The Great Man: W.C. Fields and the Curmudgeonly Virtues

The Great Man

David Shipman called him “arguably the best comic since Talkies came in.” William K. Everson said he was “quite probably the funniest single individual America has ever produced.” Bob Baker writing in Film Dope noted that “he could provoke as much laughter as anyone who ever lived.” The subject of these encomiums, W.C. Fields, was similarly straightforward about his achievements. In the credit sequence of one of his last films, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, our hero is billed as “The Great Man.” No other introduction is necessary. We all know who we’re dealing with.

W.C. Fields, whose films are the subject of a twelve-day retrospective beginning at NYC’s Film Forum on April 22, 2011, was always the Great Man. Whether he was the harassed householder contending with monstrously petty annoyances, or the bombastic con-artist barely keeping his coattails out of the law’s grasp, Fields was the squinting eye in the midst of the comically hostile hurricane that comprised his particular view of life. “Of all the great comedians,” wrote Arthur Knight, “none has ever been more openly hostile, more flagrantly misanthropic, more downright cantankerous.”

It could be a gift: Fields and adversary Charles Sellon

Fields may have been cinema’s ultimate curmudgeon, but his crankiness was earned. His films, says Simon Louvish, one of his biographers, “glor[y] in the realistically surreal,” their minimal plots firing one absurdist missile after another at our hero: Overbearing wives issuing impossible demands (“Wake up and go to sleep!” one imperious consort orders); offspring eating the family canary; salesmen selling life insurance at 5:00 in the morning; children dropping ice picks perilously close to one’s head; or burglars breaking into the cellar to sing in two-part harmony—it was all in a day’s work for Fields. His reaction to this chaos was a resigned, cynical acceptance, as if to say, this is just what I expected, no more and no less. When, in It’s A Gift, the bad-tempered blind man Mr. Muckle walks into Fields’ small grocery store and proceeds to demolish it, swinging his cane athwart the glassware like a farmer mowing down wheat with a scythe, Fields restrains himself. A lesser man would have been at Mr. Muckle’s throat; whereas Fields merely pleads—with little result, it’s true (after finishing off the glassware, Mr. Muckle heads for the light bulbs, dropping them one by one like bombs), but the effort has heroically been made. Who could blame our man if he sneaks off afterward for the bracing tumbler of whiskey or the much-needed puff on a cigarette?

But Fields’ greatness also extended behind the camera. Although he’s not mentioned among filmland’s auteurs, Fields could well be included in such company. He not only wrote his own scripts (under such outlandish pseudonyms as Charles Bogle, Otis Criblecoblis, and Mahatma Kane Jeeves), he also, according to Louvish, frequently took on directorial duties on an informal basis. David Robinson notes Fields’ ability to “impose himself forcibly upon his films and his directors”; and even in films like Mississippi, in which Fields supports a starring Bing Crosby, it’s Fields’ routines that we remember—not only his ongoing monologue on how he withstood an Indian attack (“I unsheathed my bowie knife and cut a path through this wall of human flesh…dragging my canoe behind me”), but also his inventive marketing of Crosby as “The Singing Killer,” capitalizing on a heretofore unknown ferocity in the mild-mannered star. No one will ever look at Bing again in the same way.

Beginning as a juggler in vaudeville, Fields achieved stardom both in the Ziegfeld Follies and in stage plays, before switching to movies (you can catch his juggling act in The Old-Fashioned Way). Although he made a number of silent comedies, Fields came into his own with sound—the snarling nasal rasp, muttering zingers out of the side of the mouth, was one of the most imitated in filmdom, its grating timbre encapsulating an unsentimental outlook on life’s vicissitudes. Baker described Fields’ onscreen persona as switching between two characters: “the Giant Crook, swindling the swindlers,…[or] his Mammoth Martyr, nagged and cheated by everybody in sight.” But in whatever side Fields displayed to the camera, he embodied, says Shipman, “an American small-town Lear, permanently encouraged by several large whiskeys,” existing in a comic universe that “is uniquely his own.” It’s a universe that enshrined a vinegary individualism against the puritanical overseers of conformity, clean living, and ‘nice’ behavior. When a waspish Alison Skipworth in Six of a Kind snaps that everything Fields likes to do is wrong, Fields ripostes, “According to you, everything I like to do is either illegal, immoral, or fattening.” It’s these very unadmirable qualities that Fields’ comedies endorse, enacted by an onscreen character that, says Knight, “provided numerous areas of identification for the common man”—although there was, and is, nothing common about Fields or his highly idiosyncratic oeuvre.

