Monday Editor’s Pick: Fields in Short (two-reelers, 1930-33)

by on April 25, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick


6:00, 9:45 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

 

A program of four shorts (two-reelers, to be precises) starring W. C. Fields is playing at Film Forum today (on a double-bill with Sally of the Sawdust, directed by D. W. Griffith). The round up below starts with general profiles of Fields, followed by program notes for today’s line-up.

 

Cullen Gallagher has a nice piece right here at Alt Screen:

Fields was many things on-screen—a proselytizing misanthrope, a skilled raconteur, an embittered husband, a frequent imbiber, and a kicker of children and small dogs. He was also the rare honestly crooked man in a crookedly honest world. The essence of Fields’ persona can be divided into two main types that are related like opposite sides of the same coin. He is both cinema’s most crushable charlatan and the working class everyman beaten down by life’s mundane frustrations. The two roles are a call and response: Con Man Fields is the yin to Conned Man Fields’ yang. Together they’re like object lessons in how to navigate the modern world. Cheat or be cheated.

 

The Simpsons creator Matt Groening in Film Comment:

I will check out any movie featuring W.C. Fields.

 

J Ho for the Village Voice:

A gifted physical comedian whose spindly-fingered startle reflex is a thing of beauty, Fields achieved his apotheosis with the talkies. His voice, a drawling monotone compared by critic Raymond Durgnat to the scrape of “a rusty lavatory chain,” was his greatest creation (oft-imitated, an influence surely on the sarcastic bray of fellow misanthrope William Burroughs), used for sotto voce mutterings, mouse-squeaks of pain, and the atonal bellowing of chestnuts like “Along the Wabash.”

 

Armond White for the New York Press:

It is Fields’ authentically frustrated sensibility—pissed-off by others’ selfishness, ineptitude and lassitude— that makes him archetypal: everyone’s unmuzzled self, but also everyone’s dad. It’s funny when the world doesn’t work his way because it mirrors dissatisfaction we know personally.

 

David Robinson in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary:

The vaudeville years were crucial to Fields’ development. Vaudeville was a unique phenomenon in theater history, an imcomparable training ground for its artists. A vast new urban popular audience sustained vast chains of theaters; the theaters employed vast numbers of artists; the result was a working atmosphere that was competitive and hypercritical. At the same time, with hundreds of theaters to be toured throughout the United States and Europe, artists were able to work on the same material for years on end, constantly refining and improving it, constantly developing character (which was the basis for all the best vaudeville acts) and perfecting business. An act which was not incessantly polished in this way was in danger of becoming stale and moribund. The Fields we now see in the films is an artist trained to technical perfection in this school. As a juggler he was never known to drop a ball; as a comedian he never mistimed a gag. The annotations of his personal scripts, which have survived, are said to reveal the extreme labor and planning that went to produce the seemingly effortless and improvisational effects of his clowning.

 


Framegrab from The Barber Shop (1933)

The Barber Shop (1933)

 

Hal Erickson for Allmovie:

In his last two-reeler for Mack Sennett, W. C. Fields plays small-town barber Cornelius O’Hare. The film’s wisp of a storyline concerns an escaped criminal (Cyril Ring), who demands that O’Hare give him a haircut and who is eventually captured by a small boy — even though our “hero” tries to grab the credit. As if we care a hoot about the plot! Best bits: Fields “babysitting” a troublesome infant; a haphazard shaving session, with the customer barely escaping with his ears and lower lip intact; and all that byplay with a bass fiddle named Lena. The magnificent Elise Cavanna, who played the hyperathletic patient in Fields’ The Dentist (1932), appears as the great man’s long-suffering wife.

