless whole. There are no problems with age-related anomalies like hiss, crackle, pops, and flutter.
Special Features: 2/5
Audio Commentary: film historians Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson spend almost the entirety of their commentary celebrating the career and life of Mae West, quoting extensively from books and articles which proclaim her uniqueness. W.C. Fields, Margaret Hamilton, Joseph Calleia, and director Edward Cline are barely mentioned in passing, and the making of My Little Chickadee and its place in the cinema of its day or today doesn’t rate too much attention.
Theatrical Trailer (1:36, SD)
Kino Trailers: Night After Night, I’m No Angel, Belle of the Nineties, Goin’ to Town, Every Day’s a Holiday
While Edward Cline’s My Little Chickadee may not rank as a top flight comedy of its time, the participation of Mae West and W.C. Fields in it can’t be overlooked or underestimated. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray release is by far the best the movie has ever looked on home video, and fans of the film and its two illustrious stars will not want to be without it.
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