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My Little Chickadee

My Little Chickadee(1940)

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teaser My Little Chickadee (1940)

Man to W.C. Fields: "Is this a game of chance?"

W.C. Fields: "Not the way I play it."

While it may in hindsight seem like a no-brainer for W.C. Fields and Mae West to have been paired in a movie, the existence of My Little Chickadee (1940) actually owes more to another movie: Destry Rides Again (1939). It was the huge success of that film which convinced Universal to make another western comedy with two top stars, and Fields and West seemed the perfect duo.

The two comic icons had spent the bulk of the 1930s at Paramount but never made a movie together there. Fields, however, had recently signed a contract with Universal and done the film You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), while West had left Paramount a year earlier and was looking for a comeback.

On paper it was a great idea to team these masters of double entendre and outrageous comedy; as a matter of practical reality, it caused significant creative problems. In the end, however, it resulted in profitability as well as some first-rate comedy scenes even if the picture itself isn't the best of either star's career. Trouble was inevitable because Fields and West had huge egos and were accustomed to being the sole leading player, and because each used quite divergent comedy techniques. Fields loved to ad-lib and was not particularly beholden to scripts; West honed her innuendos with precision and perfectionism.

Complications began even before production. Fields wrote a draft of the script only to have Universal order a rewrite by Grover Jones, followed by another. Fields hated the changes and rewrote it himself. Then West wrote a version. The two stars were used to writing their own material and neither seemed willing to let go of the writing reins, though they were respectful to each other; Fields even sent West a note saying she had come closer than anyone to capturing his style on paper. In the end, they shared writing credit, though exactly what was written by whom remains murky.

Humphrey Bogart, who was offered the part of the masked bandit ultimately played by Joseph Calleia, said: "I would read my lines at the end of which a note read, 'The following ten pages to be supplied by W.C. Fields.' Then I would read more of the lines followed with another note, 'The following ten pages to be supplied by Mae West.'"

Fields' grandson and biographer Ronald J. Fields (W.C. Fields: A Life on Film) later offered this assessment: "So, who wrote My Little Chickadee? West or Fields? From Fields' original 'epitome' a logical conclusion can be drawn. Mae wrote her material, W.C. wrote his, and then they collaborated (meaning ad-libbed) in the scenes in which they both appeared. The plot, however, was most likely Mae's idea. Ms. West on the other hand gave her account of the authorship. It was inaccurate, but she maintained that she wrote all but a few of the final script's 135 pages. She claimed [production supervisor] Matty Fox told her that W.C. 'fought them and held them up' until they agreed to accord him co-author credit on the screen. Mae claimed she first saw the picture a month after release and learned only then about the screenplay billing."

The cordial West-Fields relationship that existed in the writing phase diminished once shooting began. As director Edward Cline said, "I'm not directing them, I'm refereeing." Each star simply couldn't handle not being the center of attention. As a result, Fields half-jokingly insulted West between takes. West fired back in part by gaining the right to close the set if Fields ever showed up drunk. (West never touched alcohol.) One day, she later claimed, she actually did close the set. Supporting actor Dick Foran, however, claimed, "the fellow drank all the time, but I never saw him drunk."

Ronald Fields later wrote: "In all fairness to both stars, the occasional bouts on the set were nothing compared to the expected battles. The full blowouts, the major contention over screen time, or the titanic tantrums by one or the other over scene-stealing never materialized, a definite relief to all involved. But do not get the impression they enjoyed themselves during the production or continued their pre-shooting cordiality. They did not."

Shooting on My Little Chickadee wrapped in January 1940. The picture opened just one month later and became Fields' highest-grossing film for Universal despite mixed notices. Fields was praised across the board while West was criticized. The actress was so furious that she refused to ever work with Fields again or even to talk to him or to allow anyone else to talk to her about him. Ironically, while West's popularity was on the wane by 1940, she would work almost three more decades on stage, in nightclubs and in films. Fields, on the other hand, would make just two more movies before his legendary drinking caused him to retire early and then die in 1946.

