My Little Chickadee (1940)

Directed by Edward F. Cline
Written by Mae West & W.C. Fields

Whenever crafting a list of films for a marathon, especially one themed such as this Poker Marathon, there are a number of elements to consider when selecting a movie to make the list or not. The biggest objective of putting this list together was to get movies that depict poker in some detailed and important, vital way throughout the film. A secondary objective is always to make interesting, historical picks when more detail is not known. I bring up this topic of film selection because, being completely up front with you, My Little Chickadee does not feature a single hand of poker, instead only incidentally featuring the game in passing, and only in the manner that the character learns how to cheat at the game for personal gain. But what My Little Chickadee does have to offer me and any other viewer is the ability to discover and perhaps learn about the screen legends that are Mae West and W.C. Fields, two smaller titans of the silver screen that I’ve not had the pleasure to see before. So in that way, My Little Chickadee, while a disappointment in terms of the poker, is a great opportunity to expand my cinematic experience.

Flower Belle (Mae West) is a sultry singer, entertaining the masses in the Old West. But when her coach is held up by the notorious Masked Bandit, she begins an elicit love affair with the outlaw, which leads to her being kicked out of her hometown thanks to the tattling of the pesky Mrs. Gideon (Margaret Hamilton). While on the train to the next town down the line, Flower Belle runs into bumbling con-man Cuthbert Twillie (W.C. Fields), with whom she falls in with in Greasewood City after being wed on the train. The pair go head-to-head with town boss and local saloon owner Jeff Badger (Joseph Calleia), who like other townspeople like newspaper man Wayne Carter (Dick Foran) hopes to win the heart of Flower Belle. Meanwhile, Twillie is made sheriff by Badger in hopes of his incompetency being easy enough to overcome in his crimes. But who is the Masked Bandit? Will he make his return for Flower Belle? Will he be caught?

The first thing that immediately stands out with this film is the performers, who are undeniably and instantly recognizable. Having never seen a Mae West or W.C. Fields film, I can at once see their influence in everything that followed them, as their acting style was very familiar. Mae West is utterly enjoyable in the role as Flower Belle, with a very distinct cadence and performance style that recalls a spoof, as her style I’m sure has been replicated many times for laughs. The unique part of her performance, however, is that it is played for laughs as well, and her charm is magnetic. Fields also gives a strong performance as a bumbling idiot type, a physical comedian like many before him, but he is dedicated to this character and performance, making a strong argument for this pair as a dynamite duo. The two are mostly separate in what they are doing, and even rarely appear on screen together. Yet when you combine the ingredients of both, you get a duo that’s hard to take your eyes away from.

The bummer is that the story surrounding them isn’t very strong. The Masked Bandit disappears for far too long to be an intriguing element of the story, which makes it more of a domestic comedy which uses cheap scenarios for laughs, leaning far too heavily on the performance and charm of its two main stars. All of the other side characters are completely forgetting, which is unfortunate since Badger should be playing a very central role. The exception would be Margaret Hamilton, who should be recognizable to any fan of The Wizard of Oz. But ultimately, the film is a series of set pieces done for laughs, and fails to work as a narrative. The character motivations appear extremely thin, and I don’t fully buy into them. What is Twillie really trying to do? Why would Flower settle to marry him just to become “respectable” and able to return to town? Why did the townsfolk not press Flower for more details on who the Masked Bandit would be? After a promising setup in the first act, the rest of the film really seems to drag without much to keep attention.

Obviously for the purposes of this marathon, the most disappointing part of the film is that there was NO POKER. I guess there was some, but it was glossed over and didn’t play a role in the film at all. So that is somewhat on me for adding it to the list (my excuse is how do I know for sure having never seen the film!?). And even more disappointing, the only little bit of poker that is shown only indicates that Twillie is a cheat, which has become a very common theme for depicting poker early on in this marathon. Nobody seems to be able to play the game straight and see any beauty in the strategy of the game. But on the other side of the coin, I’m still pleased to have had the chance to see a Mae West and W.C. Fields performance, which was both entertaining and educational, even if the finished product was a bummer on the whole. There are plenty of good ideas available here, but Edward F. Cline and team failed to meld them together into an interesting, logical, and entertaining film start to finish.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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