MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE is a masterpiece of construction and a comic study in frustration that must rank among the very finest of W.C. Fields' screen vehicles, produced at the height of his creative powers at Paramount in 1935. Fields plays Ambrose Wolfinger, a henpecked family man whose only desire is to take the afternoon off work (for the first time in 25 years) to attend a wrestling match for which he's scrimped and saved to buy a front row ticket. What begins as a white lie to get out of the office for the afternoon quickly snowballs into total chaos, bringing Ambrose's world crashing down around him. Aside from possibly IT'S A GIFT, this is Fields' most minimal comedy in terms of plot. The simple set-up -- based on a story by Fields and his good friend Sam Hardy -- provides an endless parade of indignities, frustrations, setbacks and humiliations, which make the well-fulfillment ending -- when the worm finally turns and Fields' antagonists get their comeuppance -- all the more satisfying.
It is perhaps only less successful than IT'S A GIFT in its use of larger-scale gags, such as Fields chasing a tire down the street and across a train trestle (a sequenced either aided or marred, depending on your perspective, by patently phony back projection), which lack the poetic simplicity of the sleeping porch sequence or the shaving scene in the earlier film. The best moments are the smallest: Fields wracking up four parking tickets in quick succession, his interaction with his hostile family at the breakfast table, and his seemingly endless preparation for bedtime. But Fields and director Clyde Bruckman so expertly escalate the events into a comic crescendo that they take on a kind of epic quality. The deliberate pacing allows the frustration produced by the situations to simmer below the surface, brewing uneasily like the calm before a storm.
Fields is also greatly supported by a fine ensemble cast that deserves special mention: Kathleen Howard as his shrewish wife, Mary Brian as his sympathetic daughter, Vera Lewis as his harridan of a mother-in-law, and Grady Sutton as his lazy, oafish brother-in-law, all of whom contribute immeasurably to the film with their fine performances. One can see, too, the affection Fields clearly had even for writing minor characters and giving expert character actors the opportunity to flesh them out and turn them into memorable roles in their own right, such as Oscar Apfel as the blustering boss, Lucien Littlefield as the toadying manager, Lew Kelly as the weary beat cop, and Walter Brennan and Tammany Young as a couple of bumbling burglars. There was no such thing as a small part in a W.C. Fields comedy.
MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE was a remake of Fields' earlier silent comedy, RUNNING WILD (1927), and a comparison between the two films reveals the developments he had made with his screen character in the intervening decade. His Elmer Finch in the earlier film lacks the depth of Ambrose Wolfinger, and Elmer's transformation from lamb to lion is brought about artificially through hypnosis, whereas Ambrose finds the courage to assert himself due to the onslaught of indignities he has suffered over the course of the film. As a result, Elmer's ferocious turn of character, in which he is hypnotized to believe he is a lion, feels forced because it is so out of proportion to what has come before, and also has the effect of making his character unsympathetic. Significantly, Ambrose's climactic outburst of anger only occurs when his daughter's well-being is threatened, rather than his own, revealing a paternal, protective instinct that enhances the humanity of his character as well as justifying his outrage.
Along with IT'S A GIFT and THE BANK DICK, MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE stands as one of the greatest of all W.C. Fields' comedies.