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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.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Laughing Gravy 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 Mike Mercury 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 Conrad Lane 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 tbonemankini 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  

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