BluRay/DVD Reviews

W. C. FIELDS COMEDY COLLECTION VOLUME 2

By • Mar 20th, 2007 •

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(Universal Home Entertainment)

YOU’RE TELLING ME! – 1934 – 67 mins. – Dir. Erle C. Kenton
THE OLD FASHIONED WAY – 1934 – 72 mins. – Dir. William Beaudine
THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE – 1935 – 67 mins. – Dir. Clyde Bruckman
POPPY – 1936 – 74 mins. – Dir. A. Edward Sutherland
NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK – 1941 – 71 mins. – Dir. Edward Cline

He’s Jerry Lee Lewis’ favorite comedian; what more is there to say? But having recently posted Mark Gross’s rousing review of Jacques Tati’s remarkable film PLAYTIME, it would be remiss of me not strike a comparison between the two actors. W.C. Fields is our alcohol-permeated Mr. Hulot. It’s in the strange pacing of his performances, the abstract playing of his screen persona. It’s in the way he’s out of synch with the rest of the cast, not to mention the world. And yet everything seems to radiate off him as a vast, uncomfortable chain reaction. He’s the slow-moving, alcoholic center of a dyspeptic universe.

Fields talks. Tati didn’t. (And maybe that was a shame; who knows.) Fields took great pride in language, the tip of the iceberg being expressed in the odd names he assigned both to his characters and to those of his surrounding menagerie of human eccentricities. Take these five films for instance: Sam Bisbee, The Great McGonigle, Albrose Wolfinger, Professor Eustace McGargle, and…W.C. Fields. (Groucho Marx also loved language, and also dreamed up some choice names for his characters.) He was often seen consulting a thesaurus on the set.

The opening music in YOU’RE TELLING ME! is a variation on Gounod’s ‘Funeral March of a Marionette,’ the theme used for the Alfred Hitchcock TV show. Fields plays an inventor, reviled by his wife (as per usual) and loved and tolerated by his daughter (another relative constant in his work). His wife is a disagreeable sort, but in truth, Field is an impossibly frustrating handful, and it boggles the imagination why any woman would marry him, even under (difficult to imagine) earlier, slightly better circumstances.
Two interesting performances punctuate this flick. Buster Crabbe, minus his space suit (FLASH GORDON) and his loincloth (TARZAN) is a strikingly handsome second lead, playing Fields’ daughter’s wealthy suitor from the other side of the tracks. More important is Adrienne Ames as a beautiful, regal, indulgent Princess who Fields blunders upon during a train ride. Her performance is crucial to the success of the third act. She’s neither a foil nor a befuddled bystander; instead, she watches patiently, commenting occasionally (off screen) on his shenanigans, and allows him to achieve a sort of state of grace. Her involvement mutates from positioning him to drive home a series of sweet revenges, to a more profound, sustained act of kindness which restores order in his disheveled Shakespearean universe. Ms. Ames, who was married to Bruce Cabot at the time she made this film, died of cancer in 1947 at the age 40.
Things to look (or rather, listen) for are little noises or asides under the fades-to-black. Very creative. Generally the use of sound is excellent, and the mike-ing of the off-screen final shot is just great.

Next in a great run of hits came THE OLD FASHIONED WAY, which concerns a vaudeville troupe (a rather large one – as if an entire line-up of acts were traveling together) shepherded by gung-ho charlatan Fields, keeping his poor charges always on the edge, always on the run, by skipping out on hotel bills, dodging train tickets, etc., so that hotel proprietors in little hamlets seem to instinctively see them coming. Undoubtedly close to his heart, and to his life experience, Fields imbues some scenes with human warmth uncharacteristic of much of his work, but prevalent during this period. It’s his equivalent to Rodney Dangerfield’s BACK TO SCHOOL, the only time in Dangerfield’s career where there was more than just shtick being doled out.

The highlights are memorable. A scene at a dinner table with Fields being harassed by a two year old (Baby LeRoy – whose family he later subsidized when they fell on hard times) (similar to a Chaplin sequence in THE PILGRIM over a decade earlier, but that’s okay) is delightfully played and edited, followed immediately by one of the great comic set-pieces of the thirties as a highly dubious Fields indulges rich local dowager Cleopatra Pepperday in a nightmarish try-out, a hilarious song whose manic refrain is ‘Gathering up the shells from the sea, Willie…!”, magnificently played by Jan Duggan (from the actual ‘Drunkard’ theater group), as he looks on, anxious to leave, concerned about getting struck by accident, and just generally struck dumb by her absurd presence. IT’S WORTH OWNING THE COLLECTION FOR THIS ALONE. Although uncredited, Ms. Duggan appears in several other Fields’ films, obviously given work whenever and however possible because he liked her so much.

In addition, we have the pleasure of seeing Fields perform the juggling act for which he was renowned in Vaudeville. It’s an intense, ungainly-yet-deft display, which he goes about humorlessly, memorable in its indefinably uncomfortable way. He’s indisputably talented in this regard, but so strangely…

Known for improvisation to the exclusion of all else (the one exception being DAVID COPPERFIELD – MGM Home Entertainment), Fields either didn’t seem to care a great deal about the filmmaking process, or didn’t fully understand it; whatever the explanation, he so subverted it that his best films never stood a chance of being formal works of art, putting, I imagine, a terrible strain on the resourcefulness of the directors, cinematographers, and particularly the editors. But it’s obvious that each tried in their valiant way to make these films work beyond his eccentric machinations.