We take a look at three of our favorite Fields features that, to our mind, capture his essential greatness:

The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)

No other film is like The Fatal Glass of Beer. One of four two-reel comedies Fields made for Mack Sennett in the early 1930s, TFGOB is sui generis. Everson calls it “a bizarre and even black comedy” that was “another case of a brilliant little film being offered at the wrong time.” It’s also perhaps the funniest twenty minutes in all sound comedy. Louvish remarks, “I find it impossible to view The Fatal Glass of Beer without collapsing into insane laughter.” Even after repeated viewings, the film doesn’t stale; it only gets funnier.

In spite of its brief running time, TFGOB packs in knowing send-ups of temperance lectures, Alaskan prospectin’ sagas, and 19th-century moralistic stage melodramas, emulating the kind of solemn posturing often seen in the more histrionic films of D.W. Griffith (who had directed Fields in two films in the 1920s), as well as a tart commentary on notions of family solidarity. Seen today, TFGOB has a postmodern appeal. The film’s use of rear projection, as Everson points out, is “murderously exploited,” calling attention to its own fakery (at one point, Fields remarks that the bogus-looking snow “tastes more like cornflakes”). The humor, too, is cannily absurdist. Fields, going out in a snowstorm to pump water, pumps out ice cubes; a dog sled team includes a dachshund; and there’s the famous running joke of Fields standing at an open doorway and sonorously declaring, “And it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast,” only to get a handful of snow flung each time into his face. Even the elements become part of the bizarre goings-on.

Tempted by the fatal glass: George Chandler in The Fatal Glass of Beer

As usual in a Fields film, the plot is almost non-existent. Fields is Yukon prospector Mr. Snavely, complete with fur coat, dogsled, and a sorrowful family secret. Seems his son Chester, drawn to the wicked city, busted a Salvation Army lassie’s tambourine after imbibing a deadly beaker of liquid hops, and then was jailed for stealing bank bonds. (Chester is played by well-known character actor George Chandler, whose rubber-legged dexterity is used well during a mimed scene of “delirium tremens.”) All this we learn via Snavely’s doleful rendition of the title song, which he plays on his “dulcimer” at the request of a visiting Canadian Mountie (“You won’t consider me rude if I play with my mitts on?” Snavely courteously inquires of his guest). Now Snavely and his wife wait in their snowbound cabin for Chester to come home, which he finally does (nattily clad in white suit and straw boater), proclaiming, “I’d like to go to my little bedroom and lay on the bed and cry like I was a baby again.” And indeed there’s plenty of crying to go around, as the family gathers round the table for a hilariously ghastly dinner of soup, bread, and lusty sobbing. Fortunately such lachrymosity is soon ended, as Chester, admitting that he’s thrown away “that tainted money,” is himself tossed out into the snow by his parents, for whom Mammon matters more than Kindred. The film concludes with the couple posed in the doorway, Snavely once more announcing that it ain’t a fit night out, etcetera, and lifting an arm to protect himself from the anticipated snow—only the snow doesn’t come, as if the throwing prop man had missed his cue.

Accompanied by his dulcimer: Fields and Rychard Cramer in The Fatal Glass of Beer

Admittedly, TFGOB won’t appeal to everyone. Its filmic style is deliberately primitive (original audiences complained about a lack of production values); not only does it generously use crude rear projection, it has the look of pre-Griffith cinema, the camera filming the action as if observing it on a stage, with few close-ups or use of sophisticated editing. Its set pieces, such as Fields going out to, as he puts it, “milk the elk,” and encountering a herd of rear-projected reindeer, will look ‘alienating,’ in a Brechtian sense. This includes the title song which is consciously off-kilter; the lyrics don’t rhyme, nor do they stay on tempo. The actors’ performing style is also intentionally deadpan: Note the scene in which Fields announces he had to eat his sled dog, solemnly adding, “He was mighty good with mustard.” And then there’s the great ‘good-night’ sequence, in which Snavely, his wife, and Chester continuously shout good night at each other from separate rooms, advising one or the other to open a window and so forth; the loony repetition makes the scene play like a Dadaist sitcom. Like a dose of Kentucky moonshine, TFGOB gives us Fields at his most concentrated. No one would ever mistake him, or the film, for anyone or anything else.

