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One of my favorite series at the Toronto International Film Festival is Dialogues: Talking With Pictures, in which directors presenting their own work at the festival take time for a side appearance to introduce and talk about one of their own favorites. Joe Dante—director of such horror/fantasy features as Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984), Innerspace (1987), Matinee (1993), Small Soldiers (1998), and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)—was attending the festival to promote his 3-D film The Hole, and on Tuesday, September 15, he stopped in at the Art Gallery of Ontario to talk about the old W.C. Fields comedy It's a Gift (1934).
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod—whose middling reputation doesn't quite square with his resume of classic comedies (the Marx Brothers' Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, Cary Grant's Topper, Danny Kaye's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Bob Hope's Road to Rio and The Paleface)—It's a Gift stars Fields as a meek small-town grocer beleaguered by his nagging wife, annoying children, judgmental neighbors, and demanding customers. The movie doesn't have much of a plot, but as Dante observed, it's firmly in the tradition of the "small town with a secret" story, like his own Gremlins and numerous David Lynch movies. "It's supposed to be this idyllic middle-class existence, and it's really a living hell."
In the course of the movie Fields inherits a fortune from his uncle, buys an orange grove, and piles his wife and kids into their ramshackle car for a journey out to the promised land of California. But the story isn't much more than a clothesline, on which Fields and McLeod hang a wide assortment of Fields's tried and true vaudeville routines. The centerpiece of the movie is an extended scene in which Fields tries to catch a much-needed nap on the porch swing of his building's back porch, thwarted by everything from a delivery boy's clanking bottles to a coconut bouncing down several flights of stairs to Baby Leroy dropping an icepick down a hole in the floor above his head.
The movie was constantly behind schedule, Dante explained, because Fields, McLeod, and their crew of gag men spent so much time rehearsing and coming up with new material. Some of the movie's funniest lines were improvised in front of the cameras, like the one Fields dishes out after crashing into a statue of the Venus de Milo: "She ran right out in front of the car!" Dante likened the shoot to his own experience with Martin Short on Innerspace, recalling that for every scene Short would beg him for one more take—in Katharine Hepburn's voice, no less—until he'd developed some comic idea that seemed promising. As a director, Dante learned that the best strategy with talented people is simply to get out of the way, though one's diplomatic skills have to kick in if there's another actor in the scene who does his best work in take one.
The pristine print supplied by Universal, and the difficulty of getting 35-millimeter prints of anything made before World War II, led to a discussion of film preservation, and Dante was quick to note that efforts should be made to preserve everything. "You don't really know the worth of a movie until years have past," he said. "Many of the movies that we revere now were regarded as throwaway pictures." A case in point was Ted Kotcheff's 1971 Australian feature Wake in Fright, which Kotcheff will introduce later this week in another installment of the series; the rare print obtained by the festival was only weeks away from being incinerated.
Taking questions from the audience, Dante also discussed his Web site Trailers From Hell, which he launched as a clearinghouse for his own and friends' collections of vintage trailers, and Roger Corman: The Man With the Kaleidoscope Eyes, a script he's been trying to get made for years that centers on the legendary producer's mid-60s collaborations with Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. Dante has already shot numerous interviews with people like John Sayles and Martin Scorsese who got their professional start with Corman, in hopes of integrating the interviews into the movie a la Reds. But the only thing harder than preserving movies, it seems, is getting them made in the first place.