 

The Pharmacist (1933)
 

Dennis Perrin for the Criterion Collection:

In The Pharmacist, Fields’ disgust is played at a different speed. Far from being the tooth-pulling beast of The Dentist, Fields grants his pharmacy customers room to display their idiocy as he suffers in silence; only his family, specifically his daughter, bears the brunt of his wrath (the force of which is muted somewhat by his wife). As in The Dentist and The Barber Shop, the action revolves around small-town figures and their provincial concerns. Fields obviously enjoyed sticking it to those in the sticks; and though some may accuse him of elitism, his characters operate on the same level as the common folk they encounter. The difference is that a Fields character simply recognizes the hell he’s in, and makes little or no effort to hide his awareness.

 

The Golf Specialist (1930)

 

John Larrabee for The Age of Comedy:

In this early two-reel talkie, Fields recreates one of his most famous stage sketches, “An Incident on the Links”, a piece had he had used on Broadway many times over the years in the annual Ziegfield Follies, as well as several times in silent features. However, this was the first time the routine would be filmed with sound; indeed, it was the first time Fields himself would be heard on film. For that alone, The Golf Specialist is a historically important film.

 

The Golf Specialist is also important because, owing to the primitive way it was filmed, with phony sound stages standing in for a golf course, and a camera shooting the routine straight on from one angle, the short gives us an excellent facsimile of what Fields was like on stage. The routine itself is very funny, one of the best Fields ever created.

 

The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)

 

Cullen Gallagher here at Alt Screen:

My personal favorite [Fields character] is the dulcimer strumming, Yukon gold miner Mr. Snavely in The Fatal Glass of Beer. Already awaiting his son’s release from jail, Snavely’s Sisyphean punishment is to be pelted with snowballs every time he peers out of the door and bellows, “It ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast.” If that plot description doesn’t make much sense, the movie doesn’t either. It’s pitch-perfect absurdia about how, in one way or another, we’re all life’s sucker, forever doomed to get the snowball in the face.

 

Bruce Eder for Allmovie:

A send-up of temperence dramas–a genre for which you know W. C. Fields felt not an ounce of sympathy–and Northern adventure stories, this W. C. Fields short is one of the stranger, more surreal movies in the comic legend’s output (and that’s going some, to which anyone familiar with Never Give A Sucker An Even Break can attest). Practically every shot and line is a comedic barb, aimed at the melodramatic sensibilities of the audiences of the time…It probably helped in appreciating it for one to have come out of the era in which it was made, but the passage of seven decades has only added to the surreal nature of the comedy, all aimed at puncturing a lot of overblown dramatic and philosophical notions of its era. By its description, it might seem like little more than a comedic sketch with a few extra flourishes, but in many ways–along with The DentistThe Fatal Glass of Beer was Fields at his most “out there” and uninhibited.

 

Armond:

This 1933 short [is] a phenomenal example of Fields’ vision, a vaudevillian caprice that to this day is also an avant-garde tour de force. It starts generically, as an American pioneer fable, satirizing D.W. Griffith, Jack London and—most audaciously—Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. But Fields explodes those Americana forerunners: Their sentiments are rattled the way contemporary comedians try to do, but Fields also goes for undermining the conventions.

 

Despite the snowy wilderness setting of pioneer fortitude, Fields and director Clyde Bruckman (Buster Keaton’s The General) take the form of tall tales and proverbial folk songs, then warn about modern—urban—realities. (Its unforgettable family wisdom includes, “My Uncle Ichabod said, speaking of the city: ‘It ain’t no place for women, gal. But pretty men go there.'”) Evoking the Prohibition Era, the film teases corruption, temptation and moralizing. Fields and Bruckman don’t just settle for jokes. Simon Louvish, author of Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W.C. Fields, noted “This is the first instance in film of Fields’ abiding love for the puritanical temperance sermons of his youth, the delicious lampooning of his own era’s Prohibitionists in the hackneyed argot of the 19th century.

 

Pauline Kael in 5001 Nights at The Movies:

This is the wildest of W.C. Fields’ 2-reelers, and the best. It also has the easiest-to-remember title and a great punch line: “It ain’t a fit night out for man or beast.”

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