If you love W.C Fields, Louise Brooks, silent comedy, or time-traveling via a beautiful vintage movie, you’ve got to get the wonderful new Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of It’s The Old Army Game (1926). In only his sixth onscreen role, Fields plays a long-suffering pharmacist, similar to his embattled grocer character portrayed in It’s A Gift (1934), whom both endure nagging relatives and scores of thoughtless customers. Although there is no Carl La Fong, both films feature scenes of Fields attempting to sleep on a back porch, and disastrous family picnics errantly staged on the grounds of a private estate (here in Florida at El Mirasol in Palm Beach). Director Eddie Sutherland, who would marry Louise (briefly) shortly after the film’s premiere, points a loving camera her way, capturing dozens of shimmering close-ups in what proved to be her earliest surviving starring role.
Much of the film takes place beside the 1926 all-American town square centered in Ocala, Florida, where several buildings remain standing today. It was fun “decoding” a silent-era locale in another state, and having identified so many scenes, I’ll be presenting Ocala in three posts. The Point of View (POV) map below orients the camera angles for the opening scenes. [Bonus: Noted Louise Brooks author and expert Thomas Gladysz contributed to this post, and will take the lead role commenting in the next post about this special film.]
The movie begins with eccentric actress Elise Cavanna speeding into town in front of a locomotive, her first screen appearance. Gladysz writes that Cavanna started as a dancer and stage comedian before entering films in 1926, appearing in another Brooks’ film, Love Em and Leave Em (1926), as well as four other films with Fields, most notably The Dentist (1932), where her scenes as a writhing patient in a dentist chair were deemed so risqué they were edited out of later television broadcasts.
Looking SW, Elise turns right (east) from Magnolia onto Broadway. On the corner at back stands the First National Bank of Ocala building, built in 1886.
Eager to make a purchase, Elise races right to left along Broadway from Magnolia towards Fields’ corner drug store on Main (now 1st) – the corner store appears at the left edge of both vintage photos looking SW. The corner Holder’s Block building was built in 1885.
Elise arrives at the corner of Main (now 1st) and Broadway, once home to W.C. Field’s drug store, and now the popular Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grille. Frantically she rings the night bell, waking Fields from his sleep.
These views all look to the NW – as Elise strides to the corner drug store, the former Marion County Court House in the central town square appears at back. What is she so desperate to purchase so late at night? A two cent stamp – that she doesn’t even pay for. [Update: Florida historian Lisa Bradberry writes that the actual drug store used was named, appropriately, the Court Pharmacy. Here are Lisa’s two articles from 2005 about the filming W. C. Fields filming in Florida – 2005 articles by Lisa Bradberry.]
Three more views of the court house looking to the NW – here, later in the film, love interest William Gaxton is excited to spot Louise through the corner drug store window. The band stand visible in the post card was relocated between 1924 and 1930 (it appears on the 1924 Sanborn fire insurance map, but not on the 1930 map). Given the camera angles it may not have been present during the 1926 filming either. The restored bandstand now sits in the center of city square (left).
Elise seeks to post her letter, but misses the outbound mail train. This was filmed at the Atlantic Coast Line Railway passenger station that stood north-south a block east of the city square, on Osceola Avenue, still fitted with a rail line today. Notice the long awning, high on the side facing the trains and sloping low at back.
Two more scenes looking north up Osceola Avenue past the train station, when William Gaxton arrives in town, left, and when Fields returns from New York, right. The home at the right appears on the Sanborn maps.
Elise fails to post her letter on the outbound train, her distraught reaction likely filmed looking SE from the station. Compare the window and tree details of Elise with this shot of Louise looking east towards city hall, and the red and yellow POV arrows on the map. Assuming the views match, then each provides a rare glimpse of the former Ocala city hall, for which I have found no historic photos.
Infuriated that Fields somehow delayed her letter, Elise seeks revenge by pulling the fire alarm in front of Fields’ shop. You can see the same men’s hat display (center) in the wide view of the shop (yellow box).
As shown on the map above, the clanging fire bell stood just a block east of Fields’ store.
This view looks north up Osceola towards the fire station standing a block due east of Fields’ store. You can see train tracks in the movie frame running up the street.
The fire engines arrive at the corner of Main (now 1st) and Broadway. The 1910s post card looks south down Main, and reveals the corner store once had a shed roof canopy similar to its neighbors.
Of course there is no fire, so to get rid of the pesky firemen seeking free ice cream sodas in the middle of the night, Fields sneaks out and pulls the fire alarm in front of the store due east of his store (blue POV arrow on map). Behind Fields, looking east to the far left, is a sidewalk scale that Louise Brooks saunters by later in the film, looking west back towards where Fields is standing.
Update: this shot of the fire crew responding to Fields’ false alarm was filmed looking east down Fort King towards the Fort King Apartments at the SW corner of Tuscawilla, built some time between the 1924 and 1930 editions of the Sanborn fire insurance maps.
With the firemen gone, Fields attempts to resume sleeping, this time on the back porch. The back porch from It’s A Gift was apparently a set built on the studio lot, while I sense this home could have been “real.” [Update: Florida historian Lisa Bradberry writes that the three-story back porch set was constructed at the rear of the Hi-Way Hotel. Here are Lisa’s two articles from 2005 about the filming W. C. Fields filming in Florida – 2005 articles by Lisa Bradberry.]
The next morning, back at the train station a block east of the square, love interest William Gaxton arrives in town. He first glances Louise inside the station, and is immediately smitten. Behind him, as shown better below, is the original Ocala library.
This shot within the Ocala station shows the west end of the Ocala library across the street – the west end facing to the right in this post card.
Flirtatious, Louise glances back at William before fleeing the station, with William scrambling after her. In the next post we’ll see how Louise and William follow each other around town, all shot on just a few blocks adjacent to the town square. A third post will track Fields’ efforts to outrun a welcoming mob he thinks intends to do him harm following his return home from New York.
So stay tuned for future posts about filming in Ocala, and check out my prior posts showing the disastrous family picnic sequence filmed in Palm Beach at El Mirasol, the estate of Edward T. Stotesbury, above
and the numerous vintage magazines appearing onscreen with Louise Brooks during the production.
Thomas Gladysz is the author of the forthcoming Louise Brooks, the Persistent Star, as well as three earlier books on Brooks’ films. He is currently at work on The Films of Louise Brooks, a comprehensive study of the actress’ movie career. Here is a link to the Louise Brooks Society webpage on It’s the Old Army Game.
Read all about Louise at Thomas Gladysz’ Louise Brooks Society Blogspot.
Also a shout-out to Ben Model for performing the musical score – Ben’s Undercrank Productions has released numerous rare silent film titles on DVD, and to author James L. Neibaur for the audio commentary.
Below, W.C. Field’s drug store, now home to Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grille.