Below is the first part of TFGOB, from YouTube:

 

Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)

Paramount’s Man on the Flying Trapeze has one of those Fieldsian titles that Everson calls a “pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey affair.” Like such titles as Never Give a Sucker an Even Break or You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, it has no relation to the film’s actual story, but seems more the result of whimsy. No trapezes exist in MOTFT, except, perhaps, metaphorically, as Fields swings from one improbable situation to the next with, as the song says, the greatest of ease. The narrative is not so much a story as a series of routines, loosely connected by Fields’ attempts to attend a championship wrestling match (“wrestling’s in my blood,” he claims), while being harassed and snootered at each turn by his nagging wife, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law. The indignities mount, until Fields, like the proverbial worm, at film’s end finally turns, regaining respect from his flabbergasted relatives in one of those improbably happy endings that demonstrate the triumph of the curmudgeonly outlook on life.

Communal Sing-a-Long: Tammany Young, Walter Brennan, Lew Kelly, and Fields in Man on the Flying Trapeze

The film’s first fifteen minutes may be its best part; it’s really a self-contained skit, as tightly constructed as an O. Henry story, and resulting in the same paradoxical finish. Fields is henpecked householder Ambrose Wolfinger, first seen in a bathroom sneaking his nightly nip of alcoholic refreshment, while his wife Leona (the magnificently shrewish Kathleen Howard) suspiciously inquires as to what he’s doing. “Brushing my teeth, dear,” Ambrose replies, scraping a toothbrush against a cabinet for verisimilitude. But that’s just the start; soon Ambrose’s slumbers are interrupted by his wife in a panic because two burglars have broken into the cellar and, after getting tipsy on the Wolfingers’ supply of applejack, started singing (“What are they singing,” Ambrose asks, not unreasonably). While an increasingly terrified Leona urges her husband to action, insisting that the burglars must be “great, murderous brutes,” a half-asleep Ambrose insists first on putting on his socks (“I’ll catch cold down there,” he explains), then on listening at the vent through which the noise rises (“Oh, what rotten voices,” he murmurs). After a series of mishaps, which include Ambrose accidentally firing a pistol and Leona screaming and fainting (“Did I kill ya?” he asks hopefully), and both Ambrose and a summoned policeman joining in on the community sing, our man finally brings the burglars to the police station—only to be jailed himself for producing liquor without a permit. The sequence ends with Ambrose locked in the same cell with a loony who confides that he’s just murdered his wife; although, he adds, she’s the only wife of the three he’s had whom he’s killed. “Oh, that’s in your favor,” a wary Ambrose assures him. “They have no more case against you than a sheep has against a butcher.”

Louvish calls MOTFT “perhaps [Fields’] most neglected masterpiece,” noting that it’s the “most stinging of all satires on the ‘nuclear’ American family.” A case in point is Ambrose’s ruse to get the day off to see the wrestling match, by telling his boss that his mother-in-law has died (“It must be hard to lose your mother-in-law,” his secretary sympathizes; “it’s very hard,” Ambrose replies, “almost impossible”). While Ambrose’s co-workers swamp the Wolfinger parlor with floral tributes, his very-much-alive mother by marriage is shocked to the core of her respectable soul to discover, via a newspaper obituary, that she’s died from “poison liquor.” Although the film’s laughs pile on—climaxed by a wrestling match in which Ambrose is struck by a wrestler thrown flying out of the ring—there’s a gloomy underside to the fun, as we wait for Ambrose’s final confrontation with his indignant family (now nearly engulfed by layers of burial wreath). While the ending satisfies our wish for payback (Ambrose defies his wife, socks his lazy brother-in-law, and is rehired by his company with a substantial raise), we’re aware of what Louvish calls the film’s “darkest vision of the slams of life,” a sense of how its humor is rooted in desperation. However, MOTFT is far from a depressing viewing experience. As a YouTube commentator wrote of the film: “This movie is beyond the normal bounds of funny.”

Here’s a clip of the beginning sequence from MOTFT:

The Bank Dick (1940)

Probably Fields’ best-known film, The Bank Dick, produced by Universal, is usually considered his greatest effort onscreen. Everson writes that it is “quite possibly his finest work,” and that “it is even less concerned with plot than was usual with Fields.” What little story it has is about Egbert Sousé (note the accent on that final ‘e’), the town’s most dedicated drinker, with a nagging family that drives him to it, who accidentally foils a bank robbery. As a reward he’s made the bank’s resident detective (the film title’s literal meaning), protecting the premises from such terrors as small boys with cap pistols. Along the way, Sousé directs a movie when the film company’s director gets drunk; slips a Mickey Finn into a suspicious bank examiner’s drink; and by sheerest chance foils a second robbery when he happens to be in the wrong place at the right time. The film climaxes with one of the most wild and woolly car chases ever filmed, Sousé’s vehicle progressively losing its front hood, windshield, hand brake, steering wheel, and tires (“the resale value of this car,” he mutters at one frantic point, “is gonna be nil after you get over this trip”), before everything is wrapped up in a comically ironic ending.

