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, December 10, 2014

Snowy Fields, and Sennett Adrift

The Fatal Glass Of Beer (1933) Leaves Showmen Cold

The most oft-repeated pan of this W.C. Fields short came from a North Carolina exhibitor, J.J. Medford, whose 430 seat Orpheum Theatre was/is located in Oxford, a small berg northeast of Durham. Medford lent prolific and unsparing voice to Motion Picture Herald's "What The Picture Did For Me" column. He didn't mind chopping tall timber from major companies, thus putdown in plain words of Metro's Laughing Boy, WB's Mystery Of The Wax Museum, many others. Medford spoke for showmen at the low end who had to live with patron disdain over dog movies. He'd fling red ink back at Paramount and Mack Sennett for rottenness that was The Fatal Glass Of Beer: "This is the worst comedy we have played from any company this season. No story, no acting, and as a whole has nothing." Medford's indictment would forever-after speak for 1933 response to The Fatal Glass Of Beer, it having been quoted in every Fields bio I've seen and certainly any discussion of a short called a stinker by most everyone recovering from initial view. So how do we account for maverick few who'd call The Fatal Glass Of Beer an enduring masterpiece of comedy?

Bill Presents Old Boss Sennett With a Special Academy Award
The story was Bill's. He'd put it on for the Earl Carroll Vanities and introduce what became a spread-among-schoolboys catch-phrase: It Ain't A Fit Night Out For Man Nor Beast. Fields beat that like a rug in the short, and many called him monotonous for it, but as Bill told producer Sennett, the idea was to put what he considered funny on the screen, and worry less about the audience. That naturally left Mack skittish, a condition made more so when the Fatal Glass was poured. Had Fields blown a fuse? His last, The Dentist, laid them in aisles, but this would bark like the bulldog of Sennett credits, long missing from Beer prints, but happily restored to element used for The Mack Sennett Blu-Ray CollectionThe Fatal Glass Of Beer was to Fields' mind a put-on, a mockery of Yukon melodrama faked out with stage convention dating to the 19th century, but maybe that was too far back for 1933 auds not born when Bill noted foolishness of old styles. To those younger, it was just old as in not funny.

Variety gave Fatal Glass the frost, but Film Daily understood: "Clever process work and many amusing gags are part of the riot of laughter," said the trade's 6/3/33 review. Did it need sophistication and years' exposure to 10-20-30 stagecraft to "get" Bill's humor here? Clearly yes, but even Fields had to admit, to himself if not others, that comedy aimed for a mass public must be more accessible. He'd not go so far out again till 40's haywiring of Never Give A Sucker An Even Break. Modern viewers are of course even less familiar with conventions Fields was spoofing, so The Fatal Glass Of Beer still has its hill to climb. I can but imagine how the thing played to college crowds during Fields-maniacal days of the 60/70's, where it had much circulation thanks to prints easily rented (generally at $10 per day) or bought (Blackhawk sold Beer at relative bargains in 8 or 16mm). I admit to liking The Fatal Glass Of Beer more with each visit. It is Fields walking the wire and maybe falling, but for some of his admirers, this is right up there with his most accomplished work.

Greenbriar highly recommends The Mack Sennett Collection from Flicker Alley, a Blu-Ray set of fifty comedies which includes The Fatal Glass Of Beer. Most all of comic luminaries from the silent and early sound era are here. It's just about the best assemblage of clowning so-far offered to home viewing, truly a one-stop for slapstick.


Blogger lmshah said...


I've always felt that you can pretty much separate the population into those who "get" THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER and those who don't. I've always loved it, and have seen it both kill and completely confuse audiences, but when the audience gets it, it really kills.


10:55 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Fields was decades ahead of his time, and this short proves it. It kind of reminds me of Laurel & Hardy's "A Perfect Day," where a catchphrase -- in the latter's case, "Goodbye! Goodbye!" -- is beaten into the ground, yet gets funnier each time it's spoken. Neither movie has a story, either -- just a series of gags to justify their running time. But they're both hilarious.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I've always loved it and always understood what it was aiming for, but maybe that was because the "mellerdrammer" was still a standard sort of stage spoof in the 70s (I was the villain in one in high school, and contributed a couple of new gags-- when I was run over by a train at the end, we came back from blackout to see two sheets covering my remains, one on each side of the track). Anyway, it's a hoot and "It's not a fit night out..." is a standard line during wintertime here.

