Funny thing about W.C. Fields. His brilliance was only marginally appreciated during his career, and he never even rose to the level of Joe E. Brown at the box office.
He was briefly embraced as a popular iconoclast by college students during the late 1960s, but by the time Saturday Night Live came crashing onto the television screens in 1975, he was almost immediately dismissed as old school.
Now, Fields may very well be the least known great comedian from Hollywood’s golden era, despite some of his films being among the greatest comedies ever made.
When MCA released an uneven smattering of Fields features on DVD a few years ago, it was a minor victory for those of us who were fans before his trendy late-sixties appreciation., and who stayed loyal afterward. Containing the Paramount gem It’s a Gift (1934) and the later Universal gem The Bank Dick (1940), the collection was rounded out by the overrated pairings of Fields and Mae West (Universal’s My Little Chickadee from 1940) and lip-quivering radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (Universal’s You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man from 1939), as well as the all-star absurdist classic The International House (Paramount, 1933). It was an ok assortment, but fans noticed more of what was missing than what was included. Its poor sales did not allow much hope for a volume two.
Well, MCA compiled a volume two for a March 19, 2007 release. And it includes nearly all of the great films missing from the first set, including the Paramount classics The Old-Fashioned Way (1934), You’re Telling Me (1934), and The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), as well as the brilliantly surreal 1941 Universal release Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, which was to be Fields’ last starring film. The other entry on this set, Poppy (Paramount, 1936), is only interesting as having been on of Fields’ stage shows put to film. It is otherwise perhaps his weakest features. If this volume is the last we have of Fields on DVD, it will be unfortunate that Poppy was included in place of Million Dollar Legs (Paramount, 1932) or Tillie and Gus (1933).
In this era of post-SNL ersatz hipster rebellion, it may be necessary to discuss Fields the comedian before we dive into assessing the DVD package.
Fields was a slow moving, squinty eyed cynic who talked out of the side of his mouth. In most of his best films, he featured himself as a put-upon henpecked husband surrounded by annoying stereotypes. And he railed against children, family, businessmen, minorities, and the pious with equal aplomb. It is, in fact, wonderfully ironic that the liberal-minded college students of the sixties and seventies embraced the iconoclasm of a comedian who was, off screen, notoriously right wing.
W.C. Fields cut his teeth on the vaudeville circuit, mastering his craft as a juggler. He found his way into cinema as early as 1915, with a little one-reel curio entitled Pool Sharks, in which he performs his vaudeville pool act. Many silent features followed, some from Fields own scripts. All but a few are among the maddeningly lost films of early cinema. But although there is some cursory interest in this part of Fields’ career, the silent cinema did not reveal the many comic facets of this multifaceted performer.
It was talking pictures that helped to fully realize Fields’ character. He was at once an angry wiseacre, and at other times a put-upon henpecked husband whose Everyman was at the mercy of any and all authority. His winning in the end provides a vicarious thrill for the viewer, as does his dry mockery of his stereotypical surroundings.
One of his best early pictures, It’s a Gift (1934) is considered by many to be his masterpiece. His character, Harold Bissonette, has dreams and aspirations. A grocer who tries vainly to please everyone, he longs to have his own orange grove, relaxing with the solitude of the outdoors, and comfortable with the security of being his own boss. His wife, however, longs for the superficial materialism that the idealistic Harold cannot provide. In the end, of course, Harold gets what he wants, and the wife realizes he was right all along. But as the film unfolds this rather heady statement, a series of outrageous, hilarious comedy sequences pace themselves perfectly throughout the screenplay.
In one of the film’s early sequences, Harold is running about the grocery store trying to take care of a rather loud gentleman who demands several pounds of cumquats. Fields was something of a student of interesting sounding words. He realized names like Charlie Bogle and Doctor Beebe sounded funny, and used such characters in his skits. But he also realized how funny a word like "cumquats" would be, and understood the value of the non-sequiter. Why would a man so passionately demands something as offbeat as cumquats? That is what makes it amusing.
During this sequence, a frequent customer who is blind, comes crashing through the front door, shattering the glass. "Ya got that door closed again, eh?" the elderly gentleman asks. For Harold to answer, he must put a large cone to the man’s ear, for he is also hearing impaired. Of course the man’s name, Mr. Muckle, is also one that sounds funny when spoken.
"Sit down Mr. Muckle," Harold pleads as the blind man moves his cane near some glass bulbs. "Sit down honey. Sit down dear."
After much broken glassware, Harold finally gives the man the five cents worth of chewing gum he’d asked for. "I’m not going to lug that with me," Mr. Muckle complains. "Send it!"
Of course such a sequence would now be considered by many to be far too politically incorrect to use. But Fields used it during the first year of the Production Code, when such matters were cracked down upon by shortsighted censors. Fields was always interested in pushing the envelope, and finding humor in a situation such as this is an excellent example. Somehow, even in these more sensitive and more enlightened days, this scene still nets belly laughs.
Fields matched this performance in a few of the better Paramounts, three of which can be found on the volume 2 DVD collection.
The Man on the Flying Trapeze is a delightfully macabre item where Fields fibs that his mother-in-law has died in order to get a day off of work and attend a wrestling show. When he arrives home, his living room is filled with condolence wreaths from well-meaning friends, and he must sheepishly explain mother-in-law’s obituary in the evening newspaper.
You’re Telling Me shows Fields as a crackpot inventor who stumbles on a good idea that has some real merit, but through his attempts to find success, is beset by an unsupportive wife and a plethora of small-town stereotypes who act as obstacles.
In both of these films, the Fields Everyman is the consummate victim of his surroundings; a friendly well-meaning sort who just wants to please and avoid conflict or complication. His devilish drinking during prohibition and various scheming is offset by a truly endearing personality and the shrewish supporting characters.
The Old Fashioned Way shows Fields at his most notorious. He is a small town theater producer who skips out on room rent, and, at one point, is driven to kick an annoying child in the backside.
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break shows a much older Fields playing himself, offering a completely outrageous screenplay to a short-tempered producer. This one ends with a car chase sequence with all the brilliance of a Keystone one-reeler.
Finally, Poppy has a few highlights among a rather tired, unremarkable saga about showman Eustace McGargle and his title-character daughter. It had been done by Fields on stage, and in one early silent, Sally of the Sawdust (1925), which was directed by D.W. Griffith.
The films are beautifully restored and handsomely mounted. Language options appear to be the only special features here, but the films themselves are well worth the package price. It is recommended that comedy fans purchase both volumes and hold out hope for a third collection featuring the still-missing Million Dollar Legs, Tillie and Gus, If I Had a Million, and Big Broadcast of 1938.