Helpful Stooge: Shemp Howard in The Bank Dick

TBD is noteworthy for combining Fields’ two personae, the harassed family man and the larcenous con-artist, in one character. Sousé’s all-female kinship group here (“the Fields family to end them all,” says Everson) rounds on our hero at every turn for his drinking and smoking habits, while also indicating their paradoxical respect for his standing as titular family head (when the smaller daughter wants to throw a rock at her pater, her mother stops her with the question, “What kind of a rock?”). When not avoiding his kinsfolk, Sousé is persuading his son-in-law-to-be (Grady Sutton) to embezzle the bank where they both work for funds to buy a beefsteak mine, or he’s luring the upright bank examiner (Franklin Pangborn) into a disreputable saloon out of equally discreditable motives. The film is a treasure trove of those odd names with which Fields loved to endow his characters, such as Filthy McNasty, Repulsive Rogan, Og Ogilby, and J. Pinkerton Snoopington, while also showcasing a sterling collection of such beloved eccentric character actors as Franklin Pangborn, Grady Sutton, Jack Norton, Jesse Ralph, Pierre Watkin, Jan Duggan, and in-between Stooge Shemp Howard as a helpful bartender.

Drinking buddies Fields and Franklin Pangborn in The Bank Dick

But perhaps the best thing about TBD is that it gives us, as the contemporary Time magazine review said, “74 minutes of almost clear Fields—as much a one-man show as the fences of cinema formula will allow.” The film is Fields pared to his essence; Louvish notes that it “has the greatest density of Fieldsian lines and dialogue,” and that Sousé is “made out of the building blocks of so many previous characters.” TBD also unabashedly celebrates the joys of shiftless behavior (“Ever do any boondoggling?” Sousé asks a fellow barfly). Until the bank offer, Sousé has no regular job, but spends most of his time at his favorite drinking hang-out, the Black Pussy Cat Café (which, with typical Breen-Office-defying relish, Fields throughout refers to only as The Black Pussy). What Knight wryly described as Fields’ personification of “the very antonym of every Boy Scout virtue,” is perfectly caught in this film.

TBD, like Fields’ other movies, has no moral (unless you count the concluding warning from TFGOB’s song, “Don’t go round breaking people’s tambourines,” as a valuable maxim by which to live life). At film’s end, Sousé has won riches, respect, and family happiness (drinking and smoking are now, if not tolerated, then winked at), not by any honest effort but merely by being himself. Like all of Fields’ characters, Sousé is a rugged individualist—he lives his life as he wants to, no apologies made, no quarter given. Robinson points out that Fields became an improbable icon during the social rebellion of the 1960s, when “his black, brutal and fantastic humour” embodied a “startling modernity.” Times have certainly changed. One wonders today how Fields’ rambunctious, ornery individualism, in this age of upwardly mobile career path-conformity and the 24/7 office, as well as of nanny-state regulations that oversee so many aspects of drinking, smoking, and eating, would survive. Fields himself died on (of all days) Christmas Day in 1946. Though The Great Man himself is gone, his movies, and their comedy, live on, to delight the lurking individual in all of us.

Below are the credit sequence and car chase from TBD:

Beginning April 22, 2011, the Film Forum in New York City is presenting a twelve-day retrospective of W.C. Fields’ films. Repertory includes both acknowledged classics and less well-known items (some not on DVD), as well as some of Fields’ silent features. For information and schedule, please visit www.filmforum.org.

Sources:

Baker, Bob, “W.C. Fields,” Film Dope, September 1978, #15

“Cinema: The New Pictures: Dec. 30, 1940,” Time, December 30, 1940, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,795135,00.html#ixzz1JpJFhzpa

Everson, William K., The Art of W.C. Fields, Indianapolis, Kansas City, New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967

Knight, Arthur, “Introduction,” The Films of W.C. Fields, Donald Deschner, New York: Cadillac Publishing Co., Inc., 1966

Louvish, Simon, Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W.C. Fields, New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997

Robinson, David, “Dukinfield Meets McGargle: Creation of a Character,” Sight & Sound, Summer 1967, Vol. 36, #3

Shipman, David, The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, New York: Bonanza Books, 1970

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