Thursday, July 26, 2007


All in all, I'd rather be watching Fields

By Edward Copeland
Thanks to an insanely good deal on one of the W.C. Fields DVD collections, I've recently gone on a spree of watching and re-watching the works of the late comic actor. It's been a fascinating exercise. I've learned a few things and, needless to say, I've been entertained a lot.

I can't put an exact date on the first time I actually saw W.C. Fields in a movie, but I certainly remember the first time I saw him: It was in that classic poster with him in a hat sitting behind a hand of playing cards. In my childhood, it seemed to be ubiquitous: In restaurants, department stores. Everywhere you looked, W.C. seemed to peering from behind those cards.

It wasn't until years later that I saw my first film of his (I believe it was The Bank Dick), but it wasn't until I was an adult that I really started examining his creative output. Since I don't recall the order I originally saw things in and I've re-watched most of the films and shorts I'm going to discuss recently, I've decided to divide the shorts and features into rough categories.


The great Criterion Collection DVD of six of his classic shorts actually provided me the first exposure to all of these, despite being very familiar with their reputations. It includes his 1915 silent short Pool Sharks, which is funny even with its somewhat primitive special effects depicting miraculous billiard shots.

What was so fascinating watching these shorts after I'd watched and re-watched the features is how many of his most famous routines he used over and over again, with a little twist here and there. His hilarious sequence with the caddy that I first saw in 1934's You're Telling Me originated nearly word for word in the 1930 short The Golf Specialist. The main difference is his character in the short is wanted by the law (If you watch it, read the list of his "crimes" closely: It contains some of the best jokes including "Eating spaghetti in public" and "Teaching the facts of life to an Indian." 1932 brought a controversial short, The Dentist, which still seems to be pushing boundaries today when you consider it is 75 years old. He even tells someone to go to hell. 1933 brought three more shorts: The Fatal Glass of Beer, The Barber Shop and The Pharmacist, though by then he was moving into full-length features. Both of those shorts had routines he'd return to again. In The Barber Shop, it sets up the premise of him unwittingly being credited for capturing a crook as in The Bank Dick. In The Pharmacist, it was the first of at least three instances where an on-screen child accuses W.C. of not loving them anymore and he starts to haul off and hit them because he's not going to let them say he doesn't love them.

Looking at most of his work, the characters Fields played usually fell into two types: the curmudgeon of a con man or the henpecked husband suffering at the hands of ungrateful families. I thought I'd divide his works into those two camps, for further discussion.

Conning Curmudgeons

1934's The Old-Fashioned Way is one of the main instances where Fields takes on the role of someone running a carnival, in this case The Great McGonigle, always one step ahead of creditors and the law. The film is hardly one of his best, but it does allow Fields to display his juggling skills and to re-create one of his fabled stage triumphs, "The Drunkard." 1936's Poppy again placed him in the carnival, this time as Professor Eustace P. McGargle. It also sets up the recurring theme of a father out to make a better life for his daughter (played in this case by Rochelle Hudson). The highlight of the film is his con involving a "talking dog" and a barkeep, in order to steal some quick cash.

The same theme takes hold in 1939's You Can't Cheat an Honest Man where this time Fields' shady circus owner is named Larson E. Whipsnade, who schemes to get his daughter hitched to a wealthy man and away from ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and the dummy he despises, Charlie McCarthy. The sparring between Fields and McCarthy is fun, but as disturbing as it is now to see any human being putting on blackface in old films, it seems doubly disturbing to see that racist gag trotted out on a ventriloquist's doll. There was no circus involved, but he was all con in his fabled teaming with the great Mae West in My Little Chickadee. West and Fields reportedly hated each other, but this comic Western still has a lot of highlights, including Margaret Hamilton as a world-class prude out to drive West out of town.

Henpecked Husbands

While W.C. Fields' image usually is one of the con man and the curmudgeon, a great many of his best films portray him as the put-upon husband, abused by his wife and other family members. 1934 offered two examples of this: You're Telling Me and It's a Gift. It's a Gift has the stronger reputation, but watching both again in close proximity, I actually find myself preferring You're Telling Me. In it, Fields plays would-be inventor Sam Bisbee, eager to make his fortune with his ingenuity such as puncture-proof car tires only to be thwarted time and time again by fate. He is even driven to the point of leaving town and attempting suicide until he mistakenly believes he's saved another downtrodden person (Adrienne Ames), unaware that she's really a princess. She takes a liking to poor Sam and accompanies him back to town where he finally earns respect. This is where W.C. repeats the caddy gag from the short, only here he sharpens it and improves on it to even greater results.

It's a Gift while great, didn't hold up as well for me, though we do get to see for the second time the use of "I'm not gonna let this child tell me I don't love him" gag. In this one, he's general store owner Harold Bissonette, dreaming of life on a California orange grove where might find peace and get his family off his back. When Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear recently compiled his alternative to the AFI list, he made a point of singling out Fields' 1935 film Man on the Flying Trapeze, since it is a lesser known title and it shouldn't be. It's one of his very best. Memory expert Ambrose Wolfinger (Fields) just wants to take a day off work to go see a wrestling match, but it's easier said than done, thanks to misunderstandings, another ungrateful family and all-around bad luck. It's truly amazing to see how soft-spoken Fields is in this outing. There's barely a trace of the misanthrope here and the audience's sympathies lie totally with him. For those who haven't seen much Fields, this is one of the top titles to seek out. Man on the Flying Trapeze also is notable for being directed by Clyde Bruckman, who co-directed the silent masterpiece The General with Buster Keaton. For me though, the best example of Fields as henpecked husband is his role as Egbert Souse. It's amazing how many elements get stuffed into The Bank Dick, starting with perhaps his finest take on an ungrateful child, an unlikely stint as a film director and once again taking credit for foiling a crime when he didn't that gets him a job at the grateful bank. The gags come fast and furious and The Bank Dick never slows for a second. For me, it remains my favorite Fields comedy.

The Exceptions

Finally, of the Fields films I've seen, there are the ones that don't easily fit into either of the earlier two categories, with Fields often in supporting parts. The great Pauline Kael often used to cite 1932's Million Dollar Legs as her choice for the greatest film ever made, but I'd like to think she was joking. Still, it is entertaining, even though Fields takes a back seat to the film's real star, Jack Oakie. Fields plays the president of a nearly bankrupt small country who hopes to use Oakie's athletic prowess to gain Olympic glory and perhaps lift his country out of the economic doldrums.

The same year, Fields starred with Alison Skipworth in one of the many sequences of If I Had a Million, which recounts how different people take advantage of a sudden cash cow, in their case seeking revenge on road hogs. It's quite funny, though the sequence starring Charles Laughton is really the uneven film's highlight.

1933 put W.C. in one of those 1930s curiosities International House, where there is very little plot and just an excuse to toss comics and musicians together for a diverting short feature. Fields gets some nice moments as Professor Henry R. Quail, who mistakenly finds himself landing at the title hotel. There also are fun comic turns by Bela Lugosi and George Burns and Gracie Allen. It's mystifying now though to see the virtually forgotten actress Peggy Hopkins Joyce play herself as a big deal in the film. However, as is often the case, getting to see Fields play opposite another comic master, in this case the marvelously daffy Gracie Allen, makes the whole enterprise worthwhile.

I wish I could have seen Fields play Humpty Dumpty in 1933's Alice in Wonderland, but I did get to see him play it relatively straight as Micawber in 1935's David Copperfield and it really makes me wonder what he would have been like in other roles outside his usual range. His final starring vehicle, 1941's Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, may be his oddest film. In a way, you can spot the seeds of the type of strange, mind-bending films of Charlie Kaufman as Fields plays himself pitching an idea for a screenplay to a movie executive, mixing the surreal and the real so frequently and so often you are never quite sure what is his storytelling and what is really happening. Either way, it's funny and unusual and worth repeated viewings.

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"My Little Chickadee" is a classic. Thanks for the pictures. - - Mae came up to see you, Eddie!
I am not sure which movie this is from, but I can always get a mental chuckle just by thinking "It's not a fit night out for man nor beast." The image of Fields with the snow being dumped on him--priceless.
Patty, that line is from the short The Fatal Glass of Beer.

Thank you for posting you thoughts and for promoting W.C. Fields. I have spoken with Universal about releasing a Volume 3 of the films of W.C. and with the help of fans like you it may happen. All should write to Universal and urge them to issue the W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Vol. 3.

I hope you and your readers will join the Offficial W.C. Fields Fan Club.

Thank you for helping to keep the spirit of W.C. Fields alive.

Ted Wioncek, President
W.C. Fields Fan Club
I love the car-crash episode in "If I Had A Million", and in fact, I crack everytime I see the film again. Fields and Allison skipworth are glorious there
I try and try, but Fields is the one person whose movies I simply can't watch. Although I always loved his line: "I like children...if they're cooked properly."
Nice post Ed. Like Shamus, I'd tried & tried to enjoy fields, but it took some time (accept for a Old Time Radio Classic skit about the day he drank a glass of water - always loved that one). Over the past couple of years I finally broke through. While I thoroughly enjoyed Bank Dick and You Can't Cheat and Honest Man I must count It's A Gift as my favorite - by a hair over The Man on the Flying Trapeze. It's really a question of burglars singing in the basement and kumquats.

I love Kathleen Howard as the domineering wife in both those films. There's a scene in Trapeze where Fields is putting on his socks and she's off screen nervously telling him that the voices in the cellar are getting louder - a constance source of tension for Fields, which had my cracking up.
Excuse me, I meant "burglars singing in the cellar".
I first encountered Fields in my early teens (over 40 years ago) watching late night movies with my father (my mother had -- and still has -- no patience with such nonsense). It really was pretty much love at first sight (and sound). I also loved the Marx Bros. just as much back then. For reasons I'm not entirely sure of (though the hyperactivity certainly has something to do with it), my love of the Marxes has waned quite a bit over the decades -- yet I like Fields as much as ever.

I was delighted by the DVD sets -- and it was a joy to finally get to re-watch things like "Old Fashioned Way" -- which I last saw many decades ago. Now I get to hope for the release of the major silent films that I still have _never_ gotten to see.
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