My Little Chickadee was the third of five films starring Fields to be directed by Edward Cline, an ex-Keystone Cop. The others were Million Dollar Legs (1932), You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, The Bank Dick (1940) and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).

As would be expected for a movie with West or Fields, not to mention both, the film was heavily censored, with many scenes and lines of dialogue ordered cut or altered. Plenty of hilarity remains, however, such as the classic moment where a noose is tightened around Fields' neck and he is asked if he has any last wish. His response: "Yes, I'd like to see Paris before I die!" Then, as the rope tugs harder: "Philadelphia will do!"

Producer: Lester Cowan
Director: Edward F. Cline
Screenplay: Mae West, W.C. Fields
Cinematography: Joseph A. Valentine
Art Direction: Martin Obzina, Jack Otterson
Music: Frank Skinner
Film Editing: Edward Curtiss
Cast: Mae West (Flower Belle Lee), W.C. Fields (Cuthbert J. Twillie), Joseph Calleia (Jeff Badger), Dick Foran (Wayne Carter), Ruth Donnelly (Aunt Lou), Margaret Hamilton (Mrs. Gideon), Donald Meek (Amos Budge).

by Jeremy Arnold

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teaser My Little Chickadee (1940)

W.C. Fields, the bombastic king of the comic con, and Mae West, the raunchy queen of the double entendre, made one film together, My Little Chickadee (1940). This pairing of mismatched icons has spawned legends of epic battles for control. Like all legends, the stories have at least some basis in fact. As for the plot, it brought the two comics together in an amusing manner: Flower Belle Lee (West) is run out of town for consorting with the Masked Bandit but on the train she encounters con artist Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields). When the couple gets off the train in Greasewood City, they present themselves as a married couple and soon Twillie lands the job of town sheriff. And you can imagine the complications that stem from that.

Mae West had been pushing the envelope of prevailing morality throughout her career. Under contract to Paramount in the pre-code days of the early '30's, Mae was a hit in Hollywood. But tightening of the Production Code severely restricted her, and led to the end of her Paramount contract.

In 1939, Universal had a hit with another unlikely pairing, Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, in Destry Rides Again. Hoping to repeat that success, the studio approached West about teaming her with Fields, who had also recently left Paramount, in another comic western. Mae, whose freewheeling onscreen style actually concealed rigid standards, hesitated, knowing of Fields' fondness for the bottle. Then there was the question of screenplay. Both stars were used to writing their own scripts. Eventually, those matters were settled to the satisfaction of both stars, though how, exactly, has always been unclear.

West later claimed that she had a clause in her contract that if Fields drank, she could refuse to work until he was sober. She also insisted that she actually write most of the screenplay, although both of them were credited. What is fact is each star wrote a screenplay and submitted it to the studio. Fields, in fact, wrote several versions, including one titled December and Mae. And the studio commissioned another version from Grover Jones, which both stars detested. Later, producer Lester Cowan claimed that he had a hand in the script as well. The most likely scenario is that both stars wrote their own scenes for My Little Chickadee, and their scenes together were cobbled from various versions.

As to battles, both stars were circumspect to the press. There was never any open warfare, though West claimed that Fields was sent home drunk once, tipping his hat to his co-star as he went. And the result? My Little Chickadee was not quite what fans of either star might have hoped, according to the critics, but funny enough and successful enough to satisfy, and containing comic gems from each star individually, if not together.

Producer: Lester Cowan, Jack J. Gross (uncredited)
Director: Edward F. Cline
Screenplay: W.C. Fields, Mae West
Art Direction: Martin Obzina, Jack Otterson
Cinematography: Joseph A. Valentine
Costume Design: Vera West
Film Editing: Edward Curtiss
Original Music: Ben Oakland (song "Willie of the Valley"), Frank Skinner
Principal Cast: Mae West (Flower Belle Lee), W.C. Fields (Cuthbert J. Twillie), Joseph Calleia (Jeff Badger (The Masked Bandit)), Dick Foran (Wayne Carter), Ruth Donnelly (Aunt Lou), Margaret Hamilton (Mrs. Gideon).

By Margarita Landazuri

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