W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films [DVD]
Screenplay : W.C. Fields
Year of Release : 1933
Stars : W.C. Fields, Elise Cavanna, Harry Watson, Dagmar Oakland
From 1915 to 1945, William Claude Dukenfield, better known as W.C. Fields, starred in 40 films, 11 in the silent era and 29 in the sound era. Along with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and the Marx Brothers, he was one of the founding pioneers of cinematic comedy, a true original who blazed his own path. His physical presence on-screen was unique, with his absurdly bulbous nose and odd voice that trails off in a slightly musical cadence. There has never been anyone quite like him before or since.
While Chaplin and Keaton relied heavily on physical comedy and sentimentality, and the Marx Brothers played off each other's various personas, W.C. Fields stood alone as a singular verbal wit, a caustic, muttering misanthrope whose humor was often based on misery, anger, prejudice, and conflict. Nothing was sacred in the comedy of W.C. Fields, especially subjects of sentimental American piety like families and children (in one film, he mutters to himself, "No man who hates small dogs and children can be all bad."). While much of Fields' humor took aim at large cultural institutions like banks and the government, he reserved some of his harshest humor for obnoxious little kids (sort of anti-Shirley Temples) and squabbling, unhappy nuclear families.
By all accounts, Fields never had a particularly happy life, from his early childhood of homelessness and near starvation after running away from home at age 11, to his adult years of heavy drinking. Yet, by that mysterious alchemy that often works its magic on the silver screen, Fields managed to turn his own unhappiness and distrust of the world into on-screen comedy that was both funny and painful.
Fields first got started in movies by writing and appearing in short films, the first of which was a silent one-reeler titled Pool Sharks (1915) that was filmed when Fields was 36 and had already made a name for himself with theatrical vaudeville routines. Without the benefit of sound, Pool Sharks instead showcases Fields adeptness at physical slapstick. While his physical routines are not nearly as brilliant as the work of Chaplin or Keaton, they are finely honed pieces of work that do what good comedy does best: make the difficult appear easy.
Fields' better-known short films were two-reelers (roughly 20 minutes in length) made between 1930 and 1933, just after the introduction of sound. This allowed Fields to truly move into his own, as the success of his misanthropic persona is heavily reliant on his being able to talk. While Chaplin resisted putting words in the mouth of the Little Tramp, Fields needed to talk to fulfill the promise of his earlier silent work. He was never fully complete as an on-screen presence until the audience could hear him muttering beneath his breath seemingly improvised complaints, insults, and ruminations about his general dislike for everyone around him.
The Golf Specialist (1930) relies heavily on a persistent trope in Fields' work that involves his character being victimized as he attempts to do something and is constantly interrupted. Here, he plays J. Effingham Bellweather, a braggart of a golfer attempting to impress a young woman with his prowess on the green. However, all of his attempts are constantly undermined by his malicious golf caddy, an absurdly silent character in an oversized hat. The funniest scenes involve a custard pie that Fields gets stuck all over his hands so that newspapers, handkerchiefs, and everything else clings to him while he attempts to maintain dignity in giving his golf demonstration. Like many of his films, The Golf Specialist includes an oft-repeated line, this one being, "Now stand clear and keep your eye on the ball." Whenever Fields says this, you know that disaster is going to strike.
The Dentist (1932), one of Fields' first collaborations with legendary comedy producer Mack Sennett, is also his most notorious short film. It is notorious not only for its generally sadistic nature, but because it ran into trouble with the Hays censor board, which felt that a particular scene in which Fields, as a mean-spirited dentist, tries to pull out a woman's tooth had too many sexual overtones. Granted, the scene is obviously meant to resonate with sexual innuendo, as the woman has her exposed legs wrapped around Fields' waist as he pushes back and forth trying to get the tooth out. Although it seems fairly tame today, it is still a riotous sequence in one of Fields' funniest (and meanest) short films.
While all of his shorts were narratively inconsistent and often quite odd, none rival the sheer lunacy of The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933). Taking place in the frigid mountains of the Yukon, it casts Fields as a father whose son is on his way home from prison. The title of the short comes from a bizarre song Fields sings about his son in the first reel, although it never really connects with the rest of the film. There are jokes about miniature sled dogs and milking elks, and it includes what is probably Fields' funniest recurring line: Every time he steps outside, he declares in a portentous voice, "It ain't a fit night out for man or beast," and a second later he is pelted in the face with a flurry of snow. Yet, the whole short practically collapses beneath its own lack of inner logic. The jokes are funny, but it's hard to pay attention because the trajectory of the film is so muddled that it calls overt attention to itself.
Two others shorts filmed in 1933, The Pharmacist and The Barber Shop, are almost interchangeable in their narrative similarities (and in the fact that they were obviously filmed on the same set). In both films, Fields plays a working man (the titles indicate what he does) who lives upstairs from his shop with a family he loathes. The Pharmacist is the more caustic of the two, with Fields constantly threatening to do physical harm to his obnoxious, bow-headed young daughter who, at one point, eats their pet bird. Fields' dislike of cutesy children (especially little girls) is never so evident.
His other daughter, a young woman in her 20s, is dating a man Fields detests simply because his name is Cuthbert ("I don't have to see him," Fields declares when the daughter objects to his calling Cuthbert a sissy. "I never knew a Cuthbert that wasn't a sissy.") Needless to say, when a shootout between an escaped criminal and the police explodes in the pharmacy, Fields is a coward and Cuthbert arrives to save the day. In sequences like this, it is easy to see Fields as a precursor to All in the Family's Archie Bunker, the simpleminded but somehow lovable bigot who always gets shown up in the end. While Fields was a distrustful cynic in real life, he wasn't above making jokes about his own disposition.
A similar scenario occurs in The Barber Shop, except this time Fields tries to take credit for capturing an escaped convict when, in fact, it was his son who hit the criminal in the head with a baseball. This is, of course, brought to light in front of a crowd of people to whom Fields has already done his grandstanding, and when his son asks if he is hurt, Fields mutters, "Not physically."
Surprisingly, many of Fields' films did not do notably well during his lifetime, and it is only in the years since his death that a large cult of followers has developed around his work. As with all other great comedians, Fields cannot be fully pinned down to any one description. He defies categorization and explanation, which, more than any other explanation, accounts for why he remains so fascinating all these years later.
|W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|The six short films included on this disc were all mastered from different elements, most of which are the original picture negatives. As they range from 85 to 67 years in age, it is not surprising that many of them show signs of damage and age in the forms of spots, speckling, and the occasion tear. The quality tends to vary from scene to scene, with one sequence being generally sharp and clean and the next sequence being soft. (This is especially true of the films that use stock footage, which means that the variation in quality was evident when the films were first shown, as well). There is also a change in quality during "The Dentist," but that is because Criterion has reinserted previously censored footage that had to be culled from a different source than the rest of the film. Overall, Criterion has done a notable job of remastering and preserving these films, as most of them are quite clean and maintain good levels of contrast despite their age. Black levels tend to be solid, and there are only a few brief scenes that truly suffer from source print damage.|
|The soundtrack, in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural, also shows inherent signs of age, although dialogue is almost always clearly audible (except when Fields starts muttering to himself, which is the intended effect). There are some elements of hiss from time to time, but overall the soundtracks are clean of noticeable distortion. The sound is a bit tinny, but one has to take into account that these films were made at the dawn of the sound era when recording equipment still had some rough edges.|
|No supplements are included.|
Copyright © 2000 James Kendrick