25 August 2001 | Ron Oliver
Alison Skipworth & W. C. Fields In Comedy Caper
Sometimes it takes a crook to catch a crook. Thus enter TILLIE AND GUS Winterbottom, charlatans both, come to the rescue of their niece who's been cheated out of her inheritance by a shyster lawyer.
Alison Skipworth & W. C. Fields are a wonderful team in this little comedy, full of slapstick and verbal wisecracks. Eventually partnered in three films at Paramount - IF I HAD A MILLION (1932); TILLIE AND GUS (1933); SIX OF A KIND (1934); their characters only appeared together for a few seconds at the banquet climax of ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933) - they played off each other beautifully. Theirs is one of the great unsung comedic duos in screen history.
Fields is terrific, as always. His two great scenes - the poker game & the paint mixing debacle - are played with great aplomb. Watching him handily defeat lesser crooks than himself is a real treat, whether it's the three cardsharps or the sour old lawyer. Never deigning to smarten up a chump, he is surprisingly warm with Baby LeRoy, in their first screen encounter. Always fascinating, never dull, W. C. Fields is secure in his place as the American cinema's greatest curmudgeon.
The formidably talented Skipworth (1863-1952), English born & bred, usually played comic, cultured ladies. Seventeen years older than Fields (unlike Tillie Winterbottom, she was not born in 1881), she was 70 the year she made TILLIE AND GUS. With her massive presence and clarion voice, she was an agile match for Fields' well known scene stealing techniques. Easily the most significant of all his movie matrons, it is unfortunate that today she is remembered primarily for her films with Fields, and not for the rest of her splendid work.
Julie Bishop & Phillip Trent do nicely as the young couple. Since they are already wed & with baby when the film commences there are no unnecessary romantic complications for the plot to deal with. Old Clarence Wilson once again does very well as an acid tongued villain. George Barbier is quaintly befuddled as the rival boat captain. And in his one scene as a harassed judge, Edgar Kennedy runs his hilarious slow burn around the block one more time.
The ferry boat race with which the film climaxes - the Fairy Queen versus the Keystone - is well produced, with elements of hilarity & suspense equally mixed into the sequence.
Before TILLIE AND GUS, W. C. Fields had already appeared in five talking full-length films, but always as one of the featured players. With this picture, the Paramount bosses felt he was at last ready to co-star in a movie, although he & Alison Skipworth still receive below the title billing. After a few more films Fields would begin to solo star in a series of comedy classics.