Paramount, 1936. Directed by
A. Edward Sutherland. Camera: William Mellor. With
Richard Cromwell, Granville Bates, Catherine Doucet, Lynne Overman, Maude
Eburne, Bill Wolfe, Adrian Morris, Rosalind Keith, Ralph M. Remley, Wade
Boteler, Tom Herbert, Cyril Ring, Jack Baxley, Harry Wagner, Frank Sully,
Eddie C. Waller, Dell Henderson, Tammany Young, Dewey Robinson, Tom Kennedy,
Nora Cecil, Gertrude Sutton, Grace Goodall, Ada May Moore, Jerry Bergen, Doc
Sone, Malcolm Waite, Dick Rush, Charles McMurphy.
a happy-go-lucky drifter, Professor McGargle, accompanied by his
daughter, arrives in a country town. Quickly the Professor
establishes himself as the prize medicine-selling star of a
traveling carnival. Meanwhile, his daughter Poppy meets and
falls in love with Mayor Farnsworth's son Billy. The charm of
this is balanced by the menace to the Professor of gabby Countess
De-Puizzi, masquerading as heir to the Putnam estates and
fortunes. In connivance with a hick lawyer, Whiffen, the
Professor sets Poppy up as a claimant for the estate, convincing the
Mayor-executor that she is the legitimate heir.
But Poppy encounters romantic troubles
with Billy and some that threaten to be more serious crop up for the
Professor as Whiffen, teaming up with the Countess, introduces a
double-cross. As things look dangerous to both, kindly Sarah
Tucker, who has befriended Poppy, recognizes the resemblance between
the child and the deceased Mrs. Putnam. Forced to make a clean
breast of his history, the Professor tells how he had adopted Poppy
years ago and that he knew all along that she was the rightful
claimant. This dismays Whiffen and the Countess, who is now
revealed as a showgirl. The finale is thus a happy ending for
the Professor, Poppy, and Billy.
What was said about Poppy:
The Listener (Alistair Cooke)
He wanders through small shops and circuses, public bars, children,
sideshows, straw hats and nagging women with a bemused aloofness
that makes him in this life but not of it. He's Racchus
dropped from the clouds and made to work in the corner grocer's.
He has every decent human motive and would almost choose to act out
an honest life, but around him he sees small-timers cheating each
other all the way. That wouldn't distress him either if there
was any style to their tricks. But people are so mean and
clumsy he feels obliged to give them a lesson or two, an
accomplished robbery here, a short bargain there, done with enough
flourish to give the human game some dignity. He'll try any
roguery once, just to feel the thrill of the gestures, just to feel
superior to the morons who suspect him. But he never hopes to
win anything. Except at the end of the film he does. It
has been Fields' great and individual improvement on the Chaplin
pathetic ne'er-do-well that instead of fading away up a lonely road
poor but blithe, he ends by winning decisively for the first time in
It's a Gift he goes through endless squabbling failures to get
across the continent and claim an orange grove that turns out to be
a shambles. But a man comes along and offers him a fortune for
the land as a building site. And the last shot was Fields
leaning back, in a seersucker suit and a neatly pinned tie, fanning
himself in the sun and downing a highball. In Poppy, he
begins promisingly by selling his talking dog and not unnaturally
taking the voice away with him, but then after much intermediate
wrangling with the poor fools ("Who will be the next to outwit me?
This is a game of chance"), he ends by going off with the Mayor's
hat, rather silkier than his own, and a fistful of the Mayor's
cigars. It was cruel that Mr. Bernard Shaw should be asking
for "better voices" and good diction on the screen the week that
Fields came along. For he stands as a convenient symbol of the
war between the stage and screen, between "fine speaking" and
ordinary day-to-day thinking aloud. He plays with two voices-a
smooth, pompous, trained voice and a mumbling, bemused one.
And, not to take sides too openly, I should say he uses the first,
the overripe voice, for all his artifice, all the public occasions
when he's trying to swindle somebody or claim a family tree.
But he's always caught out by the second voice, by his muttered
suspicion that this sort of thing has happened before in the world's
history. He may with a fine flourish of hand and elbow say, "I
have here, gentlemen, a very fine timepiece that cost five hundred
dollars, yes sir, five hundred dollars," and you can hear him saying
under his breath, "you'll never get away with it." Every time
he tries to be an actor, horse sense whispers in his ear.
Every time his first voice tries to deceive other people, his second
is telling him out of the corner of his mouth that he's kidding
nobody but himself. It doesn't matter much if you don't even
catch what the second voice is saying. It's simply nervous
speech with, I'm afraid, Mr. Shaw, definitely bad diction—it's
Everyman's misgivings, second thoughts, delayed humility. In
Poppy, it happens to be the language of W.C. Fields, an
American juggler. Ideally, it's the common language of all
Cockneys, and French taxi-drivers, and Texas cattlemen, and all
simple men permanently impressed by the irony of human dignity.
It's a precious language that belongs more to the movies than to any
other form of deception. For it's the phonetic equivalent of a
sense of fact. And when the screen takes Mr. Shaw's advice and
doctors its voice, it can say goodbye to most of the virtues the
screen can still claim over a theater resonant with a clatter of
consonants and coy scruples. I'll sit through the movies just
as long as the natural voice is accepted
as the standard. The day
Gary Cooper gets busy with his diction, I shall take to a
The Hollywood Reporter
It is artful nonsense from a master of mad-waggery.
Hollywood Daily Variety
Slow and lacking smoothness, Poppy needs straightening out
before it will please many other than out-and-out W.C. Fields fans.
The Literary Digest
Poppy is the motion-picture W.C. Fields almost didn't make. It
is the picture no other clown in Hollywood could have made.
Fields put his trade-mark on the role twenty years ago when he
turned the jumble-shop stage show of the same name into a comedy
triumph. Then he made a silent film version. The present
talking-singing version is all that any Fields addict could ask.
When Paramount first considered the picture last winter, Fields
didn't think he would live to see a camera turn; and he didn't care.
Gravely ill, weak as a cat, the comedian went out to the desert; he
spent weeks there letting the sun bake strength back into him.
When the picture started, he came back to town. Even then he
told friends he'd be lucky to finish it. None of that siege
will be apparent to audiences. The Fields unction, the Fields
serio-comic posturing, run through almost every foot of Poppy.
The plot of the gay, romping insanity is about as mysterious as a
cobblestone and just about as old-fashioned. No one will
resent it for that. It is good antique hokum trussed up for a
Fields vehicle. All that matters is that Professor Eustace McGargle
is back in perfect form.
The Films of W.C. Fields,
by Donald Deschner
The Citadel Press, New York, 1966
Additional photos courtesy of Gary