Carlotta Monti, Fields’ mistress for fourteen years, plays his secretary who wants to leave work early to attend the wrestling matches in THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE. She’s pretty. Clyde Bruckman, formerly with Buster Keaton (he co-directed THE GENERAL) is at the nominal helm (Fields co-directed, as usual, but not requiring screen credit), so my expectations were raised. Based more than ever on members of his real family, it has the impact that a minor but decent Woody Allen film has nowadays: well directed, scripted and acted, but quiet. And it has a third act that doesn’t quite deliver. The title has absolutely nothing to do with the narrative, but it was one he just always wanted to use.

Fields recreates a rolling tire gag that appeared the year before in I’M TELLIN YOU! What’s up with that? What was it that Fields liked so much about tires?
The film’s a lesser one, but has its share of pleasures. Fields became ill during filming, and this made his next feature, his fifth in one year – a year that established him as a major Paramount star – though charming, a hellish experience in personal pain.
Director Edward Sutherland triumphs slightly over his star in POPPY, creating an idyllic rural setting, and many wonderfully framed shots. Fields plays his patented sociopathic carnival con-man, with an adopted daughter who deserves better, and the film inelegantly sends each of them down their destined paths. Again, as in the first two of this collection, a crack opens in Fields’ armor and a little ray of humanity shows through.

An enormous amount of on-screen footage of Fields’ character was played by his double, wearing a rubber W. C. Fields mask, because the actor was just too incapacitated, mainly by back pain, to perform in long shots, to crawl through a window, etc. The death of friend Will Rogers earlier had sent him into depression. Other physical adversities began to take their toll. At one point he was trussed up in a harness to keep from falling over during takes. To his credit, his infirmity never shows.
Incidentally, his daughter’s suitor in the film, played by Richard Cromwell, looks like a cross between someone I can’t put my finger on and Dorian Gray. If you can figure out who I’m thinking of, email us and you’ll receive a free DVD just for enabling me to stop thinking about it.

Following the picture, accumulating illnesses took their toll. By the time he was hospitalized, gravely ill (not critically ill, but ‘gravely’ ill, the kind of condition Princess Diana was reported being in after she was pulled from the wreckage of the car in the tunnel) doctors listed a slew of diagnoses including Paget’s disease (softening of the bones and joints), polyneuritis (hypersensitivity to touch), malnourishment, delerium, high fever, and bronchopneumonia. There was no drug to treat his kind of pneumonia, and though he wasn’t eating, he continued to drink bourbon to keep from going into detoxification withdrawal. At aged 56, and with Carlotta lurking around the hospital hallways with a Ouija board, constantly getting in the doctors’ way, it was felt he might not live even another day. He did however survive, in wraithlike condition, and took nine more months to recuperate.

Rounding out the quintet is a much later film, in fact Field’s last starring feature, 1941’s NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK. This surreal narrative is beyond even Fellini’s ability to have concocted. The studio fought it, and many changes were made, taking it further and further from Fields’ original concept. However, as occasionally happens in the industry, it went through so many revisions that eventually it returned practically to the form in which Fields’ had conceived it. The most severe changes were no longer the studio’s, but the censors. In one scene, in a soda shop, Fields jokes that it was supposed to take place in a bar, but the censors wouldn’t allow it. He’s actually telling the truth.

The first act has Fields portraying himself, being insulted in a diner near the studio, looking more dissipated than he ever has, and humoring child actress Gloria Jean, who is hoping for a career in the movies. Then, suddenly, we’re thrust into a bizarre series of impossible situations – he jumps out the open window of a plane to retrieve a bottle of booze, there’s a face-off with a screeching gorilla, he deals with an amorous Margaret Dumont in black – and much more, which we find are Fields’ feverish contrivances of a screenplay he hopes to produce, as a studio boss (Franklin Pangborn, almost playing himself) reads it, reacting in horror to the absence of any inner logic.

It’s not autobiographical, that is unless you care to pay a psychiatrist to sit with you and analyze the film as it unfolds…then, maybe, there’ll be something to unearth. It’s not terribly successful either. But it is unique.

There’s also a TV-hour (which is 50+ minutes) doc on Field’s career, hosted by Wayne and Schuster, who wander through a lame script that exists only to support a series of clips from Fields’ films, a few of which haven’t seen the light of DVD as yet.
In case you think that Wes Anderson is going out on an abstract-comedic limb, I recommend you spend a few hours with W. C. Fields. Here’s Anderson’s precedent, and Bill Murray’s, too.

I was certain that by owning Universal Home Entertainment’s Collections 1 & 2, and the Criterion single-disc collection of six of his shorts, you’d be as full of Fields as is humanly necessary. But that opinion was wrested from me by FIR Indie Columnist Glenn Andreiev, who insists that MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is a ‘must have’. So I guess there’ll be a Volume Three within the next few years, and it’ll be worth adding to your DVD shelves.

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