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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Fields Is Hot For Hep 60's Moviegoing

Bringing The Great Man Back To Counterculture Crowds

Because he was The Great Man, Bill stayed saleable for decades past his 1946 shuffle-off. There were postwar reissues of You Can't Cheat An Honest Man (all new paper and accessories), plus several of the Paramounts. Festivals were rife on TV even before he became counterculture's point man in the late 60's, as here in June 1963 when Channel 2 of Los Angeles ran a week with Fields. The Universal Four (Honest Man, My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick, and Never Give A Sucker An Even Break) played theatres even in NC from 1969. Brick Davis was able to book a pair at our wretched College Park Cinema for bargain rental (apx. $50 each) in 1973, so Fields was both visible and viable to a generation maturing through these decades. To this ready market came distributing Joseph Brenner, New York-based freebooter for whatever sold, be it sexploitation, an umpteenth revival for The Birth Of A Nation (which he claimed to own), or Martin Scorsese's early effort, Who's That Knocking At My Door?. What Brenner did for  Bill was bundle three of long-ago Mack Sennett lineage, now controlled theatrically by Raymond Rohauer (The Barber Shop, The Pharmacist, and The Fatal Glass Of Beer).

The hour group of "Laughter-Pieces" would roll out for Fall 1969, Fields/Sennett/Rohauer/Brenner's trio a fresh serve of long-ago comedy to buttress similar The Crazy World Of Laurel and Hardy, a latest feature compilation for a team nearly as prominent on modern marquees as they'd been in heyday. Also to the mix came Jay Ward's Intergalactic Film Festival, a compilation of cartoons and "film satire" borrowed from Fractured Flickers, a known Ward commodity from TV. The package was ideal for art houses and mainstream spots throwing hooks to hipster trade. Vintage clowning was fashionable in a way it would never be again, youth viewing Fields as spokesman for protest initiated twenty years after he'd left. Brenner booked the program into New York's Carnegie Hall Theatre, 330 seats, where business rocketed to a "smash" (Variety) $11,500 for the first week. More astonishing was how Fields and L&H held, after-frames sufficient to last from July '69 into deep September, seven weeks in all. Other dates saw biz increase thanks to word-of-mouth and repeat attendance, Louisville getting $4500 a first week, $5500 the next. This would open eyes at MCA, which controlled most of Fields' feature output. They'd group Paramount Fields with Mae West and the Marx Bros. for a 26 title sale to syndicated TV in 1970. The Fields/Sennett shorts, four in all, sold eventually as a Criterion set on DVD, being Rohauer versions with minor monkeying to soundtracks. Quality is nice, however.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson remembers W.C. Fields and other comedies from TV "theme weeks":

I was maybe a few months shy of driving age and missed the theatrical revival, but I do remember a local UHF station that consistently filled a couple of slots with old Paramount comedies -- primarily Fields, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope and anything that at least featured acts like Burns & Allen. "Alice in Wonderland" turned up a lot, along with "If I Had a Million" and revue-style musicals where familiar faces cropped up at least momentarily.

While there wasn't a host or any other trimmings beyond a title card ("W.C. Fields and Friends", I think), it was the comedy version of Shock Theater. Were these sold as a themed package, or did the local channel simply glean the comedies from a larger buy?

Late 60s / early 70s seemed to be the end of themed movie shows on local TV, at least in the Bay Area. Little Rascals and Three Stooges lingered on UHF, but gone were the reliable weekly servings of Shirley Temple, Abbott and Costello, B westerns, etc. There were a few late-night horror shows where non-costumed hosts catered to fans of new product ("We'll have more of that Wes Craven interview after 'Attack of the Mushroom People'").

The very late 60s brought a summer run of the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlocks, complete with a host who dispensed trivia about the making of the films. And a few years later a different local station tried to reheat the cooled-off Laurel and Hardy with a ballyhooed prime-time show. Another local station tried a "Best of Hollywood" a few years back, but Astaire and Rogers riddled with 21st century commercials -- even if the picture and sound were miraculous compared to my UHF days -- just didn't cut it.

7:53 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer looks back on a shocking college run of "The Dentist":

W. C. Fields, ah yes. There was something about his sotto voce contempt for societal mores that struck a chord with the counter culture of the seventies, but he went over big even with those who were as comfortable with those mores as their parents. I remember an evening at the tiny Lutheran college I went to in North Carolina, when a rather enterprising young film buff of my acquaintance rented an ancient gymnasium to put on a bring-your-own-blanket show for the boys and girls of the school. It was a packed house that evening. The top of the bill was Lon Chaney's "The Phantom of the Opera." My part in the festivities was to man a phonograph in the tiny scorer's nest and sonically enhance the great chandelier scene through deft manipulation of the volume control. That, fortunately, will be a story for another time. In support, however, was W. C. Fields in "The Dentist." The audacity of my friend in throwing an 8 mm image onto a large screen was nothing compared to that of the Great Man himself. He was funny from the beginning, but when he got his patient into the chair, the laughter turned to incredulous gasps. Could he actually be doing what he seemed to be doing? Indeed he was! And thus yet another generation came away with an appreciation of his genius. More surprisingly still, those 8 mm Blackhawk prints came off real well that evening.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Ah, yes indeed, my little jackanapes, how well I recall running THE DENTIST repeatedly for myriad assemblages of aspiring collegians in the Land of Paul Revere.

It was part of a freshman orientation program, and I was asked to run movies in the student-union ballroom. I pulled together a Laffmovie-style program of one- and two-reel comedies, including THE DENTIST. Same reaction as Mr. Mercer's crowd: disbelief followed by raucous, knowing laughter. It went so well that I repeated the program six or seven more times.

9:42 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

For several years, my only exposure to Fields was through the cartoon take-offs ("Go away, kid, ya bother me.") My grandfather was the one who told me that bizarre cartoon character was actually based on an actual human being.
My first exposure to the real Fields may have been a TV showing of FATAL GLASS OF BEER, but the memory is a little fuzzy. But I know I saw my first Fields features courtesy of these '60s revivals. Double-features of YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN / NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK and TILLIE AND GUS / THE OLD FASHIONED WAY left me thinking that WC might have been the funniest man who ever lived.
And just maybe he was.

8:46 PM  
Blogger Stu Cook said...

Here in the Northeast, WWLP-TV booked the Fields/Marx/West MCA package of Paramount features which it ran in the early 70's. The station already had the Laurel & Hardy features & shorts under contract. The Paramount features, along with the Laurel & Hardy's, were presented by on-air host Hal Stanton. It made for a film buff's Saturday night funfest!

11:13 AM  
Blogger rnigma said...

I recall it was about that time when Fritos corn chips abandoned its controversial "Frito Bandito" character (after complaints from Latino groups) and replaced him with "W.C. Fritos," modeled on you-know-who. "Ahh yes, the munchy nugget..."

6:07 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Remember a Toledo station running YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN,SUCKER & CHICKADEE a few times in the early 70s....wheras THE DENTIST and the like ended up on PBS on various things. Were they PD already ?....

3:50 PM  

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