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March 20, 2018

It's the Old Army Game

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Edward Sutherland - 1926
Kino Classics BD Region A

The most breathtaking gag takes place at the beginning of It's the Old Army Game and does not involve W. C. Fields. A woman is furiously driving on a road, trying to outrun a train. The camera follows her, and later cuts to another traveling shot with the train and car following the camera. The train and car are running parallel to each other, with the gag ending where the road and train track cross. The scene appears to have been filmed in real time, and the split second timing is astounding. No computer generated effects here.

It's the Old Army Game was Fields' first starring film after a handful of supporting roles. Just as his stage stardom didn't take hold until he starting adding his famous verbal patter, likewise his film career was only modestly successful until the sound era. Still there are plenty of sight gags and double takes to evoke laughs, chuckles and guffaws. As pharmacist Elmer Prettywillie, Fields template is already established here as the put-upon man dealing with a bratty child, inconsiderate customers, shady deals, a world too noisy to allow for a good night's sleep. One of the scenes would be reworked just a few years later in It's a Gift.

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For his own obscure reasons, Fields appeared in his silent films with a small mustache that is tenuously attached to his famous nose. Some of the wisecracks appear as intertitles. There is no juggling, but watching Fields in a silent film is a reminder of his ability as a physical comic, wrestling with a giant block of ice, tripping on an errant pair of roller skates, or sleepily not realizing that he has two slippers on one foot.

There is a romantic subplot with counter girl Louise Brooks falling in love with a traveling salesman of questionable repute. The salesman gets Fields involved in a real estate scheme. Brooks really doesn't do all that much aside from smiling, posing in a bathing suit, with a notable traveling shot of the camera following Brooks from behind as she sashays along the sidewalks of Ocala, Florida. Brooks made an impression on the critics of the time, but it hardly hints at what was to come when left Hollywood for Germany, two years later.

The blu-ray is from a 2K master from the Library of Congress print, and looks just about perfect. Ben Model's organ score is serviceable. I was disappointed in James Neibaur's commentary track which spends too much time describing what is being seen in the film. Aside from the mention of the Palm Beach mansion that was used for a picnic scene, there is no discussion about the film being partially shot on location in Florida. I would have also like to have known more about how Edward Sutherland filmed a scene with Fields driving the wrong way in one-way traffic, and having a breakdown, all on streets of New York City. Neibaur doesn't mention that the actress Blanche Ring, who plays the woman of a certain age trying to get Fields' attention, was Sutherland's aunt. Sutherland's own film career started as a Keystone cop, with his move into directing encouraged by fellow Mack Sennett alumni Charlie Chaplin. Sutherland would work with Fields in the sound era, including directing one of Fields' last screen appearances eighteen years later in Follow the Boys.

For those puzzled by the title, it's an older slang expression, illustrated in a scene where Fields outplays a would-be fraudster.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 20, 2018 10:13 AM