The fatal glass of beer is playing today at 6:00 & 9:45 in Film Forum’s W. C. Fields retrospective.
“It ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast,” bellows W.C. Fields in the Yukon farce The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), just before a snowball promptly blasts him in the face.
That snowball arrives on cue each of the dozen times Fields opens his front door and delivers the line, and the joke never gets old. Sure, it’s a twist on the old pie-in-the-face gag, but that’s just the surface. There’s no explanation as to who’s throwing the snowball or why, and like much of the humor in The Fatal Glass of Beer, the real punch-line (if there is one) isn’t immediately apparent. If the lack of an obvious “joke” is what makes the film so utterly stupefying to watch, it is also what makes it so richly rewatchable and weirdly haunting. The pacing doesn’t anticipate laughter, and the dialogue lacks obvious comic emphasis. It would easy but inaccurate to say that this unusual tone makes the film feel “modern,” but it would just as wrong to say this strange two-reeler was “of it’s time.” The Fatal Glass of Beer is like one of the natural wonders of cinema, a totally bizarre creation that abides by its own rules and exists in its own world—and what a wonderful world to visit it is.
Fields plays Mr. Snavely (aka Pa), a gold miner living in the Yukon with his wife (aka Ma). They’re awaiting their son Chester’s release from prison. Many years ago, Chester took up with some beer-drinking college lads in “The City,” broke a Salvation Army worker’s tambourine, and later stole some bonds for which he was arrested. When Chester arrives home sans stolen bonds, the family reunion turns out to be both bittersweet and short-lived, indeed.
A brisk 19 minutes, The Fatal Glass of Beer is at once a torrent of exaggeration and understatement. Fields may caricature local dialect by saying he “et” his lead dog, Bozo (“he was mighty good with mustard”) but throughout the film he imbues each line with his inimitably understated lilt. When he goes out to milk his elk Lena (!), director Clyde Bruckman employs a rear-screen projection so absurdly scaled to the foreground action that the stampeding herd seems absurdly monstrous in comparison. There are sight gags galore (a water pump that gives ice-cubes, a dachshund lost in the middle of a dog sled team) and classic Fieldsian one-liners (“The city ain’t no place for women, gal, but pretty men go thar”).
These elements are what make the film a “comedy” but don’t account for its mystifying and embittered humor. The interaction of the characters is thick with alienation. Every line ends with “Pa,” “Ma,” or “Chester,” as though they need to convince themselves that they’re actually family. Not that it helps—they wind up speaking over one another, repeating “good night” and “shut the window” in a cacophony of disconnected ambivalence. These people don’t listen to or care for one another. Pa breaks a loaf of bread to share with his wife, only to take the much larger piece for himself. And when Chester is hungry, he gives his son his wife’s bowl of soup, letting her go hungry. Despite its humor, The Fatal Glass of Beer stands as one of Fields’ most aggressively misanthropic views of the American family.
The Fatal Glass of Beer was Fields’ second two-reeler for producer Mack Sennett, who had made his name in the silent era with his Keystone Studio (which produced such slapstick legends as Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, and The Keystone Kops). Fields was making his third attempt at a movie career and was in need of some solid hits. Sennett had been on a career decline for some time now and was hoping to make his comeback with these two-reelers. Theire first collaboration, The Dentist, was a success. The follow-up, however, baffled most everyone, and sufficiently angered Sennett to the point of wanting to cancel Fields’ contract. (Ultimately the partnership survived.) Fields wrote to his producer,
“Dear Friend Mack, You are probably one hundred percent right, The Fatal Glass of Beer stinks. It’s lousy. But, I still think it’s good.”
If Fields’ opinion seems as confusing as his movie, its because he was trying to butter up his producer and save his film at the same time. He didn’t prevent Sennett from making cuts, though he did ultimately save the picture, which was released theatrically. But Sennett wasn’t alone in his dissatisfaction. Donald Deschner’s The Films of W.C. Fields collects several comments from exhibitors who were none too thrilled by the final product: “Two reels of film and 20 minutes wasted,” commented J.E. Weber, Princess Theater, Chelsea Michigan; “This is the worst comedy we have played form any company this season. No story, no acting, and as a whole has nothing,” wrote J.J. Medford, Orpheum Theater, Oxford. N.C.
Things change over time and, in spite of what original audiences thought, The Fatal Glass of Beer is now considered a classic, albeit a strange one. It’s a comfort to know that I’m not the only one haunted by this Yukon oddity. Here’s how Harold Bloom sung the short film’s praises in an interview with Antonio Weiss for The Paris Review:
I think his [Fields’] great power is that he perpetually demonstrates the enormous comedy of being outraged. I have never recovered from the first time I saw the W. C. Fields short, The Fatal Glass of Beer. It represents for me still the high point of cinema, surpassing even Groucho’s Duck Soup. Have you seen The Fatal Glass of Beer? I don’t think I have the critical powers to describe it. Throughout much of it, W. C. Fields is strumming a zither and singing a song about the demise of his unfortunate son, who expires because of a fatal glass of beer that college boys persuade the abstaining youth to drink. He then insults a Salvation Army lassie, herself a reformed high-kicker in the chorus line, and she stuns him with a single high kick. But to describe it in this way is to say that Macbeth is about an ambitious man who murders the King.
William K. Everson, author of The Art of W.C. Fields, was also struck by this metaphysical snowball. In his book, Everson sums up the film’s legacy as “another case of a brilliant little film being offered at the wrong time, before the public was attuned to such bizarre and even black comedy.”
The Fatal Glass of Beer is also the most succinct expression of Fields’ philosophy. Open the door to the world, and get ready to be hit with a snowball. And thus the film ends with Mr. Snavely standing there, waiting, the final snowball yet to be thrown…