Release Date(s)1934 (November 9, 2021)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B-
The Old Fashioned Way isn’t always considered to be in the same league with other W.C. Fields classics like The Bank Dick or It’s a Gift, but it’s an interesting film for a variety of reasons. Directed by the underrated William Beaudine, it’s not as breezily paced as those two films, and it bogs down a little during the musical numbers. Yet it’s filled with classic bits, even if they don’t always flow together smoothly. In that sense, The Old Fashioned Way is to The Bank Dick as A Night at the Opera was to Duck Soup for The Marx Brothers. The story is also more involved, and there’s even a bit of pathos at the end.
The screenplay for The Old Fashioned Way was written by Garnett Weston and Jack Cunningham (along with a host of uncredited contributors), based on a story by Fields under his pseudonym Charles Bogle. Fields plays “The Great McGonicle,” the conniving leader of a second-rate traveling theatrical show. Accompanied by his faithful assistant (Fields regular Tammany Young), his daughter (Judith Allen), and her persistent suitor (Joe Morrison), the troupe ends up stopping at a small town while staying barely one step ahead of the law and their creditors. There, they stage a performance of the temperance play The Drunkard while McGonicle reluctantly woos a wealthy widow (Jan Duggan) and battles her precocious infant son (Baby LeRoy). The play is an unexpected success, but McGonicle’s past keeps threatening to catch up with him, and he’s forced to make a difficult decision in the end.
The performance of The Drunkard takes up a considerable amount of the running time for The Old Fashioned Way, and it’s played relatively straight. It had actually been one of the most popular plays in the United States during the 19th century, and Beaudine took pains to show the appropriately appreciative reactions of the audience. Because of that, The Old Fashioned Way sometimes feels like a historical document as much as it does a comedy. Yet it still documents Fields’ gift for physical comedy to a greater extent than any of his other films (and Baby LeRoy wasn’t half bad, either). Fields has always remained one of the only actors who could gleefully kick a small child on screen and get away with it, but the real highlight of the film is a rare cinematic look at his juggling skills. That had been a major part of his vaudeville act, but it’s usually only glimpsed indirectly in his films. Fortunately for posterity, the story in The Old Fashioned Way gave him the opportunity to perform his old act at length, and it’s a sheer delight.
Still, one of the most interesting aspects of The Old Fashioned Way is the ending. Fields tended to play characters who were either hapless victims of circumstance, or else the agents of their own destruction. Yet despite the devious nature of The Great McGonicle, he ultimately displays true nobility by willingly sacrificing himself for the happiness of others. It’s an ending that would have felt at home in a Charlie Chaplin film, yet it works well here, and Fields plays the moment perfectly. It’s a satisfying and oddly touching conclusion for one of The Great Man’s films.
Cinematographer Benjamin Reynolds shot The Old Fashioned Way on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.37:1 for its theatrical release. Kino Lorber describes their Blu-ray release as coming “from a 2017 4K scan,” and while there’s no information regarding what elements were used, it’s an improvement over what was used for the 4K scan of It’s a Gift. Some shots are softer than others, like during the opening train ride, so it’s likely that a variety of sources were used. There are occasional scratches, but they’re far less persistent than on It’s a Gift. There’s minor instability throughout, which isn’t very distracting for most of the film, though it gets worse during one shot at the 65:15 mark, with shimmering and aliasing visible on the plaid pants worn by Fields. (The opening credits appear unstable, but that’s the result of the fact that they were filmed “live” by panning the camera from title to title, not due to any issues with the elements.) Otherwise, the grayscale, contrast, and black levels are all fine.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. It’s a relatively clean track for the era, with clear dialogue.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by James L. Neibaur
- Theatrical Trailer (SD – 2:37)
- You Can't Cheat an Honest Man Trailer (HD – 1:37)
- My Little Chickadee Trailer (SD – 1:36)
- The Bank Dick Trailer (SD – 1:54)
James L. Neibaur is the author of The W.C. Fields Films, an analysis of all of the films that Fields ever made (including those that have been lost). He also wrote Directed by William Beaudine: An Overview, which was an attempt to reclaim the legacy of this unfairly maligned director. Needless to say, Neibaur was a natural choice to provide a commentary track for The Old Fashioned Way. He offers plenty of details about the cast and crew, especially Tammany Young, and he also spends time defending Beaudine’s skills as a director. Neibaur points out that the work-for-hire films that Beaudine made late in his career, such as Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, unfairly overshadowed his fine efforts on his earlier films. For instance, it was Beaudine who was responsible for making the pathos work in the finale of The Old Fashioned Way by carefully controlling the performance that Fields gave. Neibaur also gives plenty of historical information, such as background on the play The Drunkard, as well as production details, such as how the shots of Baby Leroy smiling after being kicked were added by the studio over the objections of Fields and Beaudine.
The Old Fashioned Way might not be the best starting point for people who aren’t familiar with the films of W.C. Fields, but it’s absolutely essential viewing for fans. It may be a bit uneven, but there’s plenty here to appreciate.
- Stephen Bjork