Man on the Flying Trapeze

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Man on the Flying Trapeze
Man on the Flying Trapeze.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byClyde Bruckman
W. C. Fields (uncredited)[1]
Sam Hardy (uncredited)[1]
Written byW. C. Fields (story, as "Charles Bogle")
Sam Hardy (story)
Ray Harris
Jack Cunningham (uncredited)
John Sinclair (uncredited)
Bobby Vernon (uncredited)
Produced byWilliam LeBaron
StarringW. C. Fields
Mary Brian
Kathleen Howard
CinematographyAlfred Gilks
Edited byRichard C. Currier
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • August 3, 1935 (1935-08-03)
Running time
65 minutes
CountryUnited States

Man on the Flying Trapeze (UK title: The Memory Expert)[2] is a 1935 comedy film starring W. C. Fields as a henpecked husband who experiences a series of misadventures while taking a day off from work to attend a wrestling match. As with his other roles of this nature, Fields is put-upon throughout the film, but triumphs in the end.


Ambrose Wolfinger works as a "memory expert" for a manufacturing company's president. He keeps track of details about the clients President Malloy (Oscar Apfel) meets with, so that Malloy will never be embarrassed about not remembering things when meeting with them. But Ambrose doesn't keep files; all the documents are a huge mess of paper piled on his desk. Ambrose supports himself, his shrewish wife Leona (Kathleen Howard), his loving daughter Hope (from a previous marriage; played by Mary Brian), his freeloading brother-in-law Claude (Grady Sutton), and his abusive, sternly teetotal mother-in-law Cordelia (Vera Lewis).

At the start of the film, two burglars, played by Tammany Young and Walter Brennan, break into Ambrose's cellar after midnight, get drunk on his homemade applejack, and start singing "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away". Ambrose is forced to handle the situation, and he winds up being arrested for distilling liquor without a license. While on the way to the night court Ambrose talks about the big wrestling match scheduled for that day, for which he has a front-row ticket.

After Hope pays his bail, Ambrose returns home in time to have breakfast before reporting for work. He asks Malloy for the afternoon off, falsely claiming that Cordelia has died and her funeral is that day. He begins explaining that she was taken with a "chill" and that he poured her a drink. His story is interrupted by Malloy, who misconstrues it as a case of death from poisoned liquor, and Ambrose is too timid to contradict him. Malloy lets him go for the day. Ambrose's supervisor, Mr. Peabody (Lucien Littlefield), tells his department the tragic news so they can send condolences, and also notifies the newspaper.

Ambrose has a series of misfortunes on his way to the wrestling match: He has encounters with ticket-writing policemen,[3] he has a flat tire, and he is nearly hit by a train while chasing a runaway tire. Finally, while trying to get into the wrestling arena (Claude had stolen his ticket earlier), he gets knocked down by a wrestler who is thrown out of the building by his opponent. As spectators exit the arena, Claude sees Ambrose sprawled on the sidewalk and sees Ambrose's secretary, who had attended the wrestling match separately, bent over him expressing concern over his injury.

Meanwhile, a huge number of flowers, sympathy cards, and funeral wreaths are delivered to the Wolfinger home. This puzzles Cordelia and Leona, and when they see Cordelia's obituary in the newspaper—under the headline "Aged Woman Victim of Poisoned Alcohol"—they are furious, and quickly fix the blame on Ambrose. Ambrose returns home to a harsh reception. He confesses to deceiving his boss, but when Claude announces that he saw Ambrose and the secretary "drunk in the gutter", Ambrose, who has been meek through the entire film, finally has had enough. He knocks Claude unconscious, and frightens his wife and mother-in-law into hiding. He and his daughter leave the house to go live elsewhere.

Peabody has fired Ambrose, but Malloy demands that Peabody rehire him because no one else can figure out Wolfinger's filing system. Hope answers the telephone call from Peabody, and says (falsely) that Ambrose has a better offer from another company. After some bargaining, Ambrose is rehired with a huge raise in pay and four weeks' vacation. Meanwhile, Leona realizes that she still loves Ambrose, scolds Claude for his laziness, and stands up to her disagreeable mother.

The film ends with Ambrose taking the family for a ride in his new car. Hope and Leona ride inside the car with him, while Claude and Cordelia ride in the open rumble seat during a heavy rain.



Writing for The Spectator, Graham Greene characterized the film as "a slow worthy comedy".[5] The movie's reputation has grown over time. Waxing more enthusiastic than Greene, film critic Danny Peary declared in 1993 that this was nothing less than Fields's best performance. "In contrast to his other roles," Peary wrote, "Fields isn't cantankerous, doesn't bully any imbecilic assistants, swindle anyone, or do a whole lot of bragging... But don't worry, as his nicest guy, Fields is still in peak form." Noting that Ambrose Wolfinger is still "a rebel and nonconformist" despite his kindness, Peary adds, "It's a pleasure to watch Fields stumble through life and emerge, impossibly, unscathed." Peary concludes by awarding Fields his "alternate" 1935 Academy Award for Best Actor: "For playing a marvelous character no other comic could conceive, and making us laugh nonstop for 65 minutes, Fields deserves the Oscar."[6]


  1. ^ Carlotta Monti had been Fields' girlfriend/companion since 1932. The credits do not assign a name to her, but on-screen Fields called her "Carlotta" in an early scene.


  1. ^ a b Simon Louvish (1999), Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W.C. Fields, Faber & Faber, p. 508.
  2. ^ The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) - "AKA section" at IMDb
  3. ^ This sequence was probably devised by co-director Clyde Bruckman, who had intended it for use in one of Fields' 1932 comedies for Mack Sennett, but after Fields left Sennett Bruckman gave the gag to Lloyd Hamilton in Too Many Highballs (1933). Bruckman and Fields then used it in Man on the Flying Trapeze, and then Bruckman used it again with Buster Keaton in Nothing But Pleasure (1940) and also an episode of The Abbott and Costello Show called Car Trouble (1954).
  4. ^ Deschner, Donald (1966). The Films of W.C. Fields. New York: Cadillac Publishing by arrangement with The Citadel Press. p. 117. Introduction by Arthur Knight
  5. ^ Greene, Graham (9 August 1935). "The Trunk Mystery/Hands of Orlac/Look Up and Laugh/The Memory Expert". The Spectator. (reprinted in: Taylor, John Russell, ed. (1980). The Pleasure Dome. p. 12. ISBN 0192812866.)
  6. ^ Peary, Danny, Alternate Oscars: One Critic's Defiant Choice for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress - From 1927 to the Present (New York: Delta, 1993), 34-35.

External links[edit]