1:32 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer contemplates a Langdon influence and recalls a college showing of "The Fatal Glass Of Beer" (but where was I that night, Dan?):

As with many comics or, if you will, "clowns," W. C. Fields found his funny bone touched in unusual ways by the peculiar genius of Harry Langdon. The mistimed gags or gags without denouement, which typified the Langdon technique, as well as the many oddities of the Langdon comedy universe, are all on display in "The Fatal Glass of Beer." This was too obviously Fields' attempt to replicate the Langdon style. Perhaps it might even be considered an homage, as the French critics would put it. In particular, consider the synthetic snow dashed into the face of Fields to ornament the line, "T'aint a fit night out for man or beast," or how Fields flinches upon the last repetition, when he is not hit with the snow. Pure Langdon. Having watched this minor comic masterpiece in an ancient gymnasium crowded with impressionable college students in the early '70s, I can assure you that it was not unappreciated. Throughout there was the mystified silence of young minds contemplating the wonders of film, no doubt glad for the experience, though not necessarily anxious to repeat it any time soon.

2:40 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson recalls a further occasion when Bill Fields spoofed stage melodramas:

Should be noted Fields took another shot at melodrama parody -- complete with fistful of snow -- in "The Old Fashioned Way" the very next year. In "Fatal Glass of Beer" Fields is dishing it out straight to the movie audience, unconcerned that we get the joke. "The Old Fashioned Way" offers Fields dishing it out to a whole town, and letting us laugh at those yokels -- and, importantly, at Fields' own misplaced grandeur.

The feature sugar-coats it with pretty period trappings (including Fields' iconic tall-hat finery), a dash of sentiment (again, Fields plays improbable cupid to his treasured daughter and a decent, non-Fieldsian young man), and lots of context to cue the moviegoing audience.

"The Drunkard", written as an earnest melodrama, was restaged for laughs in LA and became a hit. Bits of the show and its original cast were offered as a play within the movie, allowing for backstage bits and audience reactions to provide broad winks.

We also have an endless parlor rendition of "Gathering Up the Shells" by an untalented widow. What saves it from being merely cruel is that we're watching Fields suffer through verse after verse -- comic karma for the con man. I've seen that scene play like gangbusters.

Even though the movie allows him to swindle and outwit assorted rubes and kick Baby Leroy (remarkably gently, considering), he's made palatable not only by his soft spot but by the fact he's not infallible. Even his moment of glory as a juggler ends with a tomato.

7:25 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

And tomorrow is National Tango Day... the moment to review all of Gardel films for Paramount.

9:43 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

Another little seen film that makes fun of older stage conventions is "The Villain Still Pursued Her" (1940) with Buster Keaton. Like "Fatal Glass of Beer", you either get it or you don't.

I happened to catch it on YouTube and found it wonderfully charming and funny - I'd like to see it in a proper dvd release.

This was an indie distributed by RKO. Does Warners have the rights to this now? It would be a good one for their MOD Warner Archive offerings.

9:54 PM  
Blogger aldi said...

I've always thought this one of Fields' most hilarious shorts. It leaves me helpless with laughter every time I view it. A true masterpiece of comedy.

8:16 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer answers my question of yesterday:


I don't know where you were, if you weren't there.

But does that query mean that it wasn't one of your showings?

But you're probably right. I have the ripening recollection now that "The Fatal Glass of Beer" was one of several Fields' shorts being shown together--perhaps even the group from the "W. C. Fields Festival"--and that it was indeed at our alma mater, just not at that venue or with your participation. The other shorts went over well and the good will carried over to "The Fatal Glass of Beer." The audience wanted to like it, recognizing "T'ainta fit night out" as a laugh line and treating it as such, at least the first couple of times. Fields was hip and no one wanted to look as though he wasn't in on the joke. After a few minutes, though, the laughter faded away as they just sat there, seemingly dumbfounded and waiting for a clue as to what was going on.

Some pictures come to life with an audience. I guess some also die.

Reply From John:

Dan, the show I did with Fields in 1972, where you helped with music, was "The Dentist," along with the 1925 "Phantom Of The Opera" and "Helpmates" w/ Laurel and Hardy. The only other Fields I ran at college was "Mississippi" a year later in 1973. You were at LRC for two years ahead of me, and that's probably when the "Festival" package ran.

12:47 PM  

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
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020
  • December 2020
  • January 2021
  • February 2021
  • March 2021
  • April 2021
  • May 2021
  • June 2021
  • July 2021
  • August 2021
  • September 2021
  • October 2021
  • November 2021
  • December 2021
  • January 2022
  • February 2022
  • March 2022
  • April 2022
  • May 2022
  • June 2022
  • July 2022
  • August 2022
  • September 2022
  • October 2022
  • November 2022
  • December 2022
  • January 2023
  • February 2023
  • March 2023
  • April 2023
  • May 2023
  • June 2023
  • July 2023
  • August 2023
  • September 2023
  • October 2023
  • November 2023
  • December 2023
  • January 2024
  • February 2024
  • March 2024
  • April 2024