The Indefinable West And Fields In MY LITTLE CHICKADEE

A tribute to a cinematic duo for the ages. 

You can’t really define Mae West and W.C. Fields, at least not in the way you can most old movie stars. It’s not difficult to explain what makes Cary Grant appealing. Ditto John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe, because they were magnetic, timeless figures of their era. Fields, though he started in and made some wonderful silent dramas and comedies (Sally of the Sawdust, Tillie’s Punctured Romance), wasn’t an adorable, hard-luck jokester in pre-talkies like Chaplin, or a debonair quipster like William Powell in sound pictures. West was sexy like Monroe and Jean Harlow before her, but West’s cleverness and control over her presentation set her apart from most other starlets of the time. No, the best way to learn about Fields and West is to study how the duo said their lines and moved their bodies.

Mae West was a minimalist. Before she started making movies, West was in vaudeville and on Broadway. She wrote, produced and directed much of her own material for both the stage and screen. Shortly after releasing her first movie, Night After Night, in 1932, she became the reigning queen of double-entendres and naughty humor. Her first two hits, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, made her later films a huge target for the infamous Hays Censorship Office and, consequently, also made her the richest woman in America. Because of censorship, West tried to say as much (or imply as much) as she could with the fewest and vaguest words possible. During conversation scenes, her quick, monotone delivery almost sounds like saucy Morse code. Small talk is actually small in the Mae West universe. As curvy as a Coke bottle (rumor has it her enviable shape inspired the product packaging), West maneuvered through her movies like a slow-moving bullet, her skin like a hot iron skillet. She never moves much, aside from batting those wispy eyelashes and occasionally sashaying across the screen, but she had a way of making her short, voluptuous body take up the entire frame when she did. Cinema was the perfect showcase for all of West’s talents.

Mr. Fields, on the other hand, could never be considered minimal on any level. He was a maximalist. Not unlike the stereotypical drunkard sitting at the bar, Fields could wax poetic all the live-long day. Part Popeye, part J. Wellington Wimpy and part 19th century scallywag, Fields mutters and sputters his lines like a sour, bleating goat. He’s cinema’s inebriated, lovable uncle-grandpa. Though Fields was only modestly tall (5’9”) and was neither fit nor fat, he always seems to stick out like a sore thumb in whatever scene he’s in. There’s a certain musicality and grace to Fields’ mumblings and bumblings that make him incredibly funny. Like jazz music, his thoughts and mannerisms (and, hell, even his narrative structures) seem to stray from one random and amazing bit to the next. He was a comedian who always lived in the moment and thrived on absurdity.

Which brings us to My Little Chickadee. In 1940, Universal approached West about starring in a comedy western in order to capitalize on the success of 1939’s Destry Rides Again with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. She signed on, wrote the screenplay, and Fields came aboard shortly thereafter. The movie is an awkward little oater, but compulsively watchable. The strange combination of Fields’ barely intelligible delivery mixed with Mae West’s striking precision makes the entire affair feel jagged and surreal. West stars as Flower Belle Lee, a loose woman of low morals who falls for a local thief called the Masked Bandit (Joseph Calleia) after he raids her stagecoach (zing!). She gets kicked out of town because of her, you know, loose morals, and marries Fields’ Cuthbert J. Twillie under the false impression that he could be her sugar daddy. I want readers to quickly visualize Fields with the words “Sugar Daddy” over his head. This plot point is almost immediately discarded after their alleged marriage, a moment in the film which underscores the inherent meaninglessness of most plot points, but also makes way for the funny as quickly as possible. Fields somehow stumbles his way into becoming the town Sheriff, a title every bit as symbolic as their sham marriage, while West continues to carry on with the Masked Bandit behind his and every other gentlemen’s caller’s backs.

Their distinct comedic voices pull the movie in every manner of direction, never settling on a consistent tone or arc. This is not a weakness of the film, but a strength. Rarely in cinema do we get the opportunity to witness such strange movie stars commingling in a way that doesn’t water down their charisma. Instead, My Little Chickadee preserves what makes the two stars special and gives us the opportunity to watch them together. Fields usually worked with either women who played much older, henpecking female characters (Cora Witherspoon in The Bank Dick) or kind young ladies (Gloria Jean in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break). He wasn’t interested in trying to make his characters look better or more attractive through romancing a beautiful ingénue. He was too secure in his comedic manhood for that. West, on the other hand, was frequently cast alongside very handsome young men (she even made a star out of Cary Grant!) because she was a super sexy dame who was also incredibly confident in all of her abilities. She was definitely all-woman, and more hilarious and admirable for it. Though watching them flirt and canoodle in My Little Chickadee is almost like watching a bulldog try to make it with a French poodle, West and Fields were truly a pair to remember. So, why don’t you go out and see it sometime?

This was originally published in the "Dynamic Duos" issue of Birth.Movies.Death. See a bunch of amazing partners in film at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!

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