Universal Pictures
Edward Cline
Lester Cowan
Mae West and W C Fields
9 February 1940
83 minutes
Mae West, W C Fields, Joseph Calleila, Dick Foran, Margaret Hamilton
In this classic comedy western Mae plays Flower Belle Lee, a wanton woman who is run out of town for her association with a masked bandit and warned not to return until she is respectable and married. W C Fields plays Cuthbert J Twillie, a confidence trickster whom Flower Belle dupes into a fake marriage thereby providing her required passport to respectability.
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When Mae made My Little Chickadee for Universal she was not in the strongest possible position to dictate her terms. She had recently been released from her contract with Emanuel Cohen following the lack of return on Every Day’s a Holiday and the debacle over her Adam and Eve radio sketch.
Despite this background, she still managed to secure some pretty amazing contractual terms. These included top billing and story approval and the right to alter dialogue. But the really eyebrow raising clause was to do with her co-star, the irascible Bill Fields. Mae had never liked alcohol and Bill loved the stuff. Her contract specified that there was to be no drinking by him on the set and if he even smelled of drink he was to be removed! The clause was invoked only once
Despite this inauspicious beginning it would appear that the two actually got along fine and Mae did a lot to ensure that Bill got his fair share of the film. This included agreeing to the change of title from “The Lady and the Bandit”, the working title of Mae’s screenplay, to his catchphrase, “My Little Chickadee”. This was a kind gesture since the change immediately associated Fields inextricably with the picture. Mae wrote the bulk of the film but was careful to craft it in a way that promoted Fields’ screen persona to ensure its success in the eyes of both sets of fans.
Just as Mae would have done, Fields tweaked the dialogue written for him by Mae and wrote a couple of complete scenes for himself, so putting his mark on the film. To even up the screen time Mae wrote for herself a set piece scene in which Flower Belle takes a school class. The scene has nothing to do with the plot but nevertheless is hugely funny. Mae is at her best and the scene is one of the film’s highlights.
Mae is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, including the delightfully evil Margaret Hamilton as the town battleaxe determined to tame the wilful Flower Belle. Mae gets to sing only one song in My Little Chickadee. Luckily it is a good one, “Willie of the Valley”, for which she is gowned exquisitely by Vera West (no relation). Unfortunately, given that Mae is in fine figure, Vera’s other designs for her are heavy efforts that fail to make the most of her considerable assets!
The film has become a classic, starring as it does two of the screen’s great comic geniuses. It has a wonderful final scene where the two stars swap catch-phrases as they part company. Imitating Mae’s languid drawl, Fields invites Flower Belle, if she’s ever up around the Grampian Hills, to “Come up and see me sometime” and Mae, imitating Fields’ rasping delivery, replies “I’ll do that, my little Chickadee”. At this point Flower Belle takes her exit.
The final shot raises a huge laugh as the “The End” sign follows her undulating posterior up the staircase.
That’s what we call a big finish!