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My Little Chickadee

My Little Chickadee(1940)

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Every old-movie fan should have the chance to be disappointed by My Little Chickadee at least once. Now, it's gotten a little easier. While the 1940 comedy is still not available as a stand-alone DVD, now at least it's in a set (Mae West: The Glamour Collection) that costs about half as much as the other set it's also in (2004's W.C. Fields Comedy Collection). Both are essentially extras-free collections, but Universal has taken to releasing such sets as denser compilations featuring double-sided discs. It would be nice to report Universal is giving the classic movies they own the deluxe treatment Warner Bros. is, but that's not the case. Charging less for their movies-only sets is some progress, though, I suppose.

My Little Chickadee is about the only actual Universal release from the recent West, Carole Lombard and Marlene Dietrich multi-movie collections (the rest are among the many pre-1948 Paramount productions Universal owns). This western comedy just sits there and has certainly never made anyone forget Destry Rides Again, Universal's more energetic 1939 blend of western setting and comedy. Although West and Fields, rare 1930s comedy stars who actually wrote their own movies, share screenwriting credit here, reportedly she wrote most of the script, with him handling just his scenes. And the movie does pretty much break up into "his scenes" and "her scenes" since the plot, perhaps conveniently for everyone's egos, conspires to separate them.

West plays Flower Belle Lee, a typically forward West woman who, in a priceless introduction, we first see being sneered at by Margaret Hamilton, the old Wicked Witch of the West herself, who plays a fellow stagecoach passenger. Hamilton's Puritan isn't the only one eager to thwart Flower Belle. When The Masked Bandit robs the stagecoach of a gold shipment and kidnaps Flower Belle in the process, and Flower Belle soon returns home, unharmed, the town's moralizers cry foul. Flower Belle is kicked out of town for consorting with the criminal, and will be allowed to return only when she becomes "married and respectable."

Enter Fields. His Cuthbert J. Twillie is, conveniently for Flower Belle, on the train to Greasewood City and immediately smitten by the blonde bombshell. Flower Belle sneaks a peek into Twillie's bags, thinks she sees a lot of money, turns on the charm and soon has a card sharp the others mistake for a priest (mild-mannered Donald Meek) marry them before the train pulls into town.

The plot from here is rudimentary at best. Flower Belle gives Twillie the cold shoulder, avoiding him and repelling his every attempt to get intimate after she learns that bundled paper in his bag wasn't money, and the movie does little more than give the stars a chance to separately ply their familiar schtick: Twillie is a transparent blowhard that Badger (Joseph Calleia), the saloon owner who "runs the town," easily sees through and makes ineffectual sheriff of the corrupt town, while Flower Belle balances the advances of bad-boy Badger and idealistic newspaper editor Carter (Dick Foran).

Fields' My Little Chickadee schtick definitely endures better than West's. She uncorks some decent one-liners, but it's a stretch to see this broad-shouldered middle-aged woman as a sex symbol. The action is so chaste in this movie made six years after the tightening of the dreaded Production Code that Flower Belle's sexual prowess feels like it's all bite and no bark (she even places her parasol in front of the camera when she kisses Carter!). Flower Belle just doesn't come off as the wild, fun character everyone treats her as, a problem shared with some other West post-code movies (it's no accident the cast doesn't include any young, attractive actresses). Twillie's derogatory banter with his Indian lackey Milton (George Moran) is hard to take, but Fields figures in the movie's most memorable scenes, when scheming Twillie plays cards a couple of times and when he fills in behind the saloon's bar and has to deal with a rowdy drunk woman (the very funny Fay Adler, a dead ringer for Anne Heche).

Eventually, the matter of The Masked Bandit arises again, but it's hard to care about it and easy to figure out who's behind the mask. Aside from their characters' introductory meeting, Fields and West don't do a whole lot together and director Edward Cline, the one-time Keystone Kop and director of Buster Keaton shorts, guides the movie along with an unremarkable hand. West and Fields reportedly had little use for each other, but they end the movie on an affectionate note, trading imitations of each other and sending the so-so movie out with a bit of needed chemistry. But it's too little, too late as far as making this teaming of comedy giants more than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, My Little Chickadee feels like something cooked up by the marketing department rather than star-writers full of comic ideas for each other.

For more information about My Little Chickadee, visit Universal Home Entertainment. To order My Little Chickadee, part of Mae West: The Glamour Collection, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman