This next post about the wonderful new Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of It’s The Old Army Game is authored mostly by noted Louise Brooks author and expert Thomas Gladysz, with (my comments) limited to the Ocala Florida historic settings appearing in the film. Take it away Thomas! + + +
Released by Famous Players-Lasky in May of 1926, It’s the Old Army Game is a comedy about a befuddled, small town druggist, played by W.C. Fields, who gets involved with a real estate scam. Louise Brooks, on the verge of stardom, plays the druggist’s assistant.
Clarence Badger was originally assigned to direct, but the film was soon turned over to Edward Sutherland, a onetime actor and Keystone Cop who began his directing career just a few years before with the help of Charlie Chaplin. The film was announced, at first, as starring Fields and future “It girl” Clara Bow, but as she was needed on the West Coast to shoot Mantrap (1926), the female lead fell to Brooks. Just nineteen-years old, the film was Brooks’ fourth; it reunited her with the 47 year old Fields, who was starring in his first Paramount film under a new contract. By all accounts, Fields and Brooks were fond of one another, having worked together the year before in the Ziegfeld Follies. In Lulu in Hollywood, Brooks mentions that the two would sometimes hang out together in Fields’ dressing room, and sometimes shared a drink.
It’s the Old Army Game was in production in February and March of 1926. Aside from interiors shot at Paramount’s Astoria Studios on Long Island and a few scenes at the end of the film shot in Manhattan, a fair amount of It’s the Old Army Game was shot in and around Ocala and Palm Beach, Florida. Though Paramount had made other movies in Ocala – including scenes for the earlier Brooks’ film, The American Venus – the small Florida town was more than just an amenable southern location. It fact, it was pivotal to the story told in It’s the Old Army Game. At the time, there was a Florida real estate boom, and many a northerner was duped into buying Florida lots. It’s the Old Army Game reverses the scam, and has gullible Floridians duped into buying New York lots.
Though not especially well known today, It’s the Old Army Game is a pivotal film in career of W.C. Fields. It was the first in which he enjoyed top billing, and the first in which he had substantial input. Based on a story by J. P. McEvoy and scripted by Thomas J. Geraghty and J. Clarkson Miller, the film incorporated material from Fields’ 1924 stage show, The Comic Supplement, as well as portions of Fields’ act from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1925. Fields’ silent films, which include So’s Your Old Man (1926), Two Flaming Youths (1927), and the recent Kino Lorber release Running Wild (1927), can be seen as a kind of warm-up for Fields’ iconic body of work from the 1930s. Notably, material from the Follies as well as It’s the Old Army Game were reworked in what is widely considered Fields’ best sound feature, It’s a Gift (1934).
It’s the Old Army Game is also an important film in Brooks’ career. Though it was only the third for which she received a screen credit, critics were already taking notice of the up-and-comer with a short bob. Exhibitor’s Herald stated, “Louise Brooks is the other important person in the picture and, as insinuated rather bluntly on the occasion of her first appearance — in The American Venus — she’s important. Miss Brooks isn’t like anybody else. Nor has she a distinguishing characteristic which may be singled out for purposes of identification. She’s just a very definite personality. She doesn’t do much, perhaps because there isn’t much to do but probably because she hits hardest when doing nothing, but nobody looks away when she’s on screen. If Miss Glyn should say that Miss Brooks has ‘it,’ more people would know what Miss Glyn is raving about. But in that case she would not be raving.”
(Picking up from Part One, it’s love at first sight when William Gaxton arrives in town, spying Louise inside the Atlantic Coast Line Railway passenger station, that stood a block east of the city square. Behind him appears the west end of the Ocala library across the street – the end facing to the right in this post card.)
(Louise glances back flirtatiously at William before fleeing the station, then strides east along Broadway from Main (now 1st), hoping he’ll follow her. The sidewalk scale behind her appears both in an earlier scene from the first post, and here further behind Fields as he flees a mob later on in the film. The window right of the scale reflects the former court house.)
(Louise travels east along Broadway, a confused Gaxton seeks out her trail.) William Gaxton plays William Parker, Brooks’ love interest and the President of the High-and-Dry Realty Company. Born in San Francisco as Arturo Antonio Gaxiola, Gaxton worked mostly on stage, finding his greatest success in George Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing (1933) and other Broadway musicals during the 1930s and 1940s.
[Update: Ocala historian Evan Landrum provided this post card above showing the side of City Hall, matching the view with Louise. The fire station is around the corner to the right.]
(The distinctive porch entrance of the Hotel Hoffman appears in the background, placing this scene looking east down Broadway at Osceola, the train station off camera to the left. The train tracks running left-right behind Louise continue to run along Osceola today. At back to the right of Louise is a side view of city hall, discussed in the prior post.)
(Louise stands looking east from the corner of the Merchants Block built in 1892. The vintage views look west towards her spot – the yellow box matches the stone and brick details in her movie frame.)
