Man on the Flying Trapeze

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Man on the Flying Trapeze
Man on the Flying Trapeze.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Clyde Bruckman
W. C. Fields (uncredited)
Produced by William LeBaron
Written by W. C. Fields (story, as "Charles Bogle")
Sam Hardy (story)
Ray Harris
Jack Cunningham (uncredited)
John Sinclair (uncredited)
Bobby Vernon (uncredited)
Starring W. C. Fields
Mary Brian
Kathleen Howard
Cinematography Alfred Gilks
Edited by Richard C. Currier
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date
  • August 3, 1935 (1935-08-03)
Running time
65 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Man on the Flying Trapeze (also released as The Memory Expert) is a 1935 comedy film starring W. C. Fields as a henpecked husband. 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 files of details about all the people President Malloy (Oscar Apfel) meets with, so that Malloy will never be embarrassed about not remembering things when meeting with them. 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 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 late at night, 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. This is done on the order of the night court judge hearing the case. He forgets about dealing with the burglars. While on the way to the night court Ambrose talks about the wrestling match scheduled for that day and demonstrates an "unbreakable" hold on the neighborhood watch policeman who arrested the burglars. The policeman throws him into the street. When he asks Ambrose if he hurt him, Ambrose asks him how someone could be hurt by being dropped on his head.

The next day, Ambrose falsely tells Malloy that Cordelia had died from drinking poisoned liquor, and asks for the afternoon off to attend the funeral; in fact, he wants to go to see the big wrestling match. Malloy, touched by Ambrose's tale, lets him go for the day, and Ambrose's immediate supervisor, Mr. Peabody (Lucien Littlefield), tells all the other employees the tragic news so they can pay their respects to the family. In fact, Ambrose does not explicitly say that his mother-in-law died from poisoned liquor. Rather, when his employer asks him how she died, he begins to improvise a story. He says she was taken with a "chill" and that he poured her a drink. Then Malloy interrupts him and, assuming it was the liquor that killed her, says excitedly that he has read in the paper recently of many instances of people dying from poisoned liquor. Ambrose is too timid to contradict him.

Throughout that day, Ambrose has one problem after another: He has encounters with ticket-writing policemen and cars that are parked too close to his; he finds himself chasing a tire along railroad tracks and narrowly avoids getting hit by an electric interurban car; and 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.

Later that day, Ambrose comes home to find that Cordelia and Leona are furious about seeing Cordelia's obituary in the newspaper and receiving a huge amount of flowers, sympathy cards, and funeral wreaths. Claude sees Ambrose sprawled on the sidewalk after he is knocked over by a wrestler. Ambrose's secretary, who had been in the wrestling match audience (she said her mother is a friend of the contender, a Turk named Hookalaka Meshobbab) is bent over him expressing her concern over his injury. When Claude returns home ahead of Ambrose, he falsely tell his mother and his sister that he saw Ambrose and the secretary "drunk in the gutter". Furthermore, Peabody calls to say that Ambrose is fired because of his deception. Ambrose, who has been meek and mild through the entire film, finally has had enough, and in a rare moment of overt violence for Fields' characters, knocks Claude unconscious, and frightens his wife and mother-in-law into hiding. The angry Ambrose wants to beat them also ("I'll knock 'em for a row of lib-labs"), but soon he and his daughter leave the house to go live elsewhere.

Later, Malloy demands that Peabody rehire Ambrose because no one else can figure out Wolfinger's filing system; Hope answers the telephone, 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 rumble seat during a heavy rain.



Writing for The Spectator, Graham Greene characterized the film as "a slow worthy comedy".[2] 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' best performance. "In contrast to his other roles," Peary wrote, "Fields isn't cantankerous, doesn't bully any inbecilic 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." [3]


  1. ^ 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. ^ 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
  2. ^ Greene, Graham (9 August 1935). "The Trunk Mystery/Hands of Orlac/Look Up and Laugh/The Memory Expert". The Spectator.  (reprinted in: John Russel, Taylor, ed. (1980). The Pleasure Dome. p. 12. ISBN 0192812866. )
  3. ^ 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.

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