Today's guest blogger is Eric Grayson,a film historian and preservationist who lives in Indianapolis.
The IMA’s silent film series continues on April 12, with a rare showing of WC Fields’ So’s Your Old Man (1926), followed by its sound remake You’re Telling Me (1934). Although Fields is well remembered for his talking pictures, his silent work is nearly forgotten today. Most of the films are tied up in complex rights issues, none of which got more complicated than So’s Your Old Man.
Based on an award-winning story by Julian Street, the film tells the story of eccentric inventor Sam Bisbee (Fields), who has invented a shatterproof glass and wants to sell the patent in the big city. A series of tragic and comic circumstances keep Bisbee from selling his patent, and, dejected, he boards a train bound for home. Unable to face the shame of failure, he contemplates suicide. Fortune belatedly intervenes and a foreign princess, traveling on the same train, comes to his rescue.
Street sold his story, “Mr. Bisbee’s Princess,” to Paramount only for a specified number of years. After that time, the rights reverted to him or his estate. When So’s Your Old Man was remade in 1934 as You’re Telling Me, the rights were still in effect. However, when it came for a television sale in the 1950s, the rights had reverted to Street, and You’re Telling Me could not be screened.
By the 1970s, Universal had purchased the 1934 version, but Paramount retained the 1926 film. Universal and the owners of the story came together and made You’re Telling Me available for the first time since the 1930s. Paramount, seeing no market in their obscure silent, let the film collect dust on a shelf.
The material in the short story was a little thin to support an entire feature. Fields solved the problem by throwing in his sketch “An Episode on the Links.” Although it dated back to the 1918 Ziegfeld Follies, Fields loved the sketch, and worked it in before the climactic scene. In So’s Your Old Man, the caddy is played by Fields’ long-time assistant Shorty Blanche, who had moved on to other things by the time the remake was made. The sketch is normally heavy on verbal gags, so the silent version will amaze some long-time fans. It works well enough, but the 1934 reshooting (with Tammany Young as the caddy) benefits hugely from dialogue.
Besides Young, the casts of the two films are vastly different. The romantic lead in So’s Your Old Man is Buddy Rogers (third husband of Sparrows star Mary Pickford), and Alice Joyce was the princess. In the talkie remake, Buster Crabbe has replaced Buddy Rogers and the princess is played by lovely Adrienne Ames.
Both films are fairly short (a bit over 60 minutes each), and it will be a fascinating exploration of how Fields’ character changed from silent to sound, and how filmmaking in general was a little different in 1926 than it was in 1934. The 1934 version is very studio-bound, due to the needs of sound film production, but the 1926 version uses real locations whenever possible. Paramount had moved most of its production to Los Angeles by 1934, but So’s Your Old Man was shot in New York’s Astoria Studios.
Because the rights for So’s Your Old Man have still not been fully resolved, the film cannot be released on video. Theatrical screenings are still few and far between. April 12’s showing will be a rare opportunity to see the film as it was meant to be seen… with an audience and a live piano score. Don’t miss it!