It's the Old Army Game 1926
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It's the Old Army Game (1926) is an uproarious silent comedy in which the inimitable W.C. Fields finds it impossible to get some sleep. It was the fourth film in which Fields appeared, but the first over which he had some control, as it was adapted from his own stage play. Co-starring Louise Brooks (also in her fourth feature), and directed with verve by A. Edward Sutherland, It's the Old Army Game is a non-stop comedy of errors. Fields plays Elmer Prettywillie, a druggist kept awake by clamorous garbage collectors, a nosy woman seeking a 2-cent stamp, bogus land deals, and phony fortunes.
-Mastered in 2K from 35mm film elements preserved by The Library of Congress
-Audio commentary by film historian James L. Neibaur, author of THE W.C. FIELDS FILMS
-New score by Ben Model
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"It's the Old Army Game" is listed in most books as running at 72 to 74 minutes. This copy comes in at 104 minutes. I find this problematic for this feature. Fields, as druggist Elmer Prettywillie, spends the film re-creating several stage routines that later found their way into sound movies including "The Barber Shop," "The Pharmacist," and "It's a Gift." In this particular movie, they are played broadly, with little subtlety. At silent speed, they feel drawn-out and labored. At sound speed, they at least regain some of the larger-than-life satire they must have possessed onstage. If your DVD player has multiple fast-forward settings, you can run the movie at 1 1/2 speed at achieve a running time of just about 72 minutes. Unfortunately, this makes Keith Taylor's piano score unlistenable.
As for the movie, W.C. Fields is just about the whole show. The story makes a few arbitrary twists and turns to generate some drama and provide a love story for Louise Brooks, whose good looks are more distraction than support for Fields' comedy. The scenes, which are all dry-runs for the later sound versions, are played with a certain savagery that is sometimes shocking, sometimes hilarious. Overall, their timing (and the overall movie) doesn't quite jibe, but it's still entertaining to see Fields at work, molding an screen version of his stage persona.
The image is good to very good, occasionally a bit light with some barely noticeable surface scratches throughout. Keith Taylor's piano score is spare and serviceable and should be played if you run the movie at silent speed. I'd love to hear what Robert Israel or Ben Model might do with this movie at sound speed.
Whichever speed you choose, it's wonderful to see Fields as a character-in-progress in this movie.
The “army game” of the title is the shell game, a con trick which Elmer observes being played. The film is episodic and rambling, with Fields recreating bits from his theatrical appearances. Watching a silent Fields comedy, however, is like skiing without skis; something is clearly missing. In this case, it’s Fields’ well-known voice, which adds so much to his comedy. Unlike silent comedians Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Fields was funnier in his sound features. There’s plenty to laugh at here, and you may just hear those drawn-out Fields’ syllables in your head as you watch. The movie, in black and white with color tinting, contains an organ score composed and performed by Ben Model.
The Blu-ray release contains audio commentary by film historian James L. Neibauer, author of The W.C. Fields Films.
Mr. Prettywillie, the Druggist of the small midwestern town, can't seem to get any rest. When he's not woken up by an hysterical high-society lady (played well by Dale Fuller, the triple-jointed "patient" in The Dentist; she shows up later on, apprently exhausted by the walk to the mailbox, and it seems her dress refuses to stay in place, and she transforms from the upper crust socialite to the flapper) who must have have a single stamp right now, or by a neighbor's infant just doing what an infant will do, or by various delivery men who dare to make a sound while Fields sleeps on a hammock on the backporch, he's beleaguered by the normal walk-in traffic, who have an eye on Louise Brooks, the pretty assistant who falls for a Real Estate man with a surefire plan.
He's even tormented at a distance by the Aunt of Louise, who cannot contain her crush on her neice's employer; he must feign appreciation as a courtesy to his employee.
There's a very long scene with Fields and co. picnicing on the lawn of a great estate - Fields does some wonderful pantomine but the whole segment could have been excised for a two-reeler. Also, it has no bearing on the plot at all.
The soundtrack was performed and recorded live and some of the non-musical ambience bleeds through.
This reasonably priced DVD is a great companion to the rare "You're Telling Me", from 1934.
Fans of silents and Lulu will go wild for this treasure.