Running Wild (1927):

W.C. Fields, still slender and mustached but already trapped in domestic purgatory. Morning comes and he listens to a muscleman's radio broadcast, mimicking the weightlifter's flexing in the bedroom; family life is brutal, his second wife (Marie Shotwell) browbeats him and his blobby, little-prince stepson (Barnett Raskin) sics the pooch on him, all before breakfast. "You could be such a big man, if only you'd try," his sweet daughter (Mary Brian) tells him, though Fields is a shy castrato, always courting bad luck -- a lit cig inevitably lands on firecrackers, a tossed horseshoe shatters a window, even the toy horsey at the clerk's office nods at him mockingly. From pussycat to lion: stumbling onto a hypnotist's show, he has his oppressed fury pulled out of him when made to imagine himself as a pugnaciously leonine meat-eater and, fitted with boxing gloves, set loose into the world. Field's first half is an atrophied slog, followed by a pixilated jig, a trail of wrecked cars left behind him as he rushes to implode the household, crashing his mortified yenta's ladies meeting and belting Junior hard enough to rattle the roof; Brian can barely stifle a grin. The family structure lays out a template for the later comedies of Gregory La Cava, who keeps the jokes sprouting at mid-distance, all the better to integrate Fields into the frame before accelerating the tempo for the worm's turning. Man-of-the-House status is restored, yet La Cava's canniest gag is planted stealthily to be reaped subversively -- society as pugilistic ring, with aggression as the driving motor, trances as temporary escape hatches, and Fields' portrait replacing Napoleon's on the wall. With Claude Buchanan, Frederick Burton, and Frank Evans. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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