In Lulu in Hollywood, Brooks recounts what an entertaining person Gaxton was off camera, and how funny he was when he read aloud from Gentleman Prefer Blondes when the company wasn’t working or drinking; Brooks also speculates that Gaxton was bitter about what he regarded as his failure as an actor in It’s the Old Army Game — his first film, and role he thought would launch his film career. (Gaxton searches for Louise in front of the former Ocala House hotel, looking north to the corner of Silver Springs Blvd.)
(Four of the five buildings north of Silver Springs Blvd. appear in the film – the center vintage building (box) has been remodeled and expanded.)
(Gaxton searches for Louise in front of the distinctive brick porch of the former Ocala House hotel.)
(Louise searches for William, turning right from Silver Springs north onto Main (now 1st). Despite the modern shades the corner building appears to be relatively unchanged.)
(Louis pauses by a magazine stand on Main south of Broadway, that appears later when Fields believes he’s being chased by a mob. Notice the matching “EAT” sign behind Louise and above Fields’ hat in the shots looking south. The numerous vintage magazines are identified in this prior post.
It’s the Old Army Game is notable for another reason. Brooks married its director, Eddie Sutherland, in July of 1926, as the film was opening across the United States. Their marriage, and the fact that he was the director and she a star of It’s the Old Army Game made news just about everywhere. (The union was short-lived; news of their divorce announced here in Variety April 24, 1928.) Also notable is the fact that among the supporting players was Sutherland’s Aunt, the stage actress Blanche Ring. In this, one of her rare film appearances, Ring plays Tessie Gilch, who Brooks’ character refers to as her “Aunt.” Tessie is smitten with Fields, and early on asks him to remove something in her eye. [Ring’s sister was Frances Ring, who was married to Thomas Meighan, a rugged leading man and Paramount film star who appeared with Brooks in The City Gone Wild (1927).]
(A female clerk stops William to make a sales pitch and Louise assumes the worst. The magazine rack to the far left appears in the prior scene (red box), with other vintage magazines, including the April 1926 McCall’s, hanging center from the doorway.)
(Louise fumes at William and the female clerk – we’re looking south down Main (now 1st) from Silver Springs Blvd. towards Fields’ corner drug store – will love prevail?)
Paramount was taking a bit of a chance on Fields, a Vaudeville actor, who despite his stage renown on the East Coast, was still a little known talent in the movies. After screening the film, one theater manager in Ohio wrote “… the name Fields, so far, means nothing in the small town,” while a Kansas manager stated “Back to the stage for this guy. He is terrible.” One North Carolina manager opined, “I don’t see where Paramount found Fields, or why they continue to boost a star that will absolutely kill an exhibitor’s business.” Advertisements for the film tried to explain its unusual title (“meaning never give a sucker an even break”) and to suggest Fields and this film were a “new kind” of comedy.
Nevertheless, It’s the Old Army Game received good notices, but didn’t prove the box-office hit Paramount was looking for. In what was a typical review of the time, the Newark Star-Eagle stated, “This picture not only affords a good deal of typical Fields comedy in a suitable story frame, but also reveals the possibilities of Louise Brooks, Follies girl who is making decidedly good in the cinema. . . . All told, Fields need not regret his first Paramount production.”
(Did Louise and William patch things up? Of course.) [Update: Florida historian Lisa Bradberry reports the above “love shots” were filmed on the Bingham estate in Palm Beach called Figulus, bordered on the west side by Lake Worth Lagoon. The main estate is gone, but the Binghams gave a portion of it to daughter Frances and husband Chester Bolton, who built there the Casa Apava estate still standing at 1298 South Ocean Blvd. The picnic scenes (see further below) were filmed at the Stotesbury estate.] In the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ward W. Marsh wrote, “Louise Brooks and William Gaxton carry what is generally known as the necessary love interest. Gaxton amounts to nothing, but Miss Brooks parades the personal magnetism to the limit, and late in the story is found wandering around in a bathing suit—for no sound reason except to display a form which assuredly needs not a bathing suit to set it off. There is no complaint, however, on the appearance in the bathing suit.”
Lisa Bradberry further reports that beginning February 28, 1926, Brooks and Gaxton spent the first of three days filming at the Silver Springs resort nearby. Hundreds of people gathered to watch them film scenes featuring a glass bottom boat ride and later feeding a deer. Director Eddie Sutherland was injured in a boating mishap, spraining his arm. (Note: these Silver Springs scenes are either missing or cut from the final print). Since W. C. Fields was not required for any of the scenes at Silver Springs, and construction on the back porch set had yet to be completed, he took the opportunity to drive through Marion County, spending some time in the country. On March 3 Fields would begin the first of several days filming scenes on the newly constructed back porch set. Check out Lisa’s two articles from 2005 about the filming W. C. Fields filming in Florida – 2005 articles by Lisa Bradberry.
(I’ll soon wrap up the visual history of W.C. Fields in Ocala, Florida in a third post, but as a break my next post will cover the many Astoria locations, see sample above, appearing in Fields’ Kino Lorber release Running Wild.)
(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 Part One that introduces Bill and Louise in Ocala, Florida.)
Thank you so much Thomas!
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.Photo sources: The State Library and Archives of Florida, Marion County Historical Photographs.
Looking north at the corner where Louise turns up the street.