Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Great Man --- Part One

There was a time when W.C. Fields seemed eternal. His persona, his philosophy, seemed to embrace succeeding generations long after he’d left the stage in 1946. A fan following as yet unborn would replace the audience that filed out when he died. Field’s image was a pliable thing that somehow renewed itself and spoke to the children, and grandchildren, of those who saw him first. I grew up thinking he’d always be around, but by the present look of things, it would seem we’ve lost Uncle Bill. Universal’s DVD set of two or three years ago was seemingly their final word on the subject. You’d like to think they’d release the rest of them, but where are those teen-agers and college students of yore that lined up at revival theatres and University campuses to see him? Their numbers have not been replenished --- how can they when the films are long since out of general circulation? My generation had comparatively easy access to him. Kids today haven’t seen Fields on TV since TCM ran off a package at least five (?) years ago. Universal should have nourished this franchise better. Harold Lloyd was late coming back (maybe too late) and Laurel and Hardy remain lost in the wilderness (at least insofar as their best films are concerned), while Chaplin, Keaton, and The Marx Brothers have flourished. Is it still possible for W.C. Fields to (re)claim his rightful place on the comedy pantheon?

I recently listened to a radio program from February 28, 1956 entitled Biography In Sound (you can hear it too, and for free, right HERE). This episode was called Magnificent Rogue --- Adventures Of W.C. Fields, and Fred Allen was the host (Allen died within weeks of the broadcast). This being fifty years ago, there are some pretty incredible interviews spread over the hour-long program --- Leo McCarey, Mack Sennett, Errol Flynn, Baby LeRoy --- what a line-up. Coming within a decade of Field’s passing, this is very much a collection of show-biz anecdotes recalled while reasonably fresh on the minds of their tellers, and you really get a sense of Fields as the outrageous non-conformist they all wish they could have been. I gathered it was easier for these veterans to applaud Bill from the comfortable distance a decade had given them, for his actual life had been anything but cakes and ale.

The biography of Fields was written by James Curtis and published in 2003. It’s the best book on the man I’ve ever read. If you have any interest in W.C. Fields, you will do yourself a service ordering it HERE. Curtis really puts a human face on what had to be a difficult subject. I’ve always liked Field’s comedy, but everything I’d read led me believe he was little more than an unapproachable variation of the most anti-social aspects of his screen character, a person I would have actually been afraid to meet. It was the same way with Groucho Marx --- you just knew these guys would likely tell you to go to hell and leave them alone, whereas someone like Stan Laurel might invite one to sit down and visit a while. Those sorts of imaginings tend to color my perception of all these comedians --- yes, it does matter what kind of people they were off-screen. I’m now reconciled with W.C. Fields, thanks to Curtis --- at least I understand him better, although any real identification would require first-hand experience with childhood traumas and youthful influences I’d not likely have survived. Hardship Fields overcame shocks the conscience and makes you realize just how pampered most of us are in a computerized world of plenty. I’d not appreciated what a violent world he lived in. There were beatings from his father, street crimes in which he might be a victim one day, assailant the next. Fields routinely resorted to near-deadly force in settling arguments, and this didn’t necessarily end when he stepped before footlights. The Follies legend of how he broke a pool cue over Ed Wynn’s head during a routine was likely true. Fields didn’t like his rival’s on-stage intrusion and retaliated in accordance with his background and experience. He was a dangerous man to trifle with.

Vaudeville and variety must have been drudgery. Juggling was the start, but later the routines required custom props transported from town to town, and they didn’t fit in overhead compartments. The precision required precluded alcohol use, but when dialogue and verbal humor gained precedence, Fields took to the bottle with a vengeance, and movies allowed for an even more sedentary lifestyle. The silent Fields is largely unknown to us --- those ones that aren’t lost are seldom shown. He wore a grubby little clip-on mustache in all of them, just the thing to remove even the remotest possibility of audience sympathy for him. Ill-judged pairings with grotesque comics of a Chester Conklin sort emphasized retro aspect of these vehicles --- they even remade Tillie’s Punctured Romance in the late twenties (now lost). Many of the routines he’d immortalize in talkies were introduced here, but played silent, they were deadly, and real stardom wouldn’t be achieved until he could step in front of a microphone. Even then, it was slow getting to the top. Paramount used him in all-star concoctions --- this is the beginning of the Fields we know. Watching International House amounts to fairly equal doses of ambrosia and castor oil. When Bill’s on (especially in a parlay with Bela Lugosi), there’s no better comedy to be had, but when it’s Stuart Erwin and Peggy Hopkins Joyce bickering on a mock-up desert soundstage --- lights out. The best Fields work prior to 1934 may well be the four Mack Sennett shorts, which were actually the first exposure a lot of us had to Fields. They were available in 8 and 16mm during the sixties and seventies from Blackhawk Films (one of them, The Barber Shop, is shown here) and it’s no telling how many runs these things had in schools, libraries, YMCA’s, birthday parties, you name it. I remember playing The Dentist once in a gymnasium filled with college students for what we advertised as a BYOB show (that’s Bring Your Own Bottle for the uninitiated). There was something distinctly Fieldsian about that combination of his voice reverberating off cinderblock walls and drunken hoots and catcalls that accompanied the screening. Maybe this is just the sort of exposure his films could use today.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

W.C. Fields... just the thought of him reduces me to a chortling mass of neurons. MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE, IT'S A GIFT, THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY, NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK... there are thousands of movies better than these, but not 10 film comedies that I enjoy more (other than Laurel & Hardy pictures). And I agree with you on the Fields book -- it's a great one. I never thought I'd live long enough to see Fields (and Jack Benny) all but forgotten; what is this world coming to? By the way, I first saw INTERNATIONAL HOUSE at the University of Akron, circa 1979, and I have rarely seen a film so well received... the audience was SCREAMING in hysterics at everything Fields did. I've never stopped.

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keaton and the Marx Bros. draw a blank when I mention them to 20-somethings.

4:43 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

With regards to Keaton and the Marx Brothers, I should add that it's the release of their films that have flourished on DVD, not necessarily the public's familiarity with the comedians themselves --- that is a much more difficult thing to maintain.

6:37 PM  
Blogger convict 13 said...

I read somewhere that Keaton and Fields did some work together I think in the 50's. There is film of this somewhere but unfortunately in "private hands".
That would be something to see.

10:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can't even get Fields on DVD in the UK - I've had to buy the R1 disks. I have SALLY OF THE SAWDUST on UK video, but know of nothing else ever released on VHS.

There was a Fields 'season' on TV about 15 years ago, which included IT'S A GIFT and THE BANK DICK amongst others. They used to show MY LITTLE CHICKADEE on a regular basis, but that hasn't been seen for about ten years.

A London radio DJ, Danny Baker, makes constant appeals on his show for the Fields films to be released, but interest appears to be zilch over here.

7:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been presenting courses on film comedy at Elderhostels in Virginia for the past ten years. I am surprised at the number of persons in my age group (Seventies) who have not been exposed to Fields. I use the porch scdene from IT'S A GIFT and the juggling sequence from THE OLD FASHIONED WAY and it knocks them out.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

There was a PD DVD available at all the usual outlets that had THE DENTIST and other shorts on it....was part of a series of discs with early Chaplin and other PD stuff...don't ever recall seeing much else....